The Bourgeois Virtue of Contingency

Liberty Matters is releasing an online discussion on Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues, starting with this lead essay by Don Boudreaux:

For years I accepted the ‘institutional’ account of the economic rise of the western world. … Enter McCloskey.  What, she asks, changed in the 17th century to spark mass flourishing? … McCloskey’s surprising yet compelling answer is that mass flourishing was sparked by a change in ideas about the dignity of commercial pursuits.

The essay is an excellent introduction to McCloskey’s arguments, usefully framing the lack of respect for commercial pursuits as a kind of societal “dishonor tax”. As norms flipped to view trade honorably, the market grew more extensive, which in turn expanded the base for market-tested Schumpeterian innovations, kicking off a growth explosion. Since Sweet Talk was founded in light of McCloskey’s work, I thought I’d give my 2 cents on this chicken vs egg debate between ideas vs institutions.

Even though I am unconvinced of McCloskey’s account, a theory based on virtues and ideas is undervalued within economics almost by definition.  It is deserving of much more serious attention. But, the question remains, does a ‘change in ideas’ stand up to the standard ‘institutional’ account of the industrial revolution?

McCloskey’s work focuses on the original industrial revolution, but I will consider modern growth miracles first, for a number of reasons: better data; living contemporaries; and radically different cultural contexts that help to avoid romanticizing the Anglosphere. This essay will be spread across three posts: on the apparent role of societal values; on the evidence from modern industrialization; and finally, on how this applies to the original industrial revolution.

Societal Values

Economists tend to be skeptical of “societal value” style arguments in general, for one simple reason: the no-arbitrage principle.  If a merchant can “buy low” on one shore and “sell high” on the other, in the long run he doesn’t cares if he loses his mother’s respect — not when he can buy it back with all the free lunches he’ll be earning.

Modern experience bares this out. For example, in a recent episode of NPR’s Planet Money they tell the amazing story of a how a 13 year old girl in North Korea started buying and re-selling fashionable winter gloves and socks, defying the law of the land in a society inculcated with the virtues of Joseph Stalin.

Overtime she became a kind of proto-wholesaler, and accumulated enough savings to afford true rarities like a laptop and the expensive cigarettes she ultimately used to bribe her way to freedom.

The story of this girl is just one example of what Ronald Coase and Ning Wang describe as “marginal revolutions” in their treatise How China Became Capitalist. Despite being on the tale end of an anti-Bourgeois “cultural revolution,” Coase and Wang detail how private farming kicked off China’s shift towards capitalism:

In September 1980 Beijing was forced to allow private farming in areas where ‘the people had lost their confidence in the collective.’ But once the floodgates of private farming were opened, it could no longer be controlled. By early 1982 it became a national policy. Chinese agriculture was decollectivized. Later in the official account of reform, Beijing would credit itself for launching agricultural reform. But the reform enacted by Beijing merely raised the purchasing prices of grain and increased grain import; private farming, which really transformed Chinese agriculture and freed Chinese peasants, did not come from Beijing.

Coase and Wang are in a similar in tradition to McCloskey. In this, his last book, Coase lamented that economics had lost its tradition as a moral science in favor of the cold calculus of resource allocation. And like McCloskey, Coase sought to rhetorically shift responsibility for economic growth down to private entrepreneurs and away from technocrats.

Nonetheless, the implicit model in Coase’s explanation is one of exogenous institutional change, namely the pragmatic lifting of prohibitions and barriers to things like private farming or the new activities of firms in Special Economic Zones. Even in stagnant economies, entrepreneurial potential is forever bubbling below the surface waiting for its conditions of possibility.

China is a great example of the danger of the “just so” stories within culturally determined economic development. In Confusing Confucianism With Capitalism, American Sinologist Harriet T. Zurndorf explains how Confucian values have been used to explain both China’s failures and successes throughout history. Among the Confucian pessimists were Harvard academics Talcott Parsons and John Fairbank:

Parsons asserted that individual actors, with particular cultural orientations, assumed the basis for action within a social system, but that a social system could be transformed by another cultural orientation. Such idealism furnished Fairbank with the theoretical conditions to demonstrate in his many publications that Confucian ‘traditional’ and authoritarian values had become a kind of ‘strait-jacket’ which inevitably inhibited China from appreciating modern innovating forces.  …

In contrast, the ‘Confucianism as stimulus’ viewpoint has been favoured by late twentieth century social scientists and historians eager to explain the success of East Asian economies in the 1980s and 1990s as attributable to ‘core’ Confucian values of hard work and thrift, the so-called ‘Confucian ethic’. …

That Confucianism may be connected to both negative influences on the development of the Chinese economy, such as particularism or collectivism, and positive influences like group cooperation demonstrates how inadequate this cultural analysis is to understanding economic and social change.

The upshot is that bourgeois values have historically chased commerce, not the other way around. This dynamic is present in the case of Confucianism as well, as its interpretation adapts to the contingencies of path dependent social structures.

One of my earliest influences was Robert Wright’s classic Nonzero. The book is very flawed, but full of insight. The one I still hold onto deeply was his analysis of how nonzero-sum relationships shape attitudes, such as international trade leading to greater peace and respect. It’s an analysis he deployed even more profoundly in his The Evolution of God. He persuasively argued, for example, that burgeoning trade with Hellenistic Athens and Jerusalem influenced the “love thy neighbor” humanism exalted by Philo the Jew, and in turn early Christianity.

This leads to a more fundamental point about the origin of our virtues. As I’ve argued across several posts, I view our moral sense as a part of human nature shaped by evolution for cooperation. Moral values and virtues are non-arbitrary, and they don’t simply ‘turn on’.

Rather, our morality is more like an innate grammar that can express its parameters differently depending on changes in our circumstances. The expansion of our “moral circle” as documented by the likes of Robert Wright, Peter Singer or Steven Pinker is one example. Nothing fundamental changed about our nature, yet our morality has become steadily more cosmopolitan as our social relations have globalized.

Whatever it was that caused bourgeois virtues to suddenly gain respect (taking the suddenness for granted), I suspect a similar process was at play. While it would be folly to deny the ultimate endogenity of everything, including our social institutions, practically speaking the line of causality must have run from institutions to values and not the other way around. Institutions determine the social relations that feed into our aesthetic and moral reaction functions.

More fundamentally, I remain skeptical that promotion of bourgeois virtues is even necessarily positive for a capitalist system. The social project of the New Left since Herbert Marcuse has been to lift society out of the “false consciousness” of capitalism. This heavily influenced the 60s counter-culture movement to reject all things mainstream, mass produced or commercialized in favor of an individualism I suppose Hayek could only have called “false“.

In the devastating critique Nation of Rebels, fellow Frankfurt Schoolers Joe Heath and Andrew Potter show how the counter-cultural critique of mass society sparked a cycle of arm races in cultural and commercial innovation, as cultural rebels sought social distinction only to be undermined by collective action. That is, creative capitalism was fueled by a culture that actively tried to subvert it. In the process, by denying the centrality of institutions Heath and Potter argue that the left did permanent damage to their ability to affect social policy.

Today, there is an intellectual ferment to raise the “false consciousness,” as it were, of modern anti-capitalist sentiment. In some sense McCloskey represents the Herbert Marcuse of the libertarian right, fusing Smithian sentimentalism to classical economics in the same way Marcuse fused psychoanalysis to Marx. That’s a worthy counter-counter-culturalism, and I am glad people like Don Boudreaux pay attention. Yet libertarians win more fights than the New Left precisely because we do not believe new ideals (even good ones) reshape society ex nihilo. It takes a lot of hard workeducation, and advocacy.

A Reddit thread related to this post can be found here.


3 thoughts on “The Bourgeois Virtue of Contingency

  1. NsdaNope

    Libertarianism is certainly imperfect but its time has come.

    If you examine the last decade for America then it is plain to see that a majority of failure modes in democracy and capitalism would have been less likely under a libertarian ethos.

    No foreign wars. Not a pacifist response to 9/11 of course, tit for tat applies there, but also certainly no bizzare plans to turn the middle east into freedom loving democracies.

    Negative income tax instead of welfare entitlements.

    Balanced budgets.

    Zero corporate welfare such as to corn farmers, oil and solar companies.

    A less paternal government. e.g. less spying, less airport and border hassle.

    I don’t believe that libertarianism has all the answers, healthcare is a weakness for example, but I know for sure that the last decade and a half would have been dramatically better if America had been more libertarian. I don’t believe republicanism and democrats have a superior gameplan to libertarians.

    Live free or die!

  2. I believe you would enjoy J. Forrest Williams’ research. Theres an obvious element that you’ll have to read about for yourself because I am too sleepy to make my brain explain, but apart from that, he’s basically presented empirical evidence supporting the idea that money can’t buy happiness, and exposed so e of the biggest flaws in neoclassical economics. And he’s a really nice guy, too. 🙂

  3. So, the new chicken-egg is values-institutions. Let’s accept that. You then say that causality must then run from institutions to values. But how? If institutions are mainly collective values where a market mechanism won’t or can’t work, institutions must arise from the failure of individualism (that famous Invisible Hand) to prevail. Therefore, values precede or “cause” institutions. Or did I miss something?

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