McCloskey, Lawler and Middle Class Virtues

Libertarians can often get left out of some of the more interesting bits of cultural commentary going on today. This is not a fault of libertarianism or more broadly the economic frame of mind per se, even stalwart critics of global market capitalism, like Jacobin’s Mike Beggs, are willing to admit most economists are not positivist boogiemen:

Criticism of the incoherence or unrealistic assumptions of neoclassical economics can be easily deflected – most economists will freely admit they are simply heuristics and would be quite happy to be considered pragmatic “casual empiricists.

But all the same, there can be a tendency to double down on economic consequentialism when criticisms of the market surface. It doesn’t do much to reply to the charge the suburbs are alienating with statistics on how cheap the houses are, and how good the schools. It doesn’t do much to reply that the death of the locally owned bookstore isn’t so bad, because now we can get all the books we want on Amazon Prime with Two Day Shipping. The critic is making a point about flourishing, not optimization. The critic can just point out that you are missing the point and that we are made for eudaimonia, not mammon.

This is why I am happy to be writing under the banner of Sweet Talk as I believe Deirdre McCloskey is a useful corrective to the claim that capitalism gains us the world but rids of our soul. She gives libertarians and market oriented conservatives an account not just of human enrichment but of human flourishing. In particular, I want to put her in conversation with the Postmodern Conservative Peter Lawler at National Review (formerly of First Things).

Central to most center right apologies for the modern era is a simple rapture for the virtue of ordinariness. Ordinary people get a lot detractors no matter who they happen to be or in what era. Marx has unkind things to say of the idiocy of rural life, and Jane Jacobs is one of the earliest critics of those who fled the urban core for the safety, and she would likely say banality, of the suburbs. This is a very common social cycle, what is rising is admired and praised, until it is a little too common, then it is derided as alienating and then as it passes away it is eulogized as a unique social structure that was a ticket to a full and dignified life. So it was with the subsidence farmer, the yeoman farmer, the skilled urban tradesman, the factory worker and on and on it goes.

What is constant is the ordinary people. This type of person who fulfilled many social roles throughout history but remains remarkably constant in its character, and is perhaps best identified with Tolkien’s Hobbits. Unpretentious, respectful of philosophers but suspicious of too much abstraction too far from reality, loyal, friendly, always attempting to be as good as one understands where one is, the hobbit is fondly remembered in his past forms, but frequently chided in his present reality. Today’s hobbits are bourgeois and what unites Peter Lawler and Deirdre McCloskey is a love for ordinary people and a belief that even here and now, in some cases especially here and now, it is possible to have a flourishing purposeful life, even if that life is in a Wal-Mart.

For Lawler human nature is like a tall oak,  our feeling of verticality and our sense that the “best way to feel good is to be good” is not going away anytime soon. He believes that “virtue is alive in the tacky McMansions we find in sprawling exurbs.” We cannot rid ourselves of our nature even when we look toward Singularity. Biotechnology cannot get rid of our human anxiety and neither can our loss of the front porch. We will always want to be good, and always make outlets for that to happen. Lawler notes that the bourgeois man, the free man who must work, in many ways heightens the contradictions of our existential problems. Simple aristocratic complacency and leisure is not open to us and neither is the constant work and unity of purpose of a slave’s life. We are free and bound to labor as bourgeois man, neither master nor slave. This is similar to how man is the rational animal, neither angel nor ape. This middle class of the middle being brings in our constant need for industry and it never satisfies. This should, for Lawler, bring about our Augustinian condition, that “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

If Lawler’s account for our current condition constitutes an apology, McCloskey’s constitutes a triumph. Her Bourgeois Era begins with an account of why this form of being good allows for mass human flourishing and enrichment. Not only have we gained the world we have kept our souls. She sees criticism of the bourgeois by the tastemakers of society she has named the “clerisy” as being both self-serving and hypocritical. She makes the following criticism in her book The Bourgeois Virtues:

The left side of the clerisy has never wavered in its 150-year-old campaign against the system that has made its arts and sciences possible. Most educated people in our time, though enriched by bourgeois virtues in themselves and in others, imagine the virtue of their lives as heroic courage or saintly love uncontaminated by bourgeois concerns. They pose as rejecting bourgeois ethics.

The educated and artistic class owes their very existence as a mass of society and not just a narrow Republic of Letters to the mass enrichment of society in the first place. McCloskey is firmly committed to the belief that the good life is also the profitable one in many cases.

Now all this is not to say that the two are identical in their praise of our condition. McCloskey is a progressive Episcopalian who praises modern contraception and the belief that abortion is between a woman and her doctor. This is ground that Lawler, as a conservative Catholic, simply cannot tread. Lawler is more circumspect seeing our heightening of Augustinian restlessness as having plenty of outlets that, while fun, will not alleviate our condition. A man can try many rivers before tripping into the Tiber. But what McCloskey and Lawler share in common is a basic orientation toward the ordinary person rather than away. While Lawler sees mixed goods in modernity, he affirms what is good as being authentically so, even in the exurbs. It is this love of hobbits that must be our starting place if we are to look at the world. We must love what is here, now and not fall into utopianism or nostalgia, and that means loving in part or in whole the tacky, hobbitity bourgeoisie.

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Why Batman Will Never Vote Tory

I read AB’s post on America’s Revolutionary past as follows:

Origin stories have power, as stories—not necessarily as factual accounts.

If Batman’s parents had been shot by Benjamin Disraeli, he would never vote Tory.

To be serious for a moment, AB points out that the ethos of America is fundamentally grounded in its Revolution, and revolutions are by definition not a conservative affair.

But could ours have been?

Let me submit to you that the Revolution was a revolution in name only, that it was really a war of independence. Wars of independence are very different from revolutions as we have come to understand the word after Paris in 1789. Countries of a fairly conservative character have fought each other over territorial disputes and to break out of the hold of a particular empire for as long as mankind has had military organization.

The American Revolution involved cutting ties with the mother country whose people had populated the colony. It did involve creating a new, federal government, but in that it was no more revolutionary than the German Unification, for instance. And no one thinks that the resulting country was particularly liberal in that case. And beyond the creation of the federal government, the American Revolution was remarkably conservative—it left most of the institutions it had inherited from the British, in the form they had come to take since colonization, intact.

The reason the Revolution seems radical to us in retrospect is because of the mythology that has grown up around it, a mythology we impart to our children from an early age. But never forget that Edmund Burke himself favored the Americans.

American Burkeans face several challenges. The first is the founding myth, as mentioned in the previous paragraph. The second is that America as a country, even including the period of the thirteen colonies, is very young. Burke and Michael Oakeshott and Benjamin Disraeli could point to institutions that had been around for thousands of years. Their roots were deep, ours are still quite shallow.

And to the extent that our institutions claim common roots with the British, our people largely do not. I may present my sacrificial offerings at the altar of Burke and Oakeshott, but my father is Cuban, and my mother’s grandparents came to this country from Russia at the turn of the 20th century.

We’ll never have a true Tory party, but I don’t see a problem. We’re not Britain, so our traditionalists are going to be of a different character from the British ones. I’ve been inculcated into largely the same institutions and traditions as all Americans; I have no trouble seeing the Burkean strand that connects me with the founders and the British settlers who first came to this land.  I can see that the founding myth, as all myths, is one part fact and five parts fiction, catalyzed with aspiration. Its character has changed over time and will continue to change; to the extent that Burkeans can participate in that process things are not quite so dire for them as AB suggests.

The limits of our dreams

I want to speak about America’s founding myth and the resulting difficulty in establishing a large faction of Burkean conservatism within American politics.

One of the stories that people tell each other most often are their own origin myths. They are told to children (frequently as “history lessons”), but also adults tell and retell them to each other to reinforce the myth and signal the teller’s membership within the tribe. 

These myths aren’t inherently bad. I think they play an important part in allowing human nations to vastly exceed Dunbar’s number in a peaceful and cooperative manner. But it must be recognized that the origin myth can become a limiting factor under certain circumstances. If an origin myth says that Tribe A is defined by its participation in X, then it’s very difficult for members of Tribe A to switch to institution Y without also rejecting their identity as A’s.

Let’s get specific – the American origin myth is the establishment of the Thirteen Colonies in pursuit of religious freedom, followed by the American Revolution. Americans have built massive shrines and obelisks for the men involved, monuments to ancestor worship, and gaze upon its founding documents as holy objects. There are also satirical versions, but that’s how the legends of Hercules probably started too.

The point is, America is about freedom, and kicking the ass of tyrants if necessary to make it happen. (and similarities between that sentence and recent foreign policy is entirely non-coincidental)

And this is why it’s so damned hard to form a faction within American politics that takes genuine conservatism (the sort of conservatism that Edmund Burke or Robert Peel might recognize) seriously. America is defined by its Revolution, and its Revolution was a very un-conservative thing to do. For an American to really accept conservative principles, and apply them consistently, he must admit that the American Revolution was a very bad idea in the outset, benefited greatly from luck in its outcomes not being terrible, and at best was probably “harmless” to the long run of history.

Let’s break down that previous sentence a bit.

The American Revolution was a bad idea: Revolutions usually don’t go well. The French Revolution led to the terror, the Russian Revolution led to Lenism and later Stalinism, and the German revolution (as I think of Hitler’s rise to power) led to Nazism. All three of these revolutions led to much bloodshed and loss within their nations, and in some cases it spilled outward quite messily. Also, the English Civil War and rule of Oliver Cromwell we no picnic either. Frankly, the list of revolutions that lead to genuine improvement for the people in revolt is fairly short. The Founders took a terrible gamble with America’s future by initiating a break from an imperfect but not terrible regime.

The American Revolution was lucky: This is tied to the previous one, but it was luck that America’s greatest General was also an incredibly enlightened and effective President. Let’s remember that Washington was offered the chance to be King, and also could have kept running for President after his second term. In both cases he turned away from power. How many men in history would have done that? If Washington had made himself King, or held onto the Presidency for as long as possible (setting a more FDR-like precedent), America would have been worse off than it was.

The American Revolution was probably pointless: Just look at Canada, Australia, and even Bermuda. Seriously, it’s hard to say how Americans today (at least in the thirteen original colonies) would be materially worse off as a member of the Commonwealth. The only argument that the Revolution was beneficial is if you believe that the Westward expansion under America’s “manifest destiny” was both good for history and wouldn’t have been largely the same under British rule. 

Are you an American? Are you bristling at the above description? I bet Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh (two leading opinion-makers in American “conservatism”) would answer “Yes” to both questions. 

At the heart of American “conservatism” is a very un-conservative thing, and this origin myth both attracts the radical-minded and repels the conservative-minded. Which is why America doesn’t really have a Conservative Party in the same manner than Canada and England have their Tories. America just has post-Christian secular radicals and Christian radicals. Yay.