Art Carden  

May Day, Bourgeois Virtues, and Pictures of the Socialistic Future

I Was a Teenage Misanthrope... Medicare Kills a Program...

Today is May Day. Never Forget. Never Again.

On Saturday, I spent the day in a seminar room with a group of students from Samford and Birmingham-Southern College (plus Paul Cleveland, an economist from Birmingham-Southern and author of Unmasking the Sacred Lies, of which I bought about twenty copies for members of my family a few years ago). We were discussing Deirdre McCloskey's The Bourgeois Virtues, a book which begins what I think is one of the most important intellectual projects anyone is working on right now: a concise defense of what McCloskey calls "The Bourgeois Era" (disclosure: I'm co-authoring a yet-to-be-named book with Professor McCloskey that summarizes the entire project).

The first sixty pages or so of The Bourgeois Virtues comprise one of my favorite passages of writing in all of economics. In it, McCloskey summarizes the ways in which our friends on the left have misinterpreted the last two and a half or three centuries. Many very bad things have been done by many very bad people. But to paraphrase her, bad things done in a capitalist system do not imply that capitalism is a bad system as such. Marx and Engels were right when they wondered at who would have known about the productive powers resting in the lap of the social labor. They erred--badly--by thinking human nature could be remade and society could be organized along socialist lines.

This is a good time for economists to reflect on why we do what we do. Economics is great fun and endlessly fascinating, but at the end of the day we're dealing with what are quite literally life-or-death issues for billions of people around the world. It's a heady responsibility, and one we shouldn't take lightly. Here's what I wrote about May Day a couple of years ago. This is also a good time to pull your copy of Eugene Richter's Pictures of the Socialistic Future off the shelf--or read the online Liberty Fund edition, or download the PDF or ebook courtesy of the Mises Institute, featuring an introduction by EconLog's very own Bryan Caplan--and give it a read. I reviewed the book a few years ago. At the very least, you might want to listen to this EconTalk podcast in which Bryan discusses the book. You will be amazed at Richter's insight, as I was.

My students are fortunate that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Berlin Wall are things that happened in history books--indeed, things that happened before they were born. Questionable policies notwithstanding, the specter of communism no longer haunts Europe or the United States. I pray we keep it that way.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Harold Cockerill writes:

Scared people do stupid things and those stupid things can sometimes turn into evil things. There are a lot of scared people in Europe these days and it appears to me government policy there is going to make things worse. It makes me wonder if human beings are capable of learning.

Ferra Wilson writes:

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Brian writes:

"our friends on the left have misinterpreted the last two and a half or three centuries. Many very bad things have been done by many very bad people. But to paraphrase her, bad things done in a capitalist system do not imply that capitalism is a bad system as such."


Indeed. I recently had an e-mail exchange with members of the humanities faculty at my college, in which they insisted that most humanities scholars agree that capitalism deserves a net "negative valuation" by far. To them, the supposed negative impacts of capitalism far outweigh the positives. I tremble at their ignorance.

Ultimately, it seems they can't see that the bad things are a result of freedom in general, and not capitalism in particular. Capitalism itself is arguably one of mankind's greatest creations. Nothing else has quite the same power to release the vast reserve of human potential.

Tom West writes:

Ultimately, it seems they can't see that the bad things are a result of freedom in general, and not capitalism in particular.

While I think you're correct that people are conflating freedom and capitalism, that's not entirely unreasonable. After all, capitalism is perhaps the primary expression of that freedom in modern society.

And as far as freedom is concerned, for most, it's just one more factor in people's utility function, usually fighting in the trade-off against wanting more security and less change.

So, yes, if bad things happen as a result of freedom, then we'll want less of it, and it will be in capitalism where such restrictions will show most clearly.

Brian writes:


I agree with you. Capitalism and freedom are closely linked, and some people would prefer not to have the negative otcomes associated with freedom, even if the net benefit is hugely positive.

The problem is that the same people who criticize capitalism will never say the same thing about freedom. It doesn't look good to criticize freedom, so they use capitalism as the politically correct whipping boy.

And all the while they justify their positions with false assertions, such as the idea that capitalism is based on exploitation of the rich by the poor, etc. Seemingly educated people often don't have the slightest idea how capitalism actually works, or why it works.

Roger McKinney writes:


they can't see that the bad things are a result of freedom in general

I don't know what bad results they're talking about, but usually they stem from human nature, not freedom or capitalism. Most people today think that people are born innocent and turn bad only because of oppression. So they see bad behavior as a result of the system or society.

But most of the bad things people attribute to capitalism exist in socialist and communist societies. The USSR was the biggest experiment in history to change human nature by changing the system and it failed miserably.

It appears that most social scientists are guilty of confounding effects.

Roger McKinney writes:

Art, I have read two of the books from Deirdre's series and agree with you completely on their worth. They're amazing!

I was wondering if she or you have read Helmut Schoeck's "Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior." I'm in the middle of it and it seems like it would be a great companion to bourgeois values.

Cristina writes:

to Harold Cockerill (1st comment): as an Eastern European who lived the early years of life under the communist regime, and currently living in the west (for more than 9 years), I can tell what I have observed: western Europeans do not want to learn from the Easterns because they grow up with the mind set that if there is something to earn, then they have something to teach the easterners. That learning process is not bidirectional. I consider it a terrible bias that can ultimately condemn people at repeating certain mistakes just because they choose to ignore a serious part of the European continent history and to judge it by stereotypes promoted in the mainstream media. These stereotypes have nothing to do with learning, but to avoiding thinking critically and opening eyes.

Roger McKinney writes:

Cristina, what advice would Easterns give the west?

Cristina writes:

Roger McKinney, it is up to the "westerners" to take the advice, but my argument was firstly pointing to the value of open mindness. The history of post-WWII eastern europe can offer an array of advices to whomever is interested. In my view, as each east european country experienced communism in a particular way, each story is different in some aspects. What is common, is the way in which the government apparatus deceived people slowly into following the Marxist propaganda, to the point where people became the prisoners of no liberty (no freedom of speech, no free markets competition, cronyism) and of wicked behaviors developed as a means of adaptation to the first. Loosing liberty is the main idea I wanted to underline. So many westerners think the communism happened all at once since the day it was signed into the Yalta agreement and it's labelling the situation as such. But the western systems use a more dangerous trickery: the apparently free mainstream media, the apparently freedom of choice, to literally deceive the more and more uninformed people (read knowledge, not media information). For example the lack of freedom of speech imposed n the people in a communist system has pretty similar effects to the lack of freedom of speech imposed by the politically correct "regulations" developed by various political parties to their political advantage. In Europe mostly the intrusiveness of the government in the free markets is notorious and it recalls a soft form of communism. This is why learning to recognize the signs of loosing liberty and continuing to think critically are the best tools to maintain freedom in the west.

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