Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Eugene McCarraher's Polemic Against Deidre McCloskey and Adam Smith

For a Christian, Eugene McCarraher (I know, it takes all sorts …), a professor of humanities and director of graduate liberal studies at Villanova University, writes a very unchristian (unless he belongs to a new Taliban wing of Christianity) review of Deirdre McCloskey’s, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (University of Chicago Press).

I confess I have not yet read her book and Eugene McCarraher has, which gives him a head start, but I am not writing to defend Deidre McCloskey’s work – she can look after herself from what I have read of her –but I think Eugene goes over the top in his blitzkrieg assault on his version of Deidre’s ideas. At best, he could be right that the book is badly written and he has a duty to say so, but he has no duty (other than under the protection of free speech) to write in the manner he did about sets of ideas as if they are those of the devil incarnate.

Here is what Eugene McCarraher, in ‘Books and Culture: a Christian review’(!) (here) writes under the title of: ‘Break on Through the Other Side: Deirdre McCloskey's Bobo Theodicy’: says of Deirdre McCloskey’s views on Adam Smith:

In the present volume, she only updates the obfuscations of Adam Smith, whose scholarly rehabilitation over the last generation has been a case study in cultural politics. Like many recent students of Smith, McCloskey proudly reminds us that he was a moral philosopher, not a modern, professionalized "economist." Casting Smith as a "radical egalitarian," ardently devoted to the poor and assiduous, McCloskey holds up "sympathy" and "benevolence" as the strongest digits of that "invisible hand" at work crafting a "trusting society."

Adam Smith’s concepts of ‘sympathy’ and ‘benevolence’, I would have thought, though we learn something new everyday, would appeal, at least to the extent of a sympathetic hearing, to any normally balanced Christian and would not be mocked.

That they are related to Smith’s metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’ is news to me. I note that this is Wednesday and it may have been true on Tuesday but this is another day so, perhaps, it is no longer true. Professor Eugene McCarraher’s graduate students in humanities and liberal studies may be confused by daily re-inventions of well-established meanings to 18th century texts.

This is nonsense. Smith's "sympathy" never extended very far beyond ambitious tradesmen and artisans. For the poor and the laborers, Smith recommended hunger as a form of moral education. When corn merchants raise prices, he sagely opined in The Wealth of Nations, they "put the inferior rank of people upon thrift and good management." This early example of compassionate conservatism partakes of a larger indifference to empirical reality. If you know anything about slavery or parliamentary enclosure, you'll know that Smith's magnum opus exhibits his gargantuan historical amnesia. In 1,000 pages, Smith barely mentions the dependence of English manufacturing on American slavery, or the dreary tale of dispossession in the English countryside. With his smoke and mirrors about "natural liberty," Smith inaugurated what E. P. Thompson would later memorably call "the enormous condescension of posterity." (For greater honesty about the ravages of enclosure and "natural liberty," read Smith's near-contemporary James Steuart, whom McCloskey doesn't even mention.)”

Adam Smith’s concepts of human sympathy were not ‘nonsense’, nor were David Hume’s. They were not confined to ‘ambitious tradesmen and artisans’. He wasn’t too fond of scheming and clamouring ‘merchants and manufacturers’, many of whom were ‘tradesmen and artisans’, no doubt ‘ambitious’ to ‘conspire’ with others to raise prices by ‘narrowing the market’. I take it that Eugene McCarraher has read Adam Smith’s books; he should have noticed the central themes of his texts because he might wish to pass that basic requirement onto the ‘graduate students’ he ‘directs’.

Aside from his talents in the art of historical camouflage, Smith was a prophet of what Peter Sloterdijk has dubbed "cynical reason": "I know what I'm doing is wrong, but I'll do it anyway." In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which admirers fondly hold up as evidence of their hero's thoughtful probity, Smith praised the civilizing effects of avarice. Fully aware of the folly of pursuing riches—"people ruin themselves," he appeared to scold, "laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility"—Smith mused nonetheless that "it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner." "This deception," he continued, "rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind." That's a pretty clear wink at the duplicity of desire, and despite what they'll say at the Liberty Fund, it really isn't all that far from Bernard Mandeville's more scandalous (and more engaging) celebration of hedonism in The Fable of the Bees. Long before the economist of fashion Paul Nystrom coined the phrase, Smith was pointing to a "philosophy of futility" as the moral economy of capitalism.”

The allusion to ‘Peter Sloterdijk’s cynical reason’ escapes me. As does Eugene McCarraher’s misreading of Adam Smith’s ‘civilizing effects of avarice’.

Smith was aware of the ‘folly’ of pursuing riches and he cited this as one of the factors that undermined feudal governance (blessed as it was at the time by Eugene McCarraher’s forbears in Christian ethics). These fractious feudal lords were ever at war with neighbours, used violence to contain their serfs (their ‘slaves’ Smith called them), and were oppressive in the extreme. However, they were tempted to acquire ‘trinkets, baubles’ and such like by diverting surplus produce from their domains to the purchase of these ‘useless’ artefacts, meanwhile keeping their peasants on subsistence incomes.

But unknown to them, they were undermining the base of their own power because to acquire these products from nearby ‘towns’, which acquired them from trade with foreign parts of Europe, they had to divert more and more of their annual produce away from paying their retainers, armed force and people who worked their lands, which put paid to their ability to cause strife (and not a little rapine) in the rest of England.

Adam Smith points out that while the objects of their avarice were ‘useless’ (he had very firm ideas on frugality as opposed to prodigality), they nevertheless were the products of the employment of artisans and labourers. In fact he contrasts the dismissal of a thousand feudal retainers with the employment elsewhere of thousands of manufacturing labourers; the former representing the dénouement of feudalism, the latter the beginning of the commercial age of man.

This transformation of feudal society is summed by Eugene McCarraher as ‘a pretty clear wink at the duplicity of desire’! Is Eugene sympathetic for the feudal lords and barons? Would he prefer it to have continued? Was the Reformation a ‘bad’ event?

For Adam Smith it had nothing to do with regret for an age that was passing. The purveyors of selfish avarice had no idea what they were doing (as is often the case in social evolution). But the expanding demand for the trinkets generated demand for the employment of labourers who could produce them, transport them, and distribute them to final customers. No employment meant destitution.

This consequence put poor men to work and fed their families. This was a social benefit. Just as the building of stone churches, cathedrals, and castles created work for labouring men and income for their families, and the acquisitive lust for works of arts – painting, statues, religious artefacts – created work for the artists and artisans over the centuries where there was not much work around, except backbreaking labour in the fields. All this Eugene misses in his diatribe against Deirdre McCloskey and his cheap shots at Adam Smith.

Eugene writes: 'Smith was pointing to a "philosophy of futility" as the moral economy of capitalism’. That some of the initial steps to the ‘age of commerce’ were driven by the silly avarice of a few idle landlords in no way sullies the spread of commerce as a superior creator of ‘opulence’ on a scale unknown in human history. For all the millennia that preceded the 18th century the lot of the poor labourers and their families was a monotonous repetition of unchanging per capita income at or below the level of subsistence. The hewers of the products of land did just that, their heads filled with credulous superstitious nonsense and their aspirations brutalised by the brute course of the events that afflicted their short lives.

Knowledge necessarily came from philosophers who came from within those who lived off the surplus output produced by the labouring majority. The social evolution from the hunter-gathering mode of subsistence through the ages of shepherding, farming and commerce are the themes of Adam Smith’s essay on the History of Astronomy, his Essay on Languages (1761), his Moral Sentiments (1759), his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1762-3), his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1763) and his Wealth Of Nations (1776).

Adam Smith did not create commerce, or ‘capitalism’ (a 19th century phenomenon, unknown to Smith); he observed and tried to understand what was happening to ensure that for the first time in human history, per capita incomes for all of those in society, not just the rich few with the rest on subsistence only, were rising and continued to rise.

How human societies have managed this process, how they used the vast surplus resources for good or ill, or how they resolve the perennial problems of human life, are not subjects that Adam Smith commented upon. He was a humble philosopher, not a partisan.

When and if Eugene McCarraher reads Adam Smith’s whole legacy he may wish to reflect on how different it is from his somewhat limited idea of it as represented in his review.

Smith did, however, send a message to Eugene McCarraher (don’t ask me how – perhaps it is an example that God’s works are a ‘wonder to behold?). He’ll find it in Moral Sentiments, in Book IV, chapter ii, paragraph 2.12 to 18, pages 231-34.


Blogger nemmerel said...

It does indeed become a bit tiring when one's intellectual heroes are constantly misrepresented; R. Thomas Malthus along with Adam Smith are two that are routinely misrepresented at my own college. This post completely tore apart Mr. McCarraher's review, however the mentioning of Mccarraher's Christian background did not add anything to your argument; any disagreement must pertain to facts, not the people behind the facts.

11:36 p.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi nemmerel

Ithankyou foryour comment and take note of your criticism of referring to McCarreher's 'christian' views. I thought a lot about mentioning his affinities, or at least the affinities of the journal he wrote in.

I was struck immeidately by the contrast between what I take to be christian values and his utter slating of Deirdre McCloskey's book, the object of his review, and his sly reference to her sexuality, or what I took be such a reference, wholly unnecessary in my view.

It was a long way from the approach of the 'sermon on the mount'. If it had been in another context, I would have not have been surprised. It is because I did not find his polemic to be christian in any sense, and which I expect christians to stick close to, that I remarked about it.

Most certainly it was not an attack on christians generally. My late brother was a church minister, so I am well versed in how a christian normaly behaves. When anybody behaves out of character they sully their own arguments.

However, as it was a knife-edge decision to make those points I accept that I may have stepped over the scholarly line on this occasion. I shall be more careful in future. I plead guilty only from extreme provocation.

6:24 a.m.  
Blogger Deirdre McCloskey said...

I sent the following to McCarraher, the Slayer of McCloskey. He has not replied.

Dear Professor Mccarraher:

I wrote some time ago about your review of my book, extending a hand to you and inviting serious dialogue. Am I to take from your silence that you are uninterested, or did I merely fall into some In Box (Lord, do I know about that) from whose bourn no traveler returns?


Deirdre McCloskey

PS: In case (as so often the case) the problem is the e-mailing itself, here's what I said:

Dear Professor McCarraher:

I just read your amazing review of The Bourgeois Virtues with much admiration. An author certainly can't complain about a hostile reviewer who engages.

Let me make a few points in response seriatim. Perhaps we can improve each other's arguments, and stop the yelling.

Anti-capitalism being "the high orthodoxy of the West": surely it is. Note the word "high." You seem to weigh what you correctly describe as the "parade of twaddle" from the middle- to low-brow equally with the best that has been thought and written. I don't suppose you would disagree that on the intellectual and artistic heights in sheer volume the attacks on capitalism outweigh the defenses since 1848? Perhaps we can work out some way of settling this factually, but the answer seems obvious. If you can show me otherwise I will be very interested to hear how, since Volume 3 depends on this alleged fact.

That your students value accounting more than poetry is not evidence on the heights. In fact, your opening sarcasm about "I hate the middle class" testifies to what most professors and poets feel.

I think we agree about the superficiality of Friedman, Florida, and the like. I am not disdainful of what I can learn from them, but I agree that they do not go deep, which is to say that they don't ask why one would wish to have a flat earth or a creative class.

I've not received grants from the likes of Olin. Poor, poor Deirdre. I'm not popular with right wingers, as being unreliable and willing to talk to Marxists. A professorship anyway is enough of a grant, as I'm sure you'll agree. But the source of funding does not make someone a servant of two masters. Your sneers at Novak need some rethinking. There's nothing theologically absurd about a life in business as a spiritually relevant one. I know it's fun to rant and sneer at, say, St. Thomas; but have you actually read and thought about his discussion of market work?

I'm sorry you found the book "awful" and "bloated" and so forth. It's long because it needs to be, because the high orthodoxy demands a response. If one put together two books by your heroes would that constitute "bloating"? I've never grasped why an intellectual would complain about an argument because it is long and complex.

You have no conception of my other work, in rhetoric and in economic history, so I'd suggest that you either read it or lay off trying to refer to it as if you have. I learned that tip a long time ago from the late Cliff Geertz, who would say that one had to read into a writer before quoting her or using her. It's a good test for scholarship, which you elsewhere accuse me of failing.

Polonius: well, sure. As Orwell said, roughly, the situation is so desperate that it is the duty of us all to state the obvious! But, really, is the offending statement (directed at economists who do not believe it) so silly in context? I think not.

There's a crucial point here. You've not realized---or at any rate not acknowledged (perhaps the chapters on it were simply too many, and your eyes glazed over)---that the implied reader for the book is not only you on the left, as much as I love you all (just finished dear Eric Hobsbawm's autobiography), but also (as I repeatedly say) my dear friends on the right, and in particular economists who think that Prudence Only rules. You've missed about half of the point of the book. More like two thirds. You are so intent on assaulting my case for capitalism that you miss my own assault on the prudence-only versions of it. I find this astonishing, and pretty good evidence, actually, that you didn't read the book.

The invective of your writing suggests that you were so vexed by the book that you could not coolly consider it.

"Lack of style": that's a new one on me. And in a rambling, abusive piece like yours such charges do come across as self-refuting.

As to the luminaries on the back cover, did it ever occur to you that if such a range of folk found the book good (like the curate's egg, in parts), it might be just that? I know you are sure of your position. What would shake it?

"Disdain for intellectuals" is not of course my game, or else I would not go to so much trouble to engage with them, would I? It's unfair to tar me with that, one of numerous little unfairnesses of phrase that you indulge in, and I ask you now for an apology. Let's test your intellectual and ethical seriousness, eh?

My disdain is for intellectuals who won't learn anything about economics, yet disdain it. And I say repeatedly that I have similar disdain for intellectuals who won't learn anything about theology, but disdain it. I was just last month at a strange gathering at the Salk Institute of scientific atheists. I was the only confessed Christian, I believe. What struck me is their self-confidence about things they knew little about.

What exactly is "unfortunate" about quoting Alasdair on the definition of virtue? So what if he remains hostile to capitalism?

"A fondness for charts": ah, I detect a non-quantitative person in Our Reporter! There are, what, five of them? "Fondness"? You don't know economics books, I gather!

Making merry of my title of distinguished professor, by the way, makes you look small. When an assistant professor has done a little more he'll be in a better position to sneer at someone who has written many books. I remember that my early book reviews, before I had written any books myself, were fierce like yours.

You claim that I do not wish to systematize the virtues. This is a silly remark, since I spend vast swathes of the book doing just that. What do you make of my chart?---ah, I remember, you don't do charts. I get the strong feeling that you are so outraged that anyone would undertake to defend capitalism as a ethical system that you lose your ability to read. You say I use "system" as a pejorative. I suppose this comes from a hasty reading of the section on Orwell and Austen? What I criticize are 3"x5" card versions of ethical reflection, such as Kant and especially Bentham. You don't get this, either.

You claim to know about the injustice, waste, and fraud of the capitalist system. But you have no reply---none---to the many arguments I make that the capitalist system is good for people, that is, for your and my poor ancestors and for us, materially and otherwise. You merely repeat the socialist line c. 1930, as iterated by Ruskin and Marx and Dorothy Day. "We're aspiring to . . . a system that makes it easier to be good." So am I, and my system has the merit that it actually, in practice, achieves such ends. Yours achieves, yes, the Gulag, the Great Leap Forward, show trials, dachas for party hacks, and poverty for the rest. Cuba, with Haiti, is the only part of the western hemisphere whose income per head has gone down since 1959, not sharply up. I don't suppose you would argue that Cuba is an ethical success.

You really must have a look at Eric's book, where he struggles to defend his lifelong communism. He admits (p. 150) that "the 'really existing' socialist economy [viz., East Germany], clearly inferior to the capitalist one [viz., West Germany], was not working at all." He admits (p. 127) that: the "children of the October Revolution. . . have collapsed, . . . leaving behind a landscape of material and moral ruin. . . . [It} must now be obvious that failure was built into this enterprise from the start." His only defense is yours, that we should keep the idealism alive. That's wonderful for the intellectuals and party members who espouse it; but it doesn't do a thing for the working class. We capitalists have a plan---a plan that has actually worked---to make the working class rich and ethical.

I do not know what is question-begging (unless you are misusing the phrase in the usual way it is to mean "giving rise to questions") about claiming on the evidence that bourgeoisies are old. I didn't say "history" is about the bourgeoisie. On the contrary: it's mainly about stealing, from Cain to communism. "What economic system isn't regulated by law and ethics?" you ask indignantly. Well, let's see: how about that of Mao's China? Or Nero's Rome?

Your biggest and best point is that I am talking mainly about individual, not systemic, virtue. That's right, and a problem I try to face in volume 2. But you might have noted, if you did read those parts, that I said so in Volume 1. It's a reviewer's vice to use the author's own admission of fault against her without acknowledging that she thought it up first! Perhaps the passages didn't catch your glazed eyes:

p. 29: If capitalism is to be blamed for systemic evils then it also is to be given credit for systemic goods, compared not with an imaginary ideal but with actually existing alternatives.

p. 32: The claim on the left, in short, is that regardless of the individual capitalist's virtue or vice the system of capitalism leads to evil. The claim is mistaken.

and especially p. 248:

Smith, Tocqueville, and Marx each had invisible-hand explanations of why good or bad in people can lead to bad or good in the system. But observe that they held on to their non-invisible-hand indignations, about mercantilists corrupting the British state or intendants over-centralizing pre-Revolutionary France or Mr. Moneybags engorging the national income.

The dilemma is that private good is neither necessary nor sufficient for public good. The dilemma shows among the American Founding Fathers, as David Prindle among others has noted. John Adams doubted “whether there is public Virtue enough to support a Republic”; yet James Madison expected political competition, like economic competition, to make it “more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.” Adams stands for a civic republicanism depending on individual virtue, Madison for a liberalism depending on constitutional structures. Either individual virtue is necessary for the polity to thrive, or else ingenious structures can offset the passions with the interests.

Set aside for the present book, that is, the potentially paradoxical details of “social teleology.” I will return to it in Bourgeois Towns: How a Capitalist Ethic Grew in the Dutch and English Lands, 1600-1800. I hope. At least we can agree, following Aristotle, that person-by-person the whole set of pagan virtues is desirable for the telos of the person herself: “No one would call a man happy [makarion] who had no particle of courage, temperance, justice, or wisdom.”
And in any case I give plenty of arguments and evidence that capitalism as a system works better than the available alternatives, systemically, arguments and evidence you reply to merely by saying they are scandalous---you don't actually argue.

I'm going to pause here, at about "Indeed, this definition obscures. . . ." and see what I get from you by way of reaction. If just more yelling, I guess we can agree to end our colloquy. But if you are willing to listen, I am, too, and perhaps we can learn something.


Deirdre McCloskey

12:12 a.m.  
Blogger a. steward said...

I'm fascinated by the title of your blog. Have you ever been to America?

4:18 a.m.  

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