Needed: An Economics for Grownups

Over at The National Review, Matthew Shaffer interviews Deirdre McCloskey:

Shaffer: Before Bourgeois Dignity you wrote The Bourgeois Virtues. Do you think our debt-ridden culture is a manifestation of a decline in the bourgeois virtues, or is that just romantic nonsense?

McCloskey: Conservative romantic nonsense, similar to the cries in the 18th century that commerce would corrupt the Spartan virtues. Dr. Johnson, who was a conservative but no sort of romantic, said in 1778, “Depend upon it, sir, every state of society is as luxurious as it can be. Men always take the best they can get.” And the blessed David Hume had said in 1742, “Nor is a porter less greedy of money, which he spends on bacon and brandy, than a courtier, who purchases champagne and ortolans [little songbirds rated a delicacy]. Riches are valuable at all times, and to all men.” Of course.

There’s a progressive version of the nonsense, the complaining about “consumerism.”

A more up-to-date reply is that so long as various Oriental protectionists (in the 1970s it was the Japanese, not the Chinese) are so foolish as to send Americans TV sets and hammers and so forth in exchange for IOUs and green pieces of paper engraved with American heroes, wonderful. Would you personally turn down such a deal? If your personal checks circulated as currency, and the grocer was willing to give you tons of groceries in exchange for eventually depreciated Matt-dollars, wouldn’t you go for it? I would, and drink champagne.

Shaffer: Do you think bourgeois virtues can be inculcated by public institutions, including schools?

McCloskey: The merchant academies of England in the 17th and 18th centuries raised up prudent bourgeois boys (they were mostly excluded from Oxford and Cambridge because many of the merchant families were not conforming members of the Church of England). The universities in Scotland had teachers like Adam Smith, and raised up boys (they were very young in Scotland) who admired commerce. Our culture, so corrupt and so little reflecting the classical virtues in the eyes of conservatives like Allan Bloom, admires innovation extravagantly in its rock music and its movies and its ethernet. It’s innovation, not respect for hierarchy or love of military glory, that makes for a successful society.