1 March, 2007Issue 6.2North AmericaPolitics & Society

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Putting America Back Together

Sam O’Leary

Ronald Dworkin
Is Democracy Possible Here?
Princeton University Press, 2006
192 pages
ISBN 0691126534

Deidre McCloskey
The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce
University of Chicago Press, 2006
634 pages
ISBN 0226556638

When Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 and The Wealth of Nations in 1776, he viewed democracy simply as an ancient Grecian experiment that had ended with the Peloponnesian Wars. He was thus pessimistic about the radical resurgence of democracy in the United States, believing that it would only lead to rancorous factions fighting among themselves. Smith predicted that if the American revolutionaries did achieve their desired independence, these factions would tear the country apart in ‘open violence and bloodshed.’ It was nearly a century before his prediction was realised in the Civil War of 1861-65.

America’s public intellectuals have been fascinated by factions and fissures within their republic, but conflict over the past two decades has reached a bitterness not seen since Reconstruction. The ‘culture wars’ have led political theorists and commentators alike to lament the division of America into ‘red’ states and ‘blue’, often shorthand for a conflict between religious conservatives and secular liberals. Of late, the division seems to many so wide and so deep as to have broken down any possibility of engagement between the differing ethical, religious and economic positions.

Ronald Dworkin’s Is Democracy Possible Here? is aimed at a wider audience than much of his previous work with the hope of bridging this gap and renewing American democracy in the form of a principled conversation. From a very different tradition, the Chicago economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has also recently initiated a project that she hopes will provide new possibilities for understanding amongst American citizens, intellectuals and politicians. Her book, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce attempts to reintegrate Aristotle, Aquinas, and a fuller reading of Adam Smith into American capitalism. Both use the language of ‘red’ states and ‘blue’: McCloskey professing to speak to the blue states on behalf of the red and Dworkin espousing conclusions that he admits ‘will strike readers as … a very deep shade of blue.’

McCloskey’s massive 616-page tome is exhausting, inspiring, intriguing, and infuriating, which is pretty much as she wants it to be. Her mission is to show that the bourgeois capitalist tradition was built on a far more sophisticated ethical platform than the utilitarian model that sees prudence as the sole appropriate basis for action, both at the personal level and at the institutional/governmental level. Markets not only make us richer but make us better people. In particular, the bourgeois synthesis of pagan, Christian and aristocratic virtues have enabled capitalism to flourish, but capitalism has also allowed that synthesis to succeed. McCloskey rejects capitalist-allied intellectuals like Ricardo, Rand, Friedman and Becker for their failure to define commercial society by any standard higher than greed. She suggests that the true ethical tradition of capitalism stretches from Aristotle through Aquinas to Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Keynes, Aron and Hirschman (and, of course, McCloskey). The realignment of Smith into that tradition is central to the book and attempts to reconcile the apparent contradictions between his two great works.

The seven virtues McCloskey sees as characteristic of the Western bourgeois tradition are hope, faith, and love (and the reader might well begin to get worried when she reads the description of these as the ‘Christian’ virtues, ‘appropriate to a believer in Our Lord and Saviour,’ but more on that soon) along with the ‘pagan’ virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and prudence. One is never quite convinced that there is something quite as special about these seven as the author would have it. Andrè Comte-Sponville’s A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues listed eighteen and one might well wonder why McCloskey deems politeness not to be a bourgeois trait or compassion an unimportant constraint on behaviour. Nevertheless, the book contains a rich and fascinating account of the way these virtues have grown in an integrated way within the middle class capitalist tradition in the Netherlands and England and then in the rest of Europe, North America and Australasia. Furthermore, the message of balance and equilibrium is persuasive. Capitalism is corrupted by the ‘prudence only’ school and nobody is more to blame than McCloskey’s Chicago School economist colleagues. Individuals should act in pursuit of profit and in their own self-interest but also in an ethical way. Her richer view of capitalist life is perhaps the book’s most attractive story.

The other side of the coin is the idealised vision of dismantling state regulation, which McCloskey sees as permissible (and desirable) once human actions are constrained by personal morality and the balancing of the virtues. This libertarian agenda is McCloskey’s real pursuit and, once one realises this, a lot of the rich and fascinating accounts of intellectual and cultural history seem somewhat beside the point. In fact, McCloskey’s work is clogged with an overwhelming pile of references and footnotes that pit the reader, in moments of doubt, against her assembled army of learned authorities. This academic legerdemain is bombastic and, one senses, deliberately intimidating. But her style is at the same time so charming and so self-aware that she may be forgiven some of her grandiloquence. Deeper problems lie in her blindness to the often-devastating externalities of commerce and her failure to address the difficulty of behaving morally in an integrated mannerand the ensuing logic of disembodied expertise that many number among the fatal flaws in American capitalism.

Even more problematic is McCloskey’s conviction that a virtuous life is imperfect without religious faith in the transcendental. She sells the benefits of her Episcopalian brand of Christianity whilst emphasising the universal religious and secular insights found therein. And she causes further confusion as she stresses the objective nature of this transcendence whilst appealing everywhere to the pragmatist tradition of personal moral solutions to local and relative circumstances.

This muddled blend of realism and pragmatism, of virtue ethics and situational ethics, is a serious weakness. McCloskey claims that there is no normative code here, simply a set of virtues that the individual must balance according to circumstances. But pragmatists such as Richard Posner and Oliver Wendell Holmes are left out of the camp because of the utilitarian way in which they judge even such things as forced sterilisation, rape, and slavery. This is not good enough for McCloskey, and she is forced to appeal not only to Kant but also to a rights-based jurisprudence more characteristic of Ronald Dworkin. Attempting to realign Aristotle, Aquinas, and Smith with her own anti-foundationalism, she suggests that we may not know much about reality but what we do know is moral and ethical; it is ‘ought’ not ‘is.’ Yet pages later she rejects the universalism of Kantian morality, suggesting that ‘ethics is a local narrative.’

Dworkin’s rendition of a richer view of democracy is also concerned with ethical narratives at both the local level and the universal. His complaint is that without agreed foundations, discussions about what ought to be done have no basis for resolution. Those whose personal moral insights lead them to conclusions different from others’ can do little more than butt heads with increasing force, exacerbating the widening division in American political life. Furthermore, the United States are untied along relatively stark regional lines. Much like Oliver Wendell Holmes in the aftermath of the Civil War, Dworkin looks aghast upon this division. But unlike Holmes’s pragmatist Metaphysical Club, Dworkin seeks to lay a groundwork of values upon which genuine democratic discussion might be built.

Dworkin sets out two principles that he believes almost all Americans can agree upon. First, that each human life is intrinsically and equally valuable and secondly, that each person has an inalienable personal responsibility for identifying and realising value in his or her own life. These are fleshed-out versions of the principles of equality and liberty—principles that Dworkin believes can be made to work against each other but do not need to. In fact, while it is easy to make policies that conform to one or the other, by aiming to find solutions to arguments based on the extent to which proposed answers conform to both these principles we are offered grounds for democratic discussion and government. If we agree on basic principles then our conversations have some basis for preferring one view to another beyond personal insight or taste. Democracy, then, returns legitimately to conversationalist ideals rather than simply relying on electoral success to obliterate the views of one side or the other.

In the second half of the book, Dworkin considers how these shared values might inform the debates on which there is fiercest disagreement: torture and human rights in light of terrorist threats, the role of religion in public life, and taxation and governmental legitimacy. He drills down to a more specific level as well, especially in the chapter on religion, where he considers the teaching of creationism in schools, the religious overtones of the Pledge of Allegiance and the possibility of state-sanctioned gay marriage. Throughout the book, though he endeavours to build a case for his opponents, he concludes that it is the traditional liberal position on each issue that is most faithful to the two greater ideals. Further, he suggests that a major problem for democratic discourse is that many Americans treat their politics as a matter of allegiance rather than reason, intellectually compartmentalising contradictory ideas. So, they embrace values about the importance of human life and then vote for politicians who promise to cut social welfare programs. Or they insist on the importance of personal responsibility for religious faith whilst condemning any politician who does not promise to create a Christian America. Is democracy possible? Dworkin is optimistic, even if he fears such optimism may be perverse.

Much of Dworkin’s political theory is contained in far greater depth elsewhere. In stark contrast to The Bourgeois Virtues, his book is slim and accessible. And
while those who wish to really grapple with his work at the theoretical level will want to go beyond these pages, this is the sort of book that could be read by older schoolchildren and yet still inform the most advanced academic debates. And it invites debate. While McCloskey’s message throughout is ‘trust me, and you will see that I’m right,’ Dworkin simply wants his opponents to try to argue with him. In setting his arguments out with such clarity and simplicity, he has set conservatives who would disagree with him a formidable challenge. In the end, they must show that he has either set out parameters with which they can honestly say they disagree or else that the conclusions he draws from the set framework are not so directly drawn. But they cannot ignore the invitation to engage.

In the end, both books contain important messages. Paraphrasing Churchill, the sentiment is often expressed that capitalism and democracy are far from perfect; they’re just better than all the other systems of economics or government that have ever been tried. Sometimes we concentrate these systems down to their apparent essence and, in doing so, lose the things that held such systems together. This is Adam Smith’s message, that ‘the wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest.’ McCloskey helps restore Smith’s great insight, but capitalist democracy can’t work without political foundations as well. Dworkin’s contribution shows us that if we agree on values of liberty and equality, we might just be able to make the old Greek experiment work.

Sam O’Leary is a lawyer and an alumnus of St. Peter’s College, Oxford, where he read for the Bachelor of Civil Law.