May Day, Bourgeois Virtues, and Pictures of the Socialistic Future
By Art Carden
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.