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Neither Liberal Nor Bourgeois

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Thanks for quoting Janet Daley’s important observation that “The United States has now acquired an electorally powerful liberal bourgeoisie who are convinced, as their European counterparts have been for several generations, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that public spending is inherently virtuous, that poverty can be cured by penalising wealth creation, and that government intervention can engineer social ‘fairness'” (“Notable & Quotable,” Nov. 15.)

I’ve only one quibble: those convinced that consensual capitalist acts are dangerous (and perhaps rather ethically icky) unless curtailed, constrained, channeled, modified, taxed, or otherwise heavily controlled by government are neither liberal nor bourgeois.

Statists’ appropriation in the English-speaking world of the term “liberal” is well known.  Less well known is the account – told now by Deirdre McCloskey – of how our prosperity owes much to the extensive admiration of the bourgeoisie.  Not until about 300 years ago, when bourgeois virtues and pursuits first came to be regarded as dignified rather than as contemptible, were markets and innovationism unleashed to work their wonders at dramatically raising living standards, even for the poorest.

The problem today is precisely that the values of the liberal bourgeoisie are being displaced by those of an illiberal aristocracy of intellectually glib professors, pundits, politicians, and entertainment glitterati. These “Progressives” not only deeply misunderstand the origin, nature, and role of markets, but also naively – and illiberally – forget that centralized power created with fine intentions too often produces fearful results.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030