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Habit of the lip

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011
 

The world is a better place with Osama bin Laden dead. Masterminding the slaughter of 3,000 innocent people because you disapprove of the foreign policies pursued by the government that reigns over those 3,000 people is totally, unquestionably and unconditionally terrible.

This fact, however, does not support the claim -- made by several politicians and pundits -- that bin Laden's killing testifies to the unique greatness of America.

Yes, the operation in which the U.S. government killed bin Laden required careful gathering of intelligence, great organizational skill, technically advanced weaponry and tremendous courage on the part of the Navy SEALs who stormed bin Laden's quarters. As wonderful as these things are, however, they aren't the distinctive ingredients that make American civilization great.

Military commanders have for ages carefully gathered strategic intelligence, ingeniously organized military units and employed state-of-the-art weaponry to dispatch enemies. Sometimes, this dispatching promoted society's greater good; other times, not. But never have these practices been unique. And they're not unique now.

What makes the modern West in general -- and America in particular -- unique and great is our unprecedented grant of dignity to the bourgeoisie.

History overflows with dignity granted to generals and soldiers. Military heroes have long been celebrated in song, theater, poetry and prose. The glories of dying in battle for king or country or God have been trumpeted from the beginning of recorded history (and no doubt before that time). Monuments to conquerors and defenders vastly outnumber monuments to entrepreneurs and merchants.

Yet no civilization until ours -- that of the modern West -- has allowed its ordinary citizens to produce for themselves standards of living consistently above subsistence.

For millennia upon millennia, ordinary men and women existed in crushing poverty with no hope of change. And for millennia upon millennia, generals and admirals led courageous troops into battles. Their victories were glorious, made even more so by the many acts of bravery that bestowed honor upon troops, commanders and country alike.

And perhaps the peasants back home in their huts swelled with pride upon learning of the magnificent victories won by their rulers' armies and navies.

Yet what did all of this battling and bloodshed achieve• Not much, beyond filling victorious monarchs' coffers with confiscated wealth and warriors' purses with spoils of war. The lives of ordinary people in, say, A.D. 1500 were no more materially rewarding than were the lives lived by their ancestors in 1500 B.C. or in 15000 B.C.

The civilization we know is fundamentally different. We celebrate chiefly not our countrymen's ability to slaughter foreigners but our countrymen's (and countrywomen's) ability to trade with citizens and foreigners alike. We celebrate not so much our armies' ability to destructively destroy our enemies' lives, buildings and crops, but rather our entrepreneurs' abilities to creatively destroy existing trading patterns so that new and more productive patterns can replace them.

Although not perfectly, we celebrate peaceful, entrepreneur-driven commerce. And as Deirdre McCloskey argues in her new and pioneering book "Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World," it's this celebration of the peaceful -- a word that deserves to be repeated -- and productive bourgeoisie that fuels the massive outpouring of wealth that we in the West today enjoy in such abundance.

True, we still don't erect many bronze statues to entrepreneurs, and we name more avenues and boulevards after military heroes than after shopkeepers. But we (or enough of us) do respect honest, striving, innovative businesspeople. We admire these peaceful tradesmen and tradeswomen for the profits they earn by satisfying consumers' demands. And -- very importantly -- we talk about them respectfully.

We talk admiringly about businesspeople, rather than disparagingly, as was the practice among our ancestors and as most of us today speak of porn actors or pimps.

Even if, by some calculus, porn acting and pimping were proven to be valuable activities to society at large, self-respecting people would avoid those professions. Who wants to be spoken of disparagingly• And self-respecting people certainly would not encourage their children to pursue those livelihoods. Who wants their children to be burdened with such shame?

As difficult as it is for us to imagine, entrepreneurs and merchants indeed were, until very recently, spoken of in ways much more akin to the way we today speak of porn actors and pimps rather than the way we speak of, say, plumbers and pediatricians.

These daily celebrations of the bourgeoisie -- the admiring ways that we talk about them -- are necessary to keep the ranks of the bourgeoisie filled with creative people. I, for one, hope that what McCloskey calls this "habit of the lip" will never be quit in favor of honoring the martial qualities that brought humanity so little benefit during the many millennia in which they were dominant.

 

 
 


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