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52 of 76 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2006
I was very eager to read this book. Deirdre Mccloskey has a great reputation as talented and iconoclastic economist, as well as a gifted writer. One would not know this, however, from reading only her latest book, "The Bourgeois Virtues," which is the first of a planned four-book series.

This book is, simply put, a mess. Ostensibly an apologia for capitalism, organized around various traditional (and not so traditional) moral "virtues," in the tradition of Adam Smith's "The Theory of the Moral Sentiments," McCloskey's book is, in fact, a rambling, confused (or, at least, confusing), idiosyncratic, grandiose and self-serving diary of personal experiences and beliefs, complete with lengthy disquisitions on books, articles, films, poetry and music she either adores or detests. Her erudition is as impressive as it is obvious; she rather hits the reader over the head with it. She can cite more works from different disciplines -- both low-brow and high-brow -- on a single page, than most authors can manage in an entire chapter. At first, the reader is awe-struck by the vastness of her knowledge. Soon, however, the reader's head starts spinning from all the sharp turns and digressions, and fatigue sets in. For a while, one presses on, fighting the fatigue in the vain hope of a pay-off that never comes. Perhaps it will come in book 4 of the series. Now, I don't have a particular short time horizon (or high discount rate), but I'm not waiting until book 4 to find out where all of McCloskey's ruminations lead us.

Surprisingly, the author pays scant attention to economics throughout the book; and when she does mention the subject of her real expertise, the analysis is somewhere between skimpy and non-existent. She identifies herself as a Chicago-school economist, and to prove her bona fides she suggests in the book's executive summary that there is no such thing as a public good (citing as support only Coase's justly famous article about lighthouses in England, despite subsequent work by van Zandt showing that Coase's lighthouses were all heavily subsidized from public coffers). And in strong contrast to Adam Smith, who believed in publicly owned (or crown-owned) parks for purposes of public recreation (as opposed to lands privately-owned for economic production), McCloskey identifies herself as a "free-market environmentalist," who promotes priviatization of our national parks. Admittedly, these concerns reflect my interests as a scholar who works in the area of environmental law and economics. Nevertheless, McCloskey has a great deal of work left to do to explain to the readers why, in her ethical framework, all environmental goods should be private owned (as if they could be) and left exclusively to the work of market forces.

I may be missing something here. Perhaps this really is the most important book since "The Theory of the Moral Sentiments," and I just don't get it. Or, maybe I do get it and this is simply a bad book.
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