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The Joy of bourgeois virtues

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On a long plane ride back from Europe recently, I watched the film Joy. It stars Jennifer Lawrence as a housewife and mother with a penchant for inventing things and follows the story of her attempt to bring a self-wringing mop to market. The film is one of the better presentations of entrepreneurship that you’ll see, depicting well the struggle she faces in raising money, persuading people to sell the mop, and then having to defend the originality of her product.

The film treats Joy’s attempt to create and sell the mop sympathetically, if not heroically, throughout. Many other businesspeople are viewed positively in the film, and commerce more generally is seen as a largely noble profession. Without giving away too many details, Joy has a challenging home life and her ability to strike out on her own with her mop business is a clear act of liberation.

That she is a woman and that this movie is set in the mid-1990s makes it all the more interesting. In seeing commerce as a way to liberate women, the film creates a “mop girl” that echoes the “shop girl” novels of the 1930s that co-blogger Sarah Skwire has discussed elsewhere. Any time Hollywood portrays commerce, and especially women in commerce, so positively is worth noting.

I was particularly struck by this film because on the same flight I had been reading the Bourgeois Equality, the third volume of economist Deirdre McCloskey’s trilogy on what she calls “the bourgeois virtues.” The short version of her argument is that the fantastic increase in material well-being that most of the world has seen in the last 200 years is mostly the result of a change in the way people came to talk about commerce, profit and entrepreneurship. These features of bourgeois life became seen as virtuous over the course of the 18th and 19th century, leading to more of such activity, with the result being what McCloskey calls “the Great Betterment” of humanity.

McCloskey also notes that in the last 150 years or so, we have seen talk of the bourgeois virtues fall by the wayside, replaced by the anti-commerce and anti-bourgeois arguments of both the socialist and environmentalist left and the nativist, protectionist right. Her goal is to both document the past success of our ethical approval of commerce and to encourage us to rediscover it today.

Joy serves as an example of McCloskey’s argument in two ways. First, by celebrating the bourgeois virtues of honest commerce (as well as the support, both material and financial, she gets from friends and family), the film contributes to our understanding of the ethical framework required for the market to generate the betterment of humanity.

But it also has another message about how talk matters. One of the running themes of the film is a subset of people telling Joy that women can’t do what she is attempting to do. People close to her express their skepticism of her ability to succeed, and whether risking so much is a good idea. These, to use McCloskey’s expression, “habits of the lip” about the economic activity of women have the same discouraging effect on women’s lives and their ability to contribute to the Great Betterment as did, and do, more general rejections of the bourgeois virtues of peaceful commerce.

Fully realizing the benefits of peaceful commerce will require that we extend our ethical approval to all activities that demonstrate bourgeois virtues, regardless of the gender of those engaging in it. Joy gives us a powerful and entertaining example of how to do exactly that.


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