5 questions for Deirdre McCloskey on the need for liberalism | American Enterprise Institute
In a time of populist upheaval, classical liberalism has
come under fire from many directions. Many are concerned that it is based off
of exploitation and inequality. Others focus on those made worse off by
creative destruction, or they fear competition posed by an ascendant China. In
her new book Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a
Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All, Deirdre McCloskey lays out
the case for why we should return to liberalism, instead of fearing it.
Deirdre McCloskey is the Distinguished Professor of
Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Chicago.
She has written over a dozen books on a wide range of topics including
technical economics, bourgeois virtues, statistical theory, and transgender
advocacy. Recent publications include The Cult of Statistical Significance
— co-written with Stephen Ziliak — as well as her famous “Bourgeois Era”
Just to be clear on
your definition, how is a liberal different from, say, a progressive or a
I think it’s very easy. A liberal is someone who believes
that there shouldn’t be any masters, no tyrants. Not husbands over wives, not
masters over slaves, not politicians over citizens, no hierarchies. Whereas the
other two, in their own charming way, delight in coercion, in masters.
So, along the conventional left-right spectrum, we’re only
arguing about how to use the massive power of the state. The idea that there
shouldn’t be any massive power of the state is just off the table. Whereas we
liberals are off of the scale.
And American conservatives are against the reactionaries of
Europe, the Carl Schmitt’s and so forth. They’re protecting the
Constitution. And I’m fine with that.
In a lot of your
other work, it seems to be directed at more left-wing scholars. Is that also
the case here, or are you also talking to the right?
I think so. I’m very worried about populism of the left and
right, worldwide. You know, every time young people of good will say “let’s try
socialism,” it hurts. As though it hasn’t been tried in the Soviet Union in
1917 or in Venezuela in 1999.
But as you’re suggesting, there’s also a populism of the
right. I was in Hungary a couple of weeks before the last election, which
Orbán, surprise surprise, won. And the anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant feeling
was very thick on the ground.
Do you think the
left- and right-wing varieties of populism are here to stay, then?
Although I’m worried by populism, I think if Individual One doesn’t get reelected, I think world
populism will start to decline.
Populism has “blipped” before and then gone away. I mean,
obviously, the most extreme example was the 1920s and ’30s, where one country
after another turned to fascism or communism.
And those were populist, in the sense that you promised the world to the people. And you say, “Well, of course, you understand the party has a leading role. And for the time being, we’re going to have this dictatorship of the proletariat, and yeah, that’ll go away eventually.” So it’s happened before and then it faded.
While you’re making
the case that liberalism is the one thing that effectively insulated us from
poverty and tyranny, there are places like The New York Times making the
argument that many of the gains of this tradition are based in exploitation.
What do you make of that?
I wrote an article in Reason last year, which you can consult on my
website, attacking that idea. I call these people the King Cotton School of
History. And they’re unscholarly, and they’re wrong. And they don’t understand
The United States is not rich because of slavery. If it were
so, then other slave societies would be rich, right? African societies and the
Mediterranean civilizations were slave societies. They’d have had a great
There’s something deeply screwy about this idea that
exploitation is what made us rich. That’s the argument of the left. I’m
completely unsurprised that the “Parish Newspaper of the Herd of Independent
Minds,” called The New York Times, would have a series saying such a thing without
any contrary voices.
So how do we convince people to understand the benefits of liberalism again, without just referring to the chart that shows the crazy productivity growth since the 19th century?
We need to get people to understand they have a choice. You
could have everyone do the same job tomorrow that they’re doing today. Then
everyone would have a job forever.
This will be a completely stagnant society whose income is not
increasing and everyone is safe. But then you ask yourself, which society do
you want to live in? It’s the philosophical point that the Rawls made, which is
that, behind a veil of ignorance, which society would you choose? The
society in which enterprises made decisions and people had to move to North
Dakota to have a job in the oil industry temporarily? Or a society in which they
stay in Youngstown, Ohio, forever?
The French used to have a shipbuilding industry that
eventually got outcompeted. So, being the French, they subsidized the ship
makers in northwestern France to stay there, playing boule and drinking
aperitifs. This is not the kind of society a free person wants to be in.
Look, being free is scary. You people are free to resign
from AEI. I don’t recommend you do it, but you could tomorrow and walk away and
go somewhere else. But it’s nerve-racking. It’s disturbing. But a free society is
one in which you can take this job and shove it.
A slave is a person who can’t take this job and shove it. And a kind of voluntary slave, as it were, is someone who is tempted by subsidies to stay in Youngstown forever.