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Deirdre McCloskey joins our show again to talk about her new book, Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Deirdre McCloskey has been a professor of economics, history, English, communications, philosophy and classics, and arts and culture at various points in her career. She is best known for her contributions to the understanding of the economic history of Britain, the quantification of historical inquiry, the rhetoric of economics and human sciences, economic methodology, virtue ethics, feminist economics, heterodox economics, the role of mathematics in economic analysis, and the role of significance testing in economics.

According to Deirdre McCloskey the greatest challenges that humankind faces are tyranny and poverty. McCloskey is a firm believer that if we were to return to true liberal values it would be good for everyone. For examples of true liberal values she refers to philosophers Locke, Smith, Voltaire, and Wollstonecraft.

What is the connection between liberalism and democracy? How is liberalism non‐​coercive? What fights should libertarians prioritize? How can you be principled advocate for the poor? Who influenced Deirdre McCloskey?

Further Reading:

Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All, written by Deirdre McCloskey

The magic washing machine, Hans Rossling TED Talk

Bourgeois Dignity: A Revolution in Rhetoric, written by Deirdre McCloskey



00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Deirdre McCloskey. She is the Distinguished Professor of Economics and History and Professor of English and Communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is the author of many books, including the acclaimed Bourgeois trilogy. Her latest book is Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal and Prosperous World for All. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, Deirdre.

00:29 Deidre McCloskey: Thank you, thank you very much. I’m emerita, actually.

00:32 Trevor Burrus: Oh, you’re emerita.

00:33 Deidre McCloskey: Yes, I’ve been… I retired a few years ago in order to work.

00:38 Trevor Burrus: Oh, good. Yeah, [chuckle] I get that, I get that. So there’s a lot of hand‐​wringing these days about liberalism and illiberalism.

00:45 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah.

00:45 Trevor Burrus: And I guess you joined the fray to some extent but…

00:49 Deidre McCloskey: I have.

00:50 Trevor Burrus: Is there something unique about this time or is this just sort of a sinusoidal thing where liberalism has to be defended to new generations?

00:58 Deidre McCloskey: I think your… That’s a very good analogy and I think it’s right. I think if Individual One is not re‐​elected President of the United States next time, then I think there’ll be an international drawback of right‐​wing illiberalism. Unfortunately, I think that might, inspirit left wing illiberalism [chuckle] so the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. I think there’s a case to be made and… In detail that there’s nothing really about the economic situation that requires us to be illiberal. What happens, I think, after each big recession… The worst one was the 1930s, there’s an… And during and after, there’s an outbreak of let’s solve things by, I don’t know, doing something, God knows what, and people rush off in various directions.

02:07 Trevor Burrus: Make sure this never happens again kinda thing.

02:09 Deidre McCloskey: Makes sure this never happens again, we mustn’t… Oh, okay, let’s over‐​regulate the banking industry more and let’s do this and let’s do that.

02:17 Aaron Ross Powell: Why is it that when that happens, we get a recession and then we get these calls for more intervention and in this case, it seems like calls for a strong man in particular to come in…

02:28 Deidre McCloskey: Yes, man on the white horse.

02:29 Aaron Ross Powell: Why don’t we instead get calls… This is kind of that Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine thing of after big disasters, the free marketers use this to ram through their policies. But that never actually happens. It’s always the intervention.

02:43 Deidre McCloskey: No, it’s always the other way around.

02:45 Aaron Ross Powell: Why don’t we get that? Why don’t we get like…

02:46 Deidre McCloskey: Well, because the only we standing around is the state. If we are gonna fix things and as you said, make this not happen again or solve the terrible problem of stagnant wages, which is false. Their wages are not stagnant. But anyway… Solve this or solve that or the appalling inequality, which actually hasn’t happened in most countries, we have to be the state. Now, that’s about 100 years old, this conviction that we should do things this way.

03:25 Trevor Burrus: You mean a sense of… There’s different we’s that we’re talking about, there’s… I’m not a big fan of the kind of… Well, at least over‐​anthropomorphisizing the state, right?

03:35 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah.

03:36 Trevor Burrus: Like saying, “We decided this thing.”

03:38 Deidre McCloskey: Well, it goes back of course to Jean‐​Jacques Rousseau, charming man, who crawled with everyone he knew, including Adam Smith. One day, he was walking, he says this, and he saw immediately how to bring together the power of the state to do things and yet the freedom of the individual. [chuckle] And his solution, with heavy quotation marks around it, was that the general will, the volonté générale, would be your will.

04:17 Trevor Burrus: Well, that’s convenient.

04:19 Deidre McCloskey: End of problem. If your will is what the communist party wants or what the Nazi party wants or what the Democratic or Republican party wants, what’s the problem? Do your will. And that has echoed down through the left and the right. Carl Schmitt is popular among the American left now. I’m quite puzzled by this. Carl Schmitt was a fascist theorist.

04:51 Trevor Burrus: But he really liked the state.

04:53 Deidre McCloskey: Oh, boy, he liked the state. Yeah, l’État. It does say, “c’est nous, c’est vous.” [chuckle]


04:57 Trevor Burrus: You are the state.

04:58 Deidre McCloskey: You are the state.

04:58 Trevor Burrus: It’s good that you [05:00] ____ that, really.

05:00 Aaron Ross Powell: But this metaphor, this general will metaphor, seems frustratingly sticky in the sense like I’m thinking of… So after Trump won that we had these ongoing arguments about like the Electoral College and… But the form that the arguments took was the Electoral College was either preserving the will of the people by not allowing it to be just shunted off to these blue enclaves, or it was corrupting the will of the people, as opposed to just acknowledging that the people disagree.

05:33 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah.

05:34 Aaron Ross Powell: But we want to… We still just quest for this system where that general will can be realized without corruption.

05:41 Deidre McCloskey: There’s a wonderful remark among many by the great American journalist H L Mencken of a century ago where he said, “Democracy is the theory, or majority voting is the theory that ordinary people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” And it’s a wise remark. This idea that the majority should always rule is, of course, intensely illiberal, because it’s mob rule. It’s the rule of the majority against minorities, black people, queers, women, except they’re a majority. We have a constitution which is supposed to… At least in its amendments is supposed to protect minorities.

06:30 Trevor Burrus: So what is the relationship between democracy and liberalism in the way that liberals should view it?

06:35 Deidre McCloskey: Well, look, liberalism is the theory that there should be no masters. No husbands over wives, no masters over slaves, no politicians over citizens. It’s egalitarian, and Adam Smith, he speaks of the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice, by which he meant social equality, economic liberty and legal justice. And the key feature of democracy is that everyone can vote. That’s an… Look, majorities don’t always make good decisions, but you know, minorities don’t always make good decisions. Experts don’t always make good decisions. Experts brought us into Vietnam. A minority brought us into the second Iraq War. So what’s key about democracy, and I think this is the central connection. This is the real joined‐​at‐​the‐​hip connection between liberalism in the one end and democracy in the other is that equal right to vote is a message of dignity, a message of equality.

08:11 Deidre McCloskey: What was most insulting to Black people in the South? That they weren’t allowed to vote, or they had to translate passages from Ancient Greek in order to vote or something like that, is the inequality of it, the indignity of not being a voting citizen. I don’t think they had any particular detailed opinions about economic policy that were gonna be changed very much.

08:39 Trevor Burrus: Just the indignity of the whole thing.

08:41 Deidre McCloskey: The indignity, this is the great thing about the women’s vote. The standard argument against the women’s vote is that so far as interest was concerned, the husband would take care of it. After all, he’s not gonna vote for something that’s gonna hurt his wife terribly or his family. Well, that’s alright, except that she’s put in the position of a child.

09:05 Trevor Burrus: Even if you accept the first premise, you say, “Sure. Yeah, but you’re still treating her like crap.”

09:10 Deidre McCloskey: You’re still treating her as an inferior person. And it’s that remarkable idea that people are equal. That’s the key to liberalism. In modern liberal democracy, to put the words together, and it’s… In the 18th century, it’s entirely new as an intellectual construct. It’s only the most advanced thinkers, Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine and people like that, they’re talking this way. It would have been crazy in the 17th century. People would have laughed at the idea in a hierarchical agricultural society at equality. What John Adams said, who was no Democrat in a thorough‐​going way, John Adams said, “If we give women the vote soon, lads from 12–21 will be thinking themselves ill‐​used if they don’t have the vote.” Well, he was saying there’s a Pandora’s box that opens when you say all humans not just men are created equal. That’s true. That’s been our history. That’s the American idea, that we are equal.

10:41 Aaron Ross Powell: So there’s a tension there then. So recognizing the equal dignity of everyone gets hooked on to everyone voting, so everyone having this sense of participation in the direction of things. But then, as we frequently see and as you said, that doesn’t mean that everyone will then use that power they’ve been given to facilitate a world that respects the dignity and equality of others. They’ll vote all sorts of… And so…

11:10 Deidre McCloskey: That’s the problem.

11:11 Aaron Ross Powell: Keeping, maintaining that balance is it… So there’s a cultural side to that. People just couldn’t bring themselves to vote in ways that would deny… But there’s also an institutional, like we have, so our Constitution says, okay, no matter what you want, there’s, everything’s off the table.

11:30 Deidre McCloskey: But you know, the… But the words mattered. The Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address echoed down through our history. And the shameful fact that in part of the United states, Blacks were denied the vote while we were fighting fascism overseas and complaining after the war about communism. That was one of the big answers that the Russians gave,“Well, how about your Blacks?” And so, the words mattered. But you’re right, there was… There’s… The problem with liberalism [chuckle] is that it’s not authoritarian.

12:20 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, but by definition. [chuckle]

12:21 Deidre McCloskey: That’s right. If you’re authoritarian, then you could do as Orwell or O’Brien put it in 1984, “You can have a boot stamping on a human face forever, and you can keep your idea there. War is peace. Freedom in slavery,” etcetera. Whereas we liberals believe in sweet talk, persuasion. We believe in free speech and allowing people to argue, and that’s how we’re gonna change things, not with coercion.

13:04 Trevor Burrus: Do you think it’s possible to create a taxonomy of some extent of the different forms of illiberalism, or do they all end up meeting together in authoritarianism, collectively? Because some of them could be… People who are not liberals because they wanna get things done, and they don’t think liberal society gets things done. And it’s very important to collectivize in that way a national character unity, all that kind of stuff. There could just be people aren’t liberal because they’re evil. They may…

13:34 Deidre McCloskey: Look. When you have a war for survival, then you can’t be liberal. You’ve got to draft people. You’ve got to force people to do stuff they don’t wanna do in order to keep, I don’t know, the Canadians from invading us. And I can hardly sleep at night worrying about Canadians and if not, the Mexicans. So you’re… So there’s a unity of purpose in a war like that, but then by kind of metaphor or analogy, people want that to keep happening because they love the feeling of unity. And then the volonté générale, the general will, is so… It’s like being at a football game or something. You’re all cheering for the Bears. “Bear down Bears,” we sing in Chicago. And it’s this wonderful feeling we get as humans when we’re singing together at the Nuremberg rallies, or when you’re rowing in a boat with eight people rowing or singing in a chorus. All this wonderful unity that mammals love so much.

14:57 Deidre McCloskey: And that’s the danger. It’s very hard to keep that wartime mentality out of it. Now, then there are people who are just conservatives, not so much evil. I mean, there’s plenty of that too, but are just conservatives. And they’re illiberal because they delight in hierarchy. Thomas Carlyle was a good example of this. And they like it that there are servants and masters and damn, that’s how it should be. And I know moderate conservatives, I know moderate socialists and we argue all the time.

15:38 Aaron Ross Powell: This… So it seems there’s another kind of it that seems to be driving a lot of what’s happening in the US today, which is not… It’s called conservatism. It’s not conservatism in terms of wanting to maintain or live in a world of hierarchies, but wanting to live in a world that is like culturally slowed down.

15:56 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah, that’s right.

16:00 Trevor Burrus: And that one. So that’s the one that a lot of Trump voters have that view, like the world’s changing too quick. I don’t like these people who talk different than me coming in, but that’s one that seems… We can… We as libertarians or liberals can make all sorts… Like you mentioned, like wages aren’t actually stagnant, right? And we can make that argument, or we can talk about the hockey stick growth that capitalism… But if the underlying concern that people have is, “I don’t want the world to change around me,” we can’t really offer them much, right? So how do you address that particular kind of conservatism?

16:37 Deidre McCloskey: Well, one way is the way that I know, which is to argue with them in a kind of academic way and point out that if you want the poor to stay poor and the young to stay poor and you don’t want anyone to make any more money than they make now, then, no progress. We don’t get… You have cell phones that weigh five pounds and [chuckle] so on. If that’s what you want, we can arrange that. We can forbid change, and you can go to work and do the same thing you did tomorrow as you did yesterday. And we can ask them, “Do you really wanna live in that world?” And unfortunately, a lot of people say, “Damn right I do.”

17:17 Trevor Burrus: Some of them go and live with Amish or something like that. They can go to those places.

17:24 Deidre McCloskey: That’s right there. Actually, the Amish… I knew some Amish, and they’re in Iowa. And they’re… That’s right. They’ve made that decision, but I’m very willing to let people do that if they want. I just don’t want them to impose it on me. And that’s the trouble. Look, every year in the United States and any economy that’s progressing where cell phones are getting better, say, 14% of the jobs disappear forever. In 2000, 130,000 people were employed in, wait for it, video stores.


18:05 Deidre McCloskey: Now…

18:08 Trevor Burrus: Wow.

18:09 Deidre McCloskey: Zero. And those people are not out standing on the street. If they were, we’d have 50% to 100% unemployment right now. They go find other jobs, and we get better access to movies. So, in a way, what we need to do is to get people to adopt a liberal ideology, which means saying to them, “Look. What kind of world do you want to live in? Do you want to live in a world where your children do better than you are?” I was just talking to an Ethiopian cab driver in Washington, and he has three boys and a girl. They’ve all gone to college. He works as a cab driver morning, noon and night. He’s the American dream. It’s progress that makes that possible. His children don’t have to have the same job he had. And that’s… People have to agree to that, so to speak. Most Americans do, actually, but you can get politicians like Donald Trump, Individual One, complaining, saying, “We’re gonna bring back West Virginia coal.” No, they’re not. No one’s gonna bring back West Virginia coal, considering inexpensive natural gas. Stop it. Stop pandering to the 14%. They’re gonna be worse off, and certainly, everyone else is if you prevent jobs from changing. Capital has to move, jobs have to change.

19:57 Trevor Burrus: How much do you think this stuff results, some of these illiberalism results from taking all that for granted? I mean, is it like your Ethiopian cab driver does not take it for granted. My grandpa definitely didn’t take it for granted. I grew up wealthy enough that I’m sure I did take it a little bit more for granted.

20:13 Deidre McCloskey: I did too. I was the child of a Harvard professor. Boy, did I take it for granted. That’s why I became a socialist when I was 16, because I saw that… That’s why lots of people become socialists. If you grow up in a… Well, as an immigrant or you grow up on a farm, or in a small business where you as a child are working in the business, I don’t mean slaving away, but you’re participating in it, then you learn that innovation is necessary and desirable. Let’s find a better way to grow soy beans, but if you grow up as the son or daughter of a corporate person, or an academic, or a state employee, you don’t know where meat comes from. You don’t know nothing about the market. I found when I taught at the University of Iowa for 19 years, go Hawks, that my students, a quite small number, actually, even in Iowa, who grew up on farms understood economics very quickly. Whereas it was the other kids, they didn’t get it. I certainly didn’t.

21:27 Trevor Burrus: One of my favorite quotes about the free market is, I think it goes, I think it’s Walter Williams, but it’s, “Your grocer doesn’t know what you’re going to buy, when you’re gonna show up or how much you’re going to buy, but if he doesn’t have any, fire him.” We expect avocados in December.

21:45 Deidre McCloskey: It’s miraculous.

21:47 Trevor Burrus: We get really mad if there aren’t avocados in Duluth in December.

21:50 Deidre McCloskey: Where are my avocados and these are not soft enough. What is this?

21:54 Trevor Burrus: Yes, what is this kind of third‐​world country we’re living in without avocados?


21:58 Trevor Burrus: I guess maybe we could give them the millennial… To define millennials.

22:02 Aaron Ross Powell: They do like their avocados.

22:04 Deidre McCloskey: But you’re very right that it’s an absence of historical perspective that’s the problem here. I was just in the very wonderful Museum of American Life that the Smithsonian has in the nation’s capital and it’s all about innovation and change and so on. And if people were really… The Good Roads Movement, especially in the 1920s…

22:30 Trevor Burrus: Oh, yeah. Those were mostly bicycles then too, it was huge.

22:34 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah and in the 1890s it was bicycles, then it became automobiles. Getting out of the mud resulted in this enormous investment in highways and they have very good exhibitions there, showing why the Model T had such a high chassis. It had a high chassis, because otherwise the bottom of the car would be in the mud, because the ruts were eight inches deep. I wish people could realize how much we’ve changed, and I try to tell them. This is worldwide, it’s not just the United States. The percentage of unspeakably poor people in the world is falling like a stone. It’s very low now, by historical standards.

23:26 Trevor Burrus: I think there’s also a Museum in York, England called the Castle Museum.

23:30 Deidre McCloskey: I’ve been there.

23:30 Trevor Burrus: It’s pretty much the best museum I’ve ever been to and that goes through life from the 1500s.

23:34 Deidre McCloskey: I’ve been to the Castle Museum.

23:35 Trevor Burrus: You’ve been to the Castle Museum?

23:36 Deidre McCloskey: I know what you’re talking about. I taught at the University of York for a couple of summer terms.

23:41 Trevor Burrus: That will really show you how you did laundry and how you just did the smallest thing if you were in the 1650s.

23:45 Deidre McCloskey: My mother, well, I was born in 1942, my mother washed my diapers by hand, cloth diapers, in a tub in the basement with a washboard which, by the way, is not a musical instrument.


24:02 Aaron Ross Powell: At the same time, this kind of loss of historical perspective, which then leads to just thinking the way things are is the default and then we can just point to the problems of well, these things are terrible, but not realizing how much better things are now. That seems like that’s also a good thing. It’s good that we live in a world where we’re so prosperous that we can like not have this historical perspective and we wouldn’t want people to…

24:30 Deidre McCloskey: That’s a good point.

24:32 Aaron Ross Powell: And even in the sense of all the time that would be spent… I remember my dad when I got my first car, and my dad worked in the automotive industry in Detroit and was always, I think, a little bit disappointed that I wasn’t that into cars. I got my first car, and he was like, “Well, we could… On the weekends, you can learn to change your own oil and you can have your friends over and you can all work on each other’s cars.” And I was like, “I don’t have… I can also pay $19.95 to get the oil changed and go on with my day, and I’m not that interested.”


25:02 Aaron Ross Powell: There’s opportunity costs in all this.

25:04 Deidre McCloskey: Yes, there is.

25:04 Aaron Ross Powell: So I’m missing out on something, but that gave me an opportunity to explore the ideas that eventually led me to my career or whatever.

25:10 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah, yeah, think of housewives. Let’s go back to washing. The great Hans Rosling, Swedish professor of public health, who’s written wonderfully on this. He died last year, Rosling, R-O-S-L-I-N-G. Look up his videos on the internet.

25:31 Trevor Burrus: We’ll link them in the show notes. They’re great, yeah.

25:34 Deidre McCloskey: He said when his mother got a washing machine, he speaks of the washing line, which is about $80 a day, and which Sweden finally got to. He said his grandmother sat in front of the machine and watched it for its whole cycle, because she had spent a substantial part of her life doing washing. That’s what women did. Monday, I mean, they spent the whole of Monday. A long time ago, someone had calculated that the washing day on Monday in, say, 1900, which my grandmother told me about, took more caloric energy than five quarters of big 10 football back when they didn’t have platooning.


26:33 Deidre McCloskey: And everyone was playing both sides of the ball. [chuckle]

26:35 Trevor Burrus: Both ways. Wow. That’s… I like that stat.

26:42 Deidre McCloskey: But you’re right; it’s been argued, and it’s not completely crazy that Argentina, which in 1900 was among the richest countries in the world, decided that that was good enough.

26:56 Trevor Burrus: They lost a century, almost.

26:57 Deidre McCloskey: And they lost a century. Their income went up since then, but… Because they got electric lights and automobiles and so on. But Argentina to this day is sort of sunk in this populist fantasy, as Bastiat put it, a socialist fantasy, that everyone can live on everyone else.

27:19 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. At the expense of everyone else, yeah.

27:21 Deidre McCloskey: At the expense of everyone else. So they kind of said, “Well, things are pretty good. This is alright; let’s stick with it.” A certain striving for the infinite, as the Germans say, is desirable. Adam Smith says this, in fact.

27:43 Aaron Ross Powell: But isn’t this the objection that gets made to that line of argument is that this process that keeps getting us more and more growth and more and more innovation is itself destructive, and consumes resources and so on, so that there is… There comes a point when it just will wipe everything out… We’ve run out of stuff?

28:07 Deidre McCloskey: That’s what they say, and I have written a great deal against that. People speak of consumerism, for example, that’s one of their objections. And it turns out the people making these complaints about consumerism themselves have nice apartments in the West Village in Manhattan. My friend, Bob Frank, is this way. And every human society is consumerist. The bushmen of the Kalahari consume as much as they can, and they consume in elaborate symbolic ways. Ask any anthropologist this; they’ll tell you, eating, dressing, decorating yourself, rituals are all consumption, and they’re all about making ourselves with goods. And this is still true; so what? It’s how humans are. And if we’re producing a lot and we’re consuming a lot, there’s nothing evil about that. And as for resource exhaustion and so on, that just doesn’t understand how economies work. A famous example is whale oil, which for decades was one of the main sources of indoor lighting in well‐​to‐​do families in the United States. And in 1859 the first wells in Pennsylvania, oil wells, mineral oil wells were drilled, and it saved the whales.

30:00 Trevor Burrus: Maybe some whale species went extinct, though, it’s possible. I’m not sure if that’s true. But maybe at some point our resource extraction of something has definitely caused things to disappear.

30:13 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah, except that what’s a resource? The ultimate resource, as it has wisely been said, is human intelligence and creativity.

30:25 Trevor Burrus: That’s the… I like the quote of, “You can view people as either brains or bellies.” That they’re either just eating things, but they also make things…

30:34 Deidre McCloskey: Julian… What’s his name?

30:37 Trevor Burrus: Simon.

30:37 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah, Simon, was a great economist at Indiana and Maryland, and he said this, and it’s… He said, “Look”… Well, you can take an obvious example of rare earth, is that what they’re called?

30:52 Trevor Burrus: Rare earth mineral [30:53] ____.

30:53 Deidre McCloskey: They weren’t rare until we discovered they could be used for computer batteries.

30:58 Trevor Burrus: Well, they were worthless.

31:00 Deidre McCloskey: Of course they were worthless; they’re called rare earths.

31:01 Trevor Burrus: They might have been absolutely scarce, but they weren’t rare, because there was no demand.

31:08 Deidre McCloskey: That didn’t matter. Bauxite was just dirt, except that it had aluminum ore in it, and then people learned that if you used a lot of electricity you could make aluminum with it, which was a very rare, speaking of rarity, a rare item which became commonplace through human ingenuity. So it’s the… Yeah, there are limits. But the problem is that people think of this almost in mathematical terms; they say, “Well, nothing can go on forever,” and they’re making a mathematical argument, they’re not making a scientific argument. They’re not talking about the facts of the world; they’re talking about, “Well, you can’t get more than 100%,” or something; that’s what they have in mind.

31:51 Trevor Burrus: Now, we had… With Trump, we saw… You could say Trump…

31:56 Deidre McCloskey: Individual One.

31:57 Trevor Burrus: Individual One is a version of a rise of some types of illiberalism, but as a… Somewhat of a response to that we’ve seen, I would say, some pretty disturbing illiberalism coming from the left.

32:10 Deidre McCloskey: Definitely.

32:11 Trevor Burrus: I think most manifesting itself in the form of virulent anti‐​free speech behavior, which was the thing we always used to be able to trust the left for.

32:21 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah, that’s right. But of course, bear in mind that that’s only in certain elite universities.

32:27 Trevor Burrus: True, yes, yeah.

32:28 Deidre McCloskey: Brown in particular is the world capital of…

32:33 Trevor Burrus: Someone needs to call John Tomasi and see what’s going on.

32:35 Deidre McCloskey: John is amazing. John Tomasi survives somehow at Brown.

32:40 Trevor Burrus: At the same time, I have… And I went to just Boulder for undergrad, and we definitely got a good taste of some versions of Marxism and post‐​modernism…

32:53 Deidre McCloskey: Sure. I did too.

32:55 Trevor Burrus: And you can see some applications of that, that would be so extreme, that they would amount to being anti‐​free speech. That’s sort of the kind of the Marcuse point that sometimes gets made.

33:05 Deidre McCloskey: Sure they would. And… But the… As I said, the chief theoreticians, or appliers of these theories are people at Middleborough, where they attacked Charles… They physically attacked Charles Murray. And in most places… And I taught for 19 years in the University of Iowa, and 15 years at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and there wasn’t much of a problem there. Although, of course, I was a member of the English department there, and I was the only free market person in the English department, I can assure you.

33:43 Trevor Burrus: So I… Going through some of the parts of your book, I think one of the things I kept kind of looking at, and knowing you, and just thinking, “Where is Dierdre coming from?” It’s this idea of as liberals, and as libertarians, and making common cause with people who are on the left or on the right, who will call themselves liberals, this question, what should we prioritize in terms of the fights that we should be having? ‘Cause sometimes, libertarians will say, oh, redistribution is the thing that we should be really fighting against, or wars. Are the things that we should sort of pull back on, like say, redistribution versus war or civil liberties in terms of trying?

34:20 Deidre McCloskey: You know, that is a subtle, political, practical question, which I am singularly ill‐​equipped to deal with.

34:26 Trevor Burrus: I might even mean for even doctrinal purposes. Is redistribution something that on a moral level that we should stand against?

34:35 Deidre McCloskey: Redistribution is very dangerous. A state that can… Is powerful enough to redistribute in a way that you might consider good today, is powerful enough to redistribute in a way you definitely don’t approve of tomorrow.

34:53 Aaron Ross Powell: What… If that’s the case then… And so we should stand firm against it, how do we deal with… So I… Yes, people aren’t as “bad off” as we get led to believe, and wages are rising, and all that, but there certainly are, and especially in a dynamic market economy, there certainly are lots of people who are in that 14% that lose their jobs.

35:14 Deidre McCloskey: 14% every year.

35:15 Aaron Ross Powell: They can’t find another one…

35:16 Deidre McCloskey: But they can.

35:19 Aaron Ross Powell: Or fall through the cracks in some way.

35:21 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah. But people fall through the cracks in a progressive society. If you wanna keep people from falling through the cracks, let’s everyone have a job right now, and stay with it forever, and not ever change anything.

35:34 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, I guess then the question, though, is, should we as liberals, libertarians making rhetorical… We’re making arguments, should we be saying, “Okay, so there are always gonna be some people who fall through the cracks, and that’s just the way it is.” Or do we have positive obligations towards these people?

35:52 Deidre McCloskey: We have positive obligations. I am a Christian liberal. I believe that as a Christian, I have a positive obligation towards the poor and unfortunate, that I do not pass by on the other side. I act as the Good Samaritan did. And I really do. I had two homeless people living in my apartment for four‐​and‐​a‐​half years. I tithe at my church. So I don’t wanna sound like a saint, but that’s what I do, because I’m a Christian. So when I’m… What I’m putting forward is liberalism 2.0, not the kind of liberalism 1.0, which is based on the idea, as Hillel of Babylon put it in the late first century BCE, “Do not do unto others what you would not want done to yourself.” I wanna pair that with the other Jewish sage, Jesus of Nazareth, who put it in the early first century CE, “Do unto others as you’d want them to do unto you.”

37:09 Deidre McCloskey: So both courage, autonomy and love connection. Both the male and the female together. That’s how any man or a woman ought to be. And in practical terms, in terms of politics, that liberals ought to espouse, what we should be doing is talking constantly about the poor. In my book, I go to… Went to… It wasn’t unnatural for me, but I talked a lot, a lot, a lot about the poor. How our policies actually help the poor, as against the kind of faux policies that our friends on the left and the right, say, “Help the poor,” but don’t. So our… So every speech we give should be… I am in favor of such‐​and‐​such a liberal policy: End of the war on drugs, end of the minimum wage, institution of a minimum income, not wage, deregulation, abolition of the Food and Drug Administration, whatever you wanna talk about, because it will help the poor.

38:37 Deidre McCloskey: ‘Cause I… What we’re often accused of is for some reason… It’s psychologically very implausible. We want rich people to be richer. Well, that’s not my purpose in life that Charles Koch makes another billion. Actually, I know Charles. He’s a nice guy, and he’ll give it to… For a good purpose. But that’s not why I’m in the business. I’m in the business to help, help the wretched of the Earth. And the one welfare program that has been incredibly successful is the Great Enrichment. Three thousand percent improvement in income per head, in real terms. [chuckle] How do you get a redistribution that accomplishes 3000%? What? How does that work? [chuckle]


39:34 Aaron Ross Powell: There’s another kind of objection to liberalism that we see, was embodied in, say, that, the National Conservatism Conference earlier this summer. That is not about necessarily so much like the poor slipping through or about hierarchies, but it’s about that we as human beings do best when embedded in…

40:00 Deidre McCloskey: Communities.

40:00 Aaron Ross Powell: Communities and with social institutions, and that the individualism that comes with liberalism, and we did… We recorded this morning with Professor Clay Rutledge about this, and I think this episode will be out…

40:12 Trevor Burrus: Week after…

40:13 Aaron Ross Powell: Our listeners, that should be the prior episode, for our listeners listening to this one. That that aspect of individualism that comes with liberalism is corrosive of those things. And so even if it makes us wealthy, if it leads to this cultural malaise and the rise of opiate addiction and suicide, and all of that, that might not be worth it.

40:32 Trevor Burrus: Like cell phone addiction, other things that… For some conservatives, everything’s on the table.

40:36 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah, yeah, yeah. All things are addictive, any new thing is addictive. Yeah, I wrote a review last year of Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed. And it’s…

40:52 Trevor Burrus: Oh, Patrick Deneen?

40:55 Deidre McCloskey: Patrick Deneen. And he comes at it from a conservative Catholic point of view, but it’s the same point on the right and the left. Both of them, Catholic traditionalists, left‐​wing communitarians, both talk a lot about these communal erosion of… Now, look, the trouble with this, is that it’s historical nonsense, among other things. Alexis de Tocqueville was stunned in 1832 by the immense undergrowth, if that’s quite the word, growth of intermediate institutions in the United States. As a French aristocrat, he was accustomed to the aristocracy or the state being in charge and the third estate or the commoners to be subordinate and to be coerced by these upper things. And this didn’t happen in the United States. Now of course, this was a slave society, so let’s get that straight. But it’s just not true, I don’t think it’s true. I think modern electronic devices, to take up the point about cell phone addiction or whatever, our community building instruments certainly can be. Of course, people can go off and bowl alone, as someone famously said, but they don’t. In fact, I just heard that bowling leagues are reviving in the United States. So I think that these are grossly over‐​blown. If you blame everything on freedom, we’ll have no freedom.

42:55 Trevor Burrus: That’s probably true, but there’s another element too, [43:00] ____ about poverty, community destruction. The other big one that is… Especially since, I would say, about 2010, it’s become probably one of hottest political things is inequality.

43:10 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah, I know.

43:12 Trevor Burrus: It’s animating the left… Politicians… Elizabeth Warren is, and and we have Picardi and we have Sayers and Zuckman and stuff, so when do we care about that or how do we care about that or what’s wrong with the way that they are portraying it.

43:26 Deidre McCloskey: In my book I have a long section on inequality. I think you’re right, it’s the big boogie man of the left. Especially in the United States, in Britain too. I’ve been in debates with people in Britain about this, and it’s got all kinds of problems. I have about 100 pages, not 100, more like 80 pages in the book.

44:00 Trevor Burrus: Some are empirical and some are conceptual.

44:00 Deidre McCloskey: Some are empirical problems and other are conceptual problems. The basic problem with the worry about inequality, is that if inequality is caused by one group of people stealing from another, then I join my friends in the left in opposing inequality. But if the inequality is caused by some person having a very good voice and being Frank Sinatra or another person being Jackie Robinson, and actually, Jackie was not around in the free agency era, but I don’t know, Curt Flood…

44:48 Trevor Burrus: Curt Flood Jr.

44:48 Deidre McCloskey: Curt Flood, to take the key example. If they make money, it’s because people volunteered to pay the money, and I have no objection to that at all, that some rock musician makes a lot of money for…

45:07 Trevor Burrus: Doing crazy things.

45:08 Deidre McCloskey: Doing crazy things on stage, it all sounds like an airplane crash to me, I’m very old‐​fashioned. That’s fine, and in particular, to go after people who innovate. Let’s take Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Amazon has definitely improved my life, and I suppose yours as well. I buy all kinds of things on Amazon with the greatest of ease. What it is, is a reinvention of Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward or Segals.

45:43 Trevor Burrus: Which is a massive change.

45:44 Deidre McCloskey: It’s a reinvention of a Chicago‐​based mail order for the modern world of the Internet. And it’s wonderful, just as Sears Roebuck was, and that it’s big is not in itself a problem if it got to be big, by doing things that people like. And they massively like being able to… I bought this blouse that I have on online, I just bought another one like this this morning. So it’s… Where the inequality comes from is crucial. If it comes from free exchange and innovism, as I call it, improvement, lay off, and in fact, that, you know… It’s not as if… The kind we can fix is to stop people from stealing, but most of the stealing is with government permission. That we should stop. People with TV licenses in the old days. That was a political game. Lady Bird Johnson had, I don’t know, 30 TV licenses. That I wouldn’t feel so happy about.

47:04 Trevor Burrus: For libertarians who do, should they stop identifying more with the right than the left?

47:12 Deidre McCloskey: Definitely. And the way to do that is to emphasize that our proposals, unlike either the left or the right, help the poor. It’s the poor we should care about. It’s the Joads. It’s the wretched of the earth. Actually, the Joads, by the way, did very well after they got to California, so to speak. This is metaphorical, but it’s an actual historical truth. They went to work in war industries in California which eventually became civilian aircraft industries and got a little house in Sausalito.

47:55 Trevor Burrus: And now thanks to California zoning laws, that house is worth $4 million, even though it was built in 1930.

48:02 Deidre McCloskey: Exactly. Exactly.

48:03 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s pretty amazing, yeah.

48:04 Deidre McCloskey: Exactly. Exactly. I went… I was in a debate at the National Theatre in London about the issue of housing in London, and the people who came to the debate were mainly of the left. They were Labourites, and I said, “You know, what’s causing housing prices to be so expensive in London is housing regulation, buildings regulation,” and they hissed me.

48:37 Trevor Burrus: Oh, I’m sure.


48:37 Deidre McCloskey: I was abused.


48:41 Trevor Burrus: So for liberals, this is one that I’ve actually always wanted to ask you: In terms of the recommendation, you just have an interesting take on liberalism and libertarianism and a lot of people are very influenced by you.

48:57 Deidre McCloskey: Well, I’m glad to hear that. They should send me money.


49:01 Trevor Burrus: They could buy your book, which I commend to them.

49:04 Deidre McCloskey: Well, let’s see. An immediate step if they could just send me the cash.

49:06 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. If they can just send you money, that’s true. Yeah. But what… Who influenced you? What would be your things that you would point to people that this is what you should read to understand this stuff. I mean, we’ve got the obvious one.

49:18 Deidre McCloskey: Well, the biggest influence was Robert Nozick’s book in 1974, Anarchy, State and Utopia, which in a somewhat abstract and philosophical way with lots of vivid examples, like the Wilt Chamberlain example and all that, shows how you can be a principled advocate for poor people yet not wanna push people around, whereas Chris, Rawls, John Rawls, who I’d read a couple of years before, he’s the big hero on the left, but even Rawls was something of a liberal of the…

50:03 Trevor Burrus: Definitely was, but it’s a first principle of justice, you know, abstract rights.

50:06 Deidre McCloskey: That’s right. Exactly. So that was a big influence. I must say the Cato Institute has been an influence on me for a long time, and indeed that whole business of finding people who agreed with me or who disagreed with me in interesting ways pushed my thought along.

50:38 Trevor Burrus: And then, so when the fledgling academic Deirdre was getting started in the PhD world, was that what pushed you into that area?

50:48 Deidre McCloskey: Well, I was still a socialist then. We’re talking about 1964. When I applied for graduate school, and when I graduated from college, I didn’t even apply to the University of Chicago. Ten years later, I was the director of its very large graduate program. So that’s how far I went in 10 years. I was certainly a socialist before I started studying economics in college, and then I became a Keynesian because that was what was on offer in 1960 when I started college, and then I was a kind of social engineer. I feel very unhappy coming to Washington as I do often because all these nice, young, educated people walking around, they’re all trying to take my money.


51:40 Trevor Burrus: And do…

51:43 Deidre McCloskey: If they were spending it on helping the poor, I’d be all for it, but they’re not. They’re spending it on screwing the poor and helping…

51:50 Trevor Burrus: It’s a double bad. That’s what I keep saying. Whenever I pay my taxes, I’m like, “Can I… Can I just burn it? I’ll take a video of me burning my taxes. Just so you don’t… I know I don’t get it, but why do you have to use it to bomb some country and… ”

52:04 Deidre McCloskey: Exactly. In fact… In fact, that was the other big influence on me. When I was an undergraduate and a graduate student, Vietnam was going on, and as the child of World War II generation parents, of course, the good war and all that, and I could see that this was a bad war and that it was being incompetently done. And the one job, as I said before, that nation states, they’re supposed to do, is to protect us from the Canadians, as night and day I worry about it. And the American government was spectacularly not doing this, and I began to see the intrinsic incompetence of government. I didn’t instantly twig to this, as the British say. But I gradually became clearer and clearer that again, this general will stuff is rubbish. Usually.

53:11 Trevor Burrus: Usually. I think it’s interesting you said usually…

53:14 Deidre McCloskey: Well, because there’s as I said, for a war of survival.

53:19 Aaron Ross Powell: Sure, okay. I see, okay.

53:20 Deidre McCloskey: There’s a hurricane. All hands to the… If you have to take the case, if you’re on a sailing ship and round the Horn…

53:29 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, individualism doesn’t matter so much in that situation.

53:30 Deidre McCloskey: And then you… That’s why in the Navy and even in the Merchant Marine, the captain’s orders was law, because if you were going around the Horn in a force 8 gale, you bloody well have to obey and if you don’t, you should be shot. The general will works for that, but boy, in most cases it doesn’t.

53:54 Aaron Ross Powell: So you just published another book defending liberalism.

53:58 Deidre McCloskey: I defend them. I write them every day, and send them out.

54:06 Aaron Ross Powell: And as Trevor started our conversation with a hand‐​wringing about the state of liberalism, like right now, a lot of stuff looks pretty grim. Do you think that… How optimistic are you? Do you think that this engine of tremendous progress that we’ve seen is strong enough to fight off the stuff we’re seeing now?

54:31 Deidre McCloskey: Yeah, I think it is, because I think the demonstration effect is enormous. That economic liberalism was tried in China, and worked spectacularly well, and then got tried in India, and it’s working spectacularly well. We’ll just eventually convince people, “Gee, maybe letting people set up hair dressing salons, and going to move to their part of India to work is a good idea.” I think that’s one point. I don’t think the current crisis about populism, left‐​wing or right‐​wing, is permanent, I don’t think it’s, as I said, if Donald Trump isn’t reelected I think we’re going to move, it’s gonna fade, it’s gonna, the air is gonna come out of it.

55:28 Deidre McCloskey: But there’s… But people have been attacking liberalism for a long time. The conservatives have been attacking it for two centuries. The left has been attacking it for a century‐​and‐​a‐​half, basically since 1848. And that’s the real danger because that’s where, that’s where the nightmares of the 20th century came from, is illiberal ideas hatched in the 19th century. I’m fond of saying that the clerisy, as I call it, the writers and blog hosts and so on, had three ideas in the last three centuries. One was liberalism in the 18th century and beyond, which was a spectacularly good idea. The other two were nationalism and socialism, which were terrible ideas. And if you think you like nationalism and socialism, perhaps you’ll like national socialism.

56:40 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, you can find our Free Thoughts discussion group on Facebook or on Reddit at r/​Free Thoughts podcasts. You can follow us on Twitter at Freethoughtspod. As always, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.