Ben Domenech Interviews Deirdre McCloskey on Inequality, Poverty, And Social Connectedness

Ben Domenech Interviews Deirdre McCloskey on Inequality, Poverty, And Social Connectedness

Here's what economist Deirdre McCloskey had to say about socialism, progressives, and Flint, Michigan.
The Federalist Staff
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Deirdre McCloskey, an American economist, joined the Federalist Radio Hour to discuss inequality, free markets, and the long-time professor’s latest book, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World.

You can read the interview below or listen here.

BD: All right, boys and girls. We are back for another edition of The Federalist Radio Hour. We’re coming to you from the Boyle Studio at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center in Washington, D.C., where our guest for the hour today is Deirdre McCloskey, emerita professor of economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the author of 17 books, and around 400 scholarly pieces on all sorts of different topics. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us in the studio today.

 

DM: Thank you. I was just over at Hillsdale.

 

BD: Oh, yes. Wonderful. At the campus.

 

DM: I was. I was.

 

BD: It’s quite a thriving place.

 

DM: It is.

 

BD: Though it is also a place that is quite conservative, where you are a libertarian yourself.

 

DM: I know, and I was quite struck with three large bronze statues on campus, one of Margaret Thatcher, one of Ronald Reagan, and one of Winston Churchill. These are people I approve of on the whole, but they’re not exactly my people.

 

BD: When it comes to your background, I think people who are familiar with your work now a bit about your history, and your relationship with Milton Freeman, things of that nature. For those listeners who don’t, maybe give them a little bit of a sense of which people you do more than just approve of.

 

DM: I’ve been everything. I’ve been a Marxist, when I was a kid, a Joan Baez Marxist. I’m fond of saying that in 1961, Bernie Sanders and I had exactly the same opinions. It’s just that he hasn’t changed his since then. I was kind of a Harvard-trained social engineer, and then I was a graduate student. I drifted towards free market views, and then I was for 12 years on the faculty and economics at the University of Chicago, became a Chicago school economist. Later on, slowly, I got interested in Austrian economics. It’s like my favorite comedian, May West, who said, “I was Snow White, but I drifted.”

 

BD: You have been writing vociferously of late in the past couple of years about the issue of inequality, which is something that the American Left, the European Left, has pushed dramatically over the course of the past couple of years as an issue that needs to be at the center of our public discussion. You have been one of the people pushing consistently back against their theories on this case. What is your chief argument against what they have to say, and what do you view as the chief errors that they make?

 

DM: The chief error sort of philosophically, is a category mistake, as the philosophers say. We choose to worry about inequality instead of poverty, and people are deeply mixed up about this. They think, “We’re gonna fight inequality and poverty.” You can’t fight inequality, in a sense. Some of us are taller than others. Some are smarter. Some can throw a baseball harder than others, and we don’t want to make everyone equal by cutting off the hand of Sandy Koufax or something. That’ll make Sandy Koufax the equal to people of his generation throwing a baseball, but that’s not what we want. What we want is people to be better off, and indeed what I want, and have always wanted … That’s why I got into economics and why I was originally on the Left, is that I want the poor to be better off.

What I gradually realized in my study of economics that is the best with making the poor better off is making the economy work better, and then I gradually figured out that the way to let it work better is to leave people alone, not to have policies, industrial policies, and so on. That’s one error that’s fundamental. There’s a factual error, so to speak, or you could call it an accounting error, which is, what’s inequality? You can talk about inequality of financial wealth. There are a bunch of people, Liliane Bettencourt, whom [inaudible 00:04:54] hate so much, the heiress to the L’Oreal fortune. She has six yachts. How terrible. She has a bunch of financial assets that she doesn’t do anything with. It just sits there.

I don’t care how many yachts she has. Her yachts don’t make anyone poor. They just don’t. It’s, I think, a stupid way of spending your money. They should give it to deserving Emerita professors like me. There’s that financial wealth, and then there’s income inequality, which is less unequal than the financial equality. There’s consumption inequality, which is less unequal than the income inequality. You can only put on one set of trousers at a time, but you have 100 wool slacks in your closet is wonderful, but it’s not … The jump from zero trousers to one is much more important than the one from six to 600. You can talk about essential consumption, or important consumption. Reasonable health care, reasonable access to education, a roof over your head, adequate food, the ability to enjoy the national parks, or to travel or something. That last category is the only ethically important one.

It’s become more equal, not less, even over the last 20 years, and certainly over the last couple hundred years. The equality of essential consumption has dramatically improved.

 

BD: That’s the kind of story, though, that seems to be absent a lot of these days from the conversation that we see certainly within the political fray.

 

DM: You’re telling me.

 

BD: That has to be frustrating for you to witness, given the fundamental mistake at the heart of that type of message.

 

DM: It’s very frustrating, because it’s a kind of foolishness of pessimism. There have been a lot of pessimistic books recently. My friend Bob Gordon wrote a book on the end of innovation in the United States, as did another friend, Tanner Cohen, another economist. People seem to like to hear that the sky is falling. I don’t get it. I’m kind of an optimist, and I don’t get why they don’t actually look at the numbers, and see as Boudreaux’s shown over and over again that it costs 80% less to buy a refrigerator, in terms of hours of work, than it did 30 years ago. 80% less.

 

BD: This is the thing that is interesting to me about the phenomenon. On the Left and on the Right, you see candidates prevailing, or at least doing very well being in the competitive race, who have both essentially offered a different response to frustrations with globalization.

Either the Trump, “I will make better deals for you” promise, or the Sanders, “I’ll use the power of government to take care of you and redistribute more to you.” Both essentially seem to be about throwing the brakes on globalization and going back to a very different world.

 

DM: It’s a disaster. It’s a terrible idea.

 

BD: Why do you think it is that it’s so difficult for the other view, the view that you presumably have, and that other people who have your shared optimistic view about the economic growth that we’ve experienced, and the benefits of that experience, why are they so incapable of making the case for it at odds with those?

 

DM: It’s the old Bastiat point from middle of the 19th century, the seen and the unseen. When a factory closes, there’s an article in the newspaper saying, “3,000 people lost their job,” and it looks pretty obvious that well, it’s those damn Chinese, or Mexicans, or something. Actually, by the way, when a factory closes, mostly it’s because other Americans have gotten those jobs, because 90% of American national income is trading with other Americans. To blame it on foreigners is just kind of loony to start out with. What they don’t see is that that flexibility, which is unusually high in the United States compared with many other rich countries, is why dynamics of our economy is so much better. Yes, they loose the present job, but they get other jobs.

Look, people are moving out of North Dakota like mad right now. That’s because the Bakken oil and gas fields are expensive to drill in. If the price of oil goes up, people go back to North Dakota. If as a government policy, industrial policy, you’re going to say, “We’re gonna subsidize those people on the Bakken oil fields, because that’s a good thing,” then of course national income per head will go down. If you work on it hard enough, as France does, you can subsidize people for the rest of their lives, and they’ll never move out of bad jobs.

 

BD: You have a piece in the March edition of Prospect Magazine, entitled, “The Economic Sky Will Not Fall,” in which you go through a litany of the people, including Lawrence Summers, Edward McPhee, Edmond Phelps, Geoffrey Sachs, Laurence Kotlikoff, Tyler Calhoun, and Robert Gordon all sounding these pessimistic views about the direction things are headed. Yet, when you look at how much better off we were than we were in the past, it seems clear that the numbers tell really one story, that it is a story that has some negative aspects that people could look at, but it also is one where we really are much better off. Why do you think so many people are held by the appeal of this nostalgia to the idea that we were better off 30 years ago?

 

DM: We’re all nostalgic about our childhood. We all think, “Oh, those wond … ” I grew up in the 1950s as a teenager. “Oh, those wonderful days of the 1950s, when they were still lynching people in the South, and when there were three and a half car companies you could buy from because there was protection of automobiles, and when people had factory jobs which robbed them of their other dignity.” There is this human nostalgia, just means in Greek, “Homecoming pain,” but aside from that, they got the numbers wrong, and it’s particularly irritating in Bob Gordon’s case, because Bob was on a commission in the early ’90s called the Boskin Commission, which looked into the Consumer Price Index. The conclusion of the Boskin Commission, quite appropriately, was that quality improvement reduces the real price of goods in some services by 1% a year.

I was speaking to the head of the Consumer Price Index a couple of weeks ago, and I said to her, “Haven’t you absorbed the message of the Boskin Commission?” That’s where these official numbers that you see on the TV all the time are from. She said, “Yeah, but it’s very hard. It’s hard to correct for quality,” so she hasn’t done it. It’s not really her fault. It’s that economists haven’t insisted on getting it right.

 

BD: You quote in your piece from Macaulay, “On what principle is it that when we see nothing but betterment behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration for us?”

 

DM: Thomas Babington Macaulay, the great early Victorian liberal. He’s my guy.

 

BD: He is excellent. There is a tendency right now to say that the sky is falling.

 

DM: Yeah.

 

BD: What you actually see, it seems like to me, and you can correct me if I am wrong about this, is the economic downturn, the financial crisis, had a significant negative effect.

 

DM: Yeah.

 

BD: That effect was essentially one that saw wages for some people not grow at the rate that they had previously, and that they have been too stagnant, or that they just have not increased. At the same time, that some of the goods that they view as being essential to, say, the American middle class experience of home ownership, of healthcare, and of higher education, sending their kids to college, that they see those prices going up generally, depending on where you live, and that they see their wages not keeping basically, with this. That is really more of the accurate story about frustration, not one of a vast hollowing out of the American middle class, or something like that.

 

DM: Yeah. The vast hollowing out story is simply nonsense. If you look at the number, seriously, you find that what’s happened is a lot of people have moved from, say, the lower middle class to the upper middle class. If you follow them family by family, you find that’s the history, and we’re supposed to be upset by that? Wait a second. There’s a smaller lower middle class is not a catastrophe. It’s a good thing. Yeah. Ordinary people are not good at constructing price indexes. I think it’s fair to say that.

 

BD: Yes. Yes.

 

DM: For example, I am very sensitive to the price of books, and if books go up in price, I feel myself to be injured. Yeah. You’re right. College costs, which is a concern mainly for the middle class, and health costs, which is a concern, again, mainly for the middle class, because the poor get healthcare, the old get healthcare, the rich get healthcare paid, because they can just do it.
It’s the middle class that gets pinched.

 

BD: Yes, and continues to get pinched, because they’re the ones the insurers can actually go after, given the chance.

 

DM: Sure. Of course, because you can’t get any money from the poor people. That’s the point.

I think that’s appropriate. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing. I could say, like a professor, “You’re not thinking clearly,” but you’re perfectly right. They can feel it on their pulse, and it irritates them. It’s worth point out, though, that the Great Recession was not very great. Within two years, world income had gone back to its pre-crisis … World real income had gone back to its pre-crisis level. Two years. That’s because China and India were growing like mad right through it. That’s another problem with this pessimism, because all those books that you mentioned are about the United States. My editor at Chicago says, “Look, if you want to sell books, you have to have the word ‘America’ in the title.” I haven’t ever learned that.

What I’ve learned is that if you take a international perspective, there’s no reason to expect innovation to slow down, because we’re about to see a gi … We’re seeing it already, coming online a gigantic number of Chinese, Indian, and other engineers, and inventors, and entrepreneurs.

 

BD: You have been writing a series of books that deal with bourgeois everything, okay, in terms of that era.

 

DM: Yes. The bourgeois era, I call it.

 

BD: You have written three out of four?

 

DM: I have. No, no. Actually three out of three.

 

BD: Three out of three. Okay.

 

DM: The third one is very thick, because I crammed everything into it.

 

BD: Yeah. I noticed that. What was it about this era that drew you to write about it?

 

DM: The bourgeoisie, the middle class, the urban middle class, from about 1848 on, became the enemies of the so-called clerisy, as I call it, the intellectuals and artists. We all know this. The rise of socialism as an idea in the late 19th century was part of this, and it was all about thinking that the problem was private property, and the problem was the bourgeoisie. Marxism is just a more formal version of this. As I explained earlier, I’ve gone from being a Marxist to being an anti-Marxist, and so it was very natural to rise up to defend the bourgeoisie against the calumnies of the Left, and indeed some of the Right. One of the conservative point against capitalism is often that it’s too disruptive, and that it’s vulgar, both of which are, I think are wrong. True and false at the same time.

 

BD: It’s an interesting era for all sorts of different reasons, and you can tug at various threads, and see a lot of different comparisons to our culture today.

 

DM: Yeah.

 

BD: What are some of the lessons that we can draw out of your work writing about this era, that could maybe be applied to the current American situation?

 

DM: The crucial point is that from 1800 to the present, world income has increased by a factor of ten, in real terms. In countries like the United States, or Japan, or France, which adopted markets and liberal ideas in the old sense of the world, it’s more like a factor of 30. If you allow for quality change, which I spoke of earlier, it’s more like … Listen to this. It’s more like a factor in real terms of 100. Your ancestors and mine, or let’s do it the other way. You and I are 100 times better off than great great great great great great great great great great grandparents. If you actually know the economic history, you know that this is true, that there’s nothing speculative about it. Although there is this problem that you mentioned earlier of nostalgia, and painting the gold old old days as through rose-colored glasses, it’s not true. The good old days were terrible. Half the population died before age 15. You and I probably wouldn’t exist in such a society. People actually starved to death, and so on and so forth.

Now we don’t do that. Now we’re way, way ahead of it, and the scope of a modern life is dramatically larger. Why is that? Because the attitude towards the bourgeoisie changed. It’s not so much that the bourgeoisie got, I don’t know, better or smarter. It’s that the rest of the society stopped attacking them.

That liberal idea in the old sense of the word is what made the modern world, the idea of equality before the law, and equality of social standing. Not equality of result. That’s a different matter.

 

BD: There is, as you said, the problem of nostalgia, the inaccuracy of that. It seems to me that there is this animating element that is now taken over a good portion of the American Right, that did not exist to the degree that I perhaps thought about before, or perhaps it always has existed, and simply never had someone to give it the kind of voice who could take over the Republican Party and become its nominee of this idea that, immigrants and robots are going to take your jobs.

 

DM: Oy vey.

 

BD: That you require a strong man to look out to your defense.

 

DM: Absolutely.

 

BD: Who will use the power of government to prevent this. That’s something that from my perspective, didn’t have a lot of truck in the Right.

 

DM: No, it didn’t.

 

BD: There was a portion that thought that, but there’s always been that kind of economically populist disaffected portion. They’re not as active in typically voting, and so it surprises me to hear what I thought of, perhaps, as either reasonable people, or at least ideologically conservative people speak in these terms about the threats of robots and immigrants taking people’s jobs.

 

DM: Yeah, and both of those propositions are economic nonsense, but again, it’s the seen and the unseen.
You lose your job to Mexican competition, or you lose your job to automation, and they don’t see that the society as a whole is raised up by this activity.

 

BD: What is it that we, for any of us who are in favor of limited government, who don’t believe that it ought to be engaging in this kind of invasion into the marketplace, or into the behavior of free people exchanging with each other, that what is the case that we can make to the people who have those fears, given that it seems to be a much larger portion of the population than we might’ve expected a few years ago?

 

DM: The trouble is, you can’t expect a large part of the population to get behind the scene. The correct way to argue it is that Juan Valdez trading with us from Columbia is the same as Juan Valdez trading with us next door. If you believe in free trade, as Donald Trump does not, but if you believe in free trade in goods, then free trade in people is just, it’s not the next step. It’s the same step, so that’s the sophisticated economic argument. The historical argument, of course, is that comparatively very free migration, although there were limitations in the 19th century, and very free substitution of machines for labor in the 20th century especially, caused income in the countries that did it to rise by a factor of 30. 2900%, conservatively measured.

You can make those arguments, and I try to make them in my book. One way I do the protection argument with my undergraduates is to say, “Look, oh, I see. We should protect ourselves against foreign competition? Oh, yeah. Uh-huh. Okay. Let’s close down Chicago to the rest of the world. Let’s close down UIC to the rest of the world, and that’ll make us better off, because then we’ll have more jobs to do.”

 

BD: It’s the kind of argument that you can make until you’re blue in the face.

 

DM: No one will believe it.

 

BD: It is amazing how few people believe it.

I want to go back to Macaulay again, just because when we were talking about him early, brought this one back to mind. “Our rulers will best promote the improvement of the nation by strictly confining themselves to their own legitimate duties, by leaving capital to find its most lucrative course, commodities their fair price, industry and intelligence their natural reward, idleness and folly their natural punishment by maintaining piece, by defending property, by diminishing the price of law, and observing strict economy in every department of the state. Let the government do this, the people will assuredly do the rest.”

 

DM: That’s right, and that’s the great message of the 19th century. That’s the great conclusion of the actual economic experiment of the 19th century. When you reduced mercantilism, and protectionism, and let … As most people don’t know, until the First World War, free countries didn’t have passports, so you could walk into Britain, or France, or the United States, or Canada anytime you wanted to, and no one would stop you. What we discovered is that if you leave people alone, and you honor them, you don’t enslave, you don’t push them around, so they’re equal before the law and equal in social dignity, they’re immensely creative. They don’t get immiserized, as the Left says. They don’t go off wildly, as the Right says. Thomas Carlisle approved of slavery, because these poor darkies couldn’t possibly survive by themselves. Yet, if you let the poor darkies have a life, have an economic life for themselves, they create immense, new powers of production, artistic improvements, scientific improvements.

That was the discovery, and all the other discoveries, nationalism, socialism, and if you like those two, national socialism, were disasters.

 

BD: The problem here, of course, is one that we alluded to earlier, which is that it’s very difficult to convince people about the unseen. Is the reason you think for this primarily one of education, and inaccurate knowledge of history, or economics?

 

DM: I’m in the business. So are you, of trying to educate people, and trying to say, “Look, maybe you should rethink that.” As you said before, I’m not sure it works very well. What we ought to do, whether we’re conservatives or libertarians, believe in a free society, I think one tactical move we could make, and we don’t make it enough, is to say, our main principle is to help the poorest people in the society. We should be shouting this from the mountaintops all the time, because we’ve let the Left get away with taking that message. Oh, the people on the Left are so nice. They want to use the monopoly of violence of the state to force people to be better off, which on its face, is a crazy program. I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.

If we were to stop the argument that we’re pro-business … Of course, that’s a silly argument, because business only prospers if it sells stuff to people voluntarily. Being pro-business is to be pro-consumer, but that’s too complicated. That’s the unseen. We could say, and we could make a good case for it, that our policies are for poor people. Take the case of the minimum wage. Of course, we have to get people to understand this, but youth unemployment is a gigantic problem worldwide because of minimum wages, because of professional license laws, because of hack medallions, because of all the ways the government intervenes to stop what Macaulay said, the free movement of ideas and people that makes for prosperity.

We should point out, every chance we get, that our policies enrich poor people. Let’s take the case of automation, that you mentioned. Robots. What people don’t grasp is that robots are tools. That’s all they are. There’s a story about Milton Freeman going to China, and he was shown a project, a construction project. The Communist Party Official was proudly saying, “Look at how much employment we have here.” Milton said, “Well, why don’t you do this with steam shovels?” The guy said, “But look. See all the employment? Everyone is a shovel.” He said, “Oh. I see. Okay. Here’s how to increase employment. Take away their shovels and give them spoons.” Tools are tools. Calling them robots, it just comes from the check, doesn’t help the analysis.

 

BD: Yes. There’s something else there, too, that I feel is a difficult cultural barrier within this space. Charles Murray has obviously written at length about the decline of social connectedness among the white working class.

The thing he generally depicts is of kind of an atomized culture, one where people have less relationships with each other. In fact, Michael Barone has done an overlay of where Trump succeeds the best and where he runs into the most problems, and he makes the argument that the difference between certain communities … He looked at communities in Michigan, communities in Wisconsin, the different between areas where you had tightly knit Dutch and German communities, or tightly knit Mormon communities in Utah or out west, that there, Trump performed the worst, that he cannot win those voters, because they view themselves as, in perhaps more optimistic terms, or perhaps they feel more connectedness to each other.

I wonder if you think that this is about, perhaps on some level, less about economics, and more about a cultural sense of fear or apprehension on the part of white, working class people.

 

DM: That may be in that generation, white, working class, older people, but these claims of alienation have been made now for … Actually, it’s an ancient, poetic trope that the city is alienating, that people don’t have the wonderful connections they had when they were out in the countryside. This is just a version of the pastoral, as the English professors say. That Charles Murray is making it alarms me very much.

 

BD: Really.

 

DM: Oh, yeah, because it’s the guy … I always forget his name for some reason, but the guy who wrote Bowling Alone.

 

BD: Yes. Robert Putnam.

 

DM: Robert Putnam. This is Putnam’s stick, and it’s everyone’s stick since the Hellenistic poets. There’s a deep silenus about it. Young people are more connected with each other than they’ve ever been. They go with Bernie, unfortunately, and there’s a fair number of young people at The Donald’s rallies, but the young people, it’s very striking.

They don’t feel disconnected, and it’s the problem of, again, it’s the seen and the unseen. You have to do the accounting right. You’ve got to make sure you’re not missing some form of connectedness that’s new, that is actually improving connectedness. I agree that in that age group, white, 30 to 50 year olds, they may be feeling alienated, which case they should go join the Episcopal Church, in my opinion.

 

BD: It is an interesting debate, and I think it’s a difficult measure to use when it comes to the lack of ability to measure the impact of the Internet. I do wonder if one of the reasons these things are so deep seeded is more of a cultural bias toward anxiousness, than an actual economic proof of anxiousness.

 

DM: Absolutely. That’s the pessimism. If you keep saying the sky is falling, people start believing it. They say, “Oh, yeah. I noticed the sky is falling.”

 

BD: What made you interested in economics to begin with?

 

DM: Helping the poor. Like every middle class kid who learns that there are poor people, I was appalled. Of course, my first instinct was to say, “Well, let’s open daddy’s wallet,” and that’s the socialist impulse. It’s not dishonorable. We’re all raised in families, and when we discover there are all these poor people who are miserable, we think, “Well, god. Let’s bring the family to them.” In Sweden in the 1920s, the phrase was, “The national home,” and has continued to be a dominant metaphor in Swedish politics ever since. A family is a socialist enterprise. It’s got a central planner, Mom. Income mysteriously appears, like manna from heaven, and unless Dad’s a coal miner and needs more calories, everyone gets the same amount. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need is how families work. It just doesn’t work for the great society.

 

BD: You learned that over the course of the years. You did not come to that realization.

 

DM: Slowly, slowly.

 

BD: What were the key moments that convinced you that opening daddy’s wallet, the promise of free things, manna from heaven, was not something that would actually solve these problems?

 

DM: It really took me a long time. I’m not one of nature’s economists. I have lots of friends of economics who were natural economists from the time that they were little. If you grow up on a farm, or in a small business, a shop or something where you work as a kid, then you understand this early on. When I taught at the University of Iowa, some of my students were farm kids. Not too many, but some, and I noticed that they understood economics immediately, because they had done it. If you’re the child of a Harvard professor, as I was, you have no idea where product of your income comes from. You need to learn it, and it took me a long time.

 

BD: You came to that realization, and have obviously been writing about these issues in a lot of different respect over the course of the years. You’ve produced an enormous amount of work, which can be found at your website, dierdremccloskey.org.

 

DM: Yes, it can. Please, please go. A lot of it’s there.

 

BD: There you also have links to all sorts of other material that you’ve written about. You had a piece recently on Irish, and English, and American poets, Learn Your Trade: Law, and Economics, and Poetry.

 

DM: Yeah.

 

BD: I’m curious as to what your view is of economics and poetry. It’s two things that people don’t normally connect.

 

DM: That’s what the piece was about. I don’t think it’s the greatest essay I’ve ever written, but it’s kind of fun, and it was fun for me to think about it. I talked about Yates, as one version of this, and Yates had this nostalgia we talked about before, of the old Ireland, of the Anglo-Irish dominance, in fact, and the country gentlemen, and the Irish peasants, and how wonderful it was. He didn’t like the modern world. Whereas Robert Frost, the American poet, is an unusually economistic poet, and talked constantly about the economy, like Dana Gioia, a guest of yours, does. That was the only point of the essay, was to say, “Look, why is this?” This part of our life, work, trade, which is immensely large, we don’t devote much poetic thinking to. Frost did. Yates didn’t, except to say, “Yuck.”

This is very strange, because we devote immense bodies of poetry to love, and war, and going to sea, and nature, walking in nature, and how wonderful all that is, and then we don’t spend any time on the economy and work.

 

BD: It is an interesting point. You, in this series on the bourgeoisie, on the bourgeois era, you go through a number of different points. Your first book is about ethics of foreign age of commerce, is the subtitle, and that basically on the whole, despite the views of the clerisy at the time, that the middle class was essentially good. In the second book, Bourgeois Dignity why economics can explain the modern world, you talk about the transitional effects of things that were going on there, and that it was not just the usually understood material causes that led to these rise.

 

DM: Exactly, so economics, in the materialist sense, cannot explain the modern world, how rich we got.

 

BD: This final volume, Bourgeois Equality, how ideas, not capital or institutions enriched the world, is basically a defense of, would you say, a particular liberal in the old view vision of things as being the key driving force behind this improvement in the world.

 

DM: Yes, and it took me a long time. I’m a slow thinker, and I don’t get it right the first time, and I have to keep coming back to it. I’d like to have changed the title, but it was too late when I finally figured this out about three months ago. I’d like to have changed the title of the third volume to Bourgeois Equality, how liberal ideas, not capital or institutions, enriched the world. This would kind of shock people, because at least Americans especially, because they have this peculiar understanding of the word. No one else does, but the Americans do. I think it is this idea of equality. That’s the point of calling it bourgeois equality. Equality before the law, and equality of social standing, that encourages people, masses of people, to have a go.

 

BD: You are a Libertarian.

 

DM: I am.

 

BD: You hold these views. Do you think that there’s any possibility, given the context of the times, and the fact that liberals no longer really call themselves liberals.

 

DM: They’re progressives.

 

BD: They call themselves progressives, or socialists.

 

DM: You got to seize back the word, quickly.

 

BD: That is what I was actually going to ask.

 

DM: Absolutely.This is our chance. Quickly, quickly! Before it’s too late. No, absolutely. This is our hour. We’ve got to grab the word, and again, I want to say that we should grab the word for the poorest among us. The great events of China, the most important events of the last 40 years economically, have not been the Great Recession, or Reaganism, or something. The most important events have been economic growth in China and India, and they came from adopting liberal ideas. China is hardly a liberal polity, and they’re going to have to figure some way to get off riding the tiger, that is the Communist Part is. India is a functioning democracy, with a problem of castes, but still, they’re getting around it. Modi is not a high caste person.

My argument would be much more difficult to make if this most important, late 20th century event hadn’t happened, which is the fantastic growth of income in India and China. They’re still very poor countries, both of them. They’re still well below the world average, for example. China, which we’re always saying, “Oh, competition with China. Oh,” and then this amazing remark that Donald Trump made, that the United States is now a poor country. We’re still the richest large country in the world, and we have been for a century and a half. I’ve lost track of your question. I’m sorry. What was it again?

 

BD: No, that’s fine. It was simply that within the context of your books, and all you’re writing about this, I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the difference, maybe, between making a case for the liberal case, for the poorest among us, that is based on perhaps what is unseen. You talked about seen and unseen. It’s easier, and Bill Voegeli from Claremont wrote an entire book, The Pity Party, about the danger of the motivation within our current politics to deal with every problem through the redistribution of funds.

 

DM: I know. It’s a disaster.

 

BD: What that does is it makes the people who favor that redistribution feel better, because they feel that they have a solution to the problem.

 

DM: Yeah. I know. They feel better over their second cappuccino, as they turn the pages of the New York Times. It makes the feel so good.

 

BD: Yes, but the problem of course is not actually dealt with.

 

DM: No, it’s not.

 

BD: That it endures, and it actually, it can mestacisize.

 

DM: It’s worse.

 

BD: Because you have now whole bureaucracies that are invested in the idea of continuing their fortune.

 

DM: I know. We’re in Washington, D.C.

 

BD: Yes. You see the cranes outside. More cranes in this city than-

 

DM: Yes. I see the people outside, and it depresses me every time I come here.

 

BD: I guess my question for you is, how can we smash that? How can we change that dynamic?

 

DM: I call myself a Christian Libertarian, and maybe I’m going to change my self-description to a pro-poor liberal, to seize back the word, because I think that’s the best strategy. That’s the strategy, or tactics, however you look at it. It’s the truth, that if we pity the poor, all we do is subordinate them, and make them childlike. My friends like Bob Frank, who talk about nudging. They call it paternalistic libertarianism, and I say to Bob, “Geez, Bob. Stop it.” That’s like-

 

BD: You can’t do that.

 

DM: You can’t do that. This isn’t going to work. You’re not treating people as adults. You’re not treating them as … You’re saying, “Oh, I know better. I’m gonna help you out here,” and as you said, and as he said, and as everyone that’s looked into this seriously says, that’s complete demoralizing, and ruins poor people. The way to help poor people is to treat them with dignity. There’s a famous book by James Agee and Walker Evans, 1941 or so, called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It’s an eloquent inquiry into white cotton sharecroppers in a particular town in the South, and how terribly poor they were. Walker Evans did the photographs, and Agee, who was a wonderful stylist, actually wrote it for Fortune Magazine, which is quite surprising.

A journalist went down there not too long ago, to this same group of families, and asked them how they felt about this book, and they all hated it. Indeed, the descendants of these unspeakably poor sharecroppers were doing pretty well, thank you very much. Some of their grandchildren had been to college. The objectification, the pity, oh, the pity of it, which makes, I have to say, the clerisy feel better, didn’t help them at all. What helped them was their own enterprise, and their own ability in a free economy to eventually get out of … Actually, go back to our point about tools and automation. What ended sharecropping poverty in the South was the automatic cotton picker. You don’t do it by hand anymore, and so it was that invention that allowed southern agriculture to become the extremely small enterprise it is now, and people moved to Memphis and Mobile, and did better.

 

BD: The argument that has taken place among a number of right wing intellectuals and writers over the course of the past couple of months that I’ve found to be interesting to watch, which has included people like Kevin Williamson and Nash Mooreview, Michael Daugherty at The Week, others who have been writing about this, has basically been an argument about what type of agenda should the Right offer to the poor and the working class.

 

DM: I got an agenda.

 

BD: I would like to hear yours. The general attitude, there’s been in clashes at various points, particularly I think to a point that Kevin Williamson has made a couple of times, which is, his basic argument is, “Get a U-Haul.”

 

DM: Yeah. Move.

 

BD: You are in this community, but this community no longer has a job for you. There are other places that have jobs. You must move to a job.

 

DM: Get out of Flint, Michigan.

 

BD: Yeah. Exactly. There’s been a lot of push back to that, basically saying, “Well, that’s like an anti- … You want to have this community crumble, and you’re anti-Burkean,” and things of that nature.

 

DM: Actually, I do want Flint to crumble.

It’s how Americans and Europeans and … Look. The largest migration in human history, 200 million people in the space of about 20 years, just happened in China. They moved from Two Dragons Village to Shanghai, and the result was an enormous improvement of their welfare. Even though in Shanghai, and other cities, the names of which I can’t keep in mind, they were working at what looked to us like terrible jobs in textile mills. They viewed the jobs as a great improvement, and so this flexibility, this ability to get a U-Haul, I admire it very much. One of the absurdities of the anti-immigrant movement is, of course, that except for the Native Americans, we’re all …Except for the Cherokee junior senator from Massachusetts, we’re all immigrants. The tremendous courage of my Irish, and Norwegian, and English ancestors coming to this country is so admirable, and in a free society, it turned out to be beneficial for us all that they moved.

 

BD: There’s that natural opposition to it, because wanting to remain in place, and thinking of the virtues of that …

 

DM: I know.

 

BD: The simple fact is that industries die. Cities change.

 

DM: A spectacular example of this is in northwestern France, which once had a shipbuilding industry, and the shipbuilding industry moved to Finland or something. Now it’s even gone to India. The French government, in its inevitable style … Henry Kissinger once said that France is the only successful Communist country … Subsidized people to stay in northwestern France. They should’ve moved. They should’ve moved to Paris, or Marseille. Whole generations they would keep, and this is … Look, if we all stay in the same jobs, protected, and never changed where we lived, then we’d all be down at the 1800 average of $3 a day, and we wouldn’t be happy, contrary to the nostalgia that so many people who wouldn’t think of living in an agricultural village have.

 

BD: Deirdre McCloskey is emerita professor of economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her most recent book is “A Bourgeois Equality.” Thank you so much for being so generous with your time today.

 

DM: Thank you very much. It’s been fun, Ben.

 

BD: I’m Ben Domenech. You’ve been listening to another edition of The Federalist Radio Hour. We’ll be back tomorrow with more. Until then, be lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray.

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