Liberalism

Not investment or exploitation or Christianity made us rich

Prof Deirdre McCloskey

Prof Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago discusses the central question “why are we so rich?”

Speaker profile: Prof Deirdre McCloskey

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Economics and of History, and Professor Emerita of English and of Communication, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Trained at Harvard in the 1960s as an economist, she has written twenty books and some four hundred academic articles on economic theory, economic history, philosophy, rhetoric, statistical theory, feminism, ethics, and law.

She taught for twelve years at the University of Chicago in the Economics Department in its glory days, but now describes herself as a “literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, ex-Marxist, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. Not ‘conservative’! I’m a Christian classical liberal.”

Her most recent popular books, for example, are Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All (Yale University Press, 2019) and with Art Carden Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: The Bourgeois Deal (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Also in 2019 the Chicago Press published a third edition of her classic manual on style, Economical Writing, and a 20th-anniversary re-issue of Crossing: A Transgender Memoir, with a new Afterword. But she’s technical and quantitative, too. For example, with Stephen Ziliak in 2008 she wrote The Cult of Statistical Significance, widely praised, which shows that null hypothesis tests of “significance” are, in the absence of a substantive loss function, meaningless. The point, made long before McCloskey by a few statisticians, is becoming widely accepted, for example in the American Statistical Association, though not yet in economics and medicine.

Her latest scholarly book again from the University of Chicago Press, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (2016), was the final volume of the Bourgeois Era trilogy. It argues for an “ideational” explanation of the Great Enrichment of 3,000 percent per person 1800 to the present in places like Britain and Japan and Finland. The accidents of Reformation and Revolt in northwestern Europe 1517–1789 led to a new liberty and dignity for commoners—ideas called “liberalism” in the proper sense—which led in turn to an explosion of commercially tested betterment, “having a go.” The second book in the trilogy, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (2010), had shown that materialist explanations such as saving or exploitation, don’t have enough economic oomph or historical relevance to explain the Enrichment. The alleged explanations that do not focus on the new ideology of “innovism”—her name for the ill-named “capitalism”—are mistaken. And the Enrichment did not corrupt our immortal souls. The inaugural book in the trilogy, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006), had established that, contrary to the clamor since 1848 of the clerisy left and right, the bourgeoisie is pretty good, and that commercially tested betterment is not the worst of ethical schools. In short, the trilogy looks forward, if populism does not spoil the prospect, to a world of universal dignity and prosperity created by liberal innovism.

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