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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Deirdre McCloskey: Max U, the Virtues and Imprudent Communitarians

What if I told you that most libertarians, especially economists, work under a spell cast more than 200 years ago by Jeremy Bentham? Now, I do admire Bentham. When I was in graduate school in London, I used to visit the old case at University College displaying his bones and rub it, as if these were a fetish-in-a-box. Maybe that’s where I too came under Bentham’s spell. And for many, “the greatest good for the greatest number” lingers in our minds like incense in the sanctuary.

We libertarians can get weary of talking rights talk, though—particularly when we’re arguing with someone who doesn’t care much for rights. When there is a consequentialist case to be made, we find we can be more persuasive. In other words: What about the incentives? The institutions? The unintended consequences? Wouldn’t we all be “better off” under X policy? Get the rules right and then Hong Kongs will sprout up everywhere. Civil society will take care of the rest. And so on.

I have long thought such notions were central to our worldview. And maybe they are. The idea of rights in some Kantian sense (we’re ends ourselves), or rights in some Lockean sense (we’re God’s special creations) might not resonate with the people who write the bills and pay the police. So we’d better at least be conversant in the language of Bentham. After all, the statists too are often under Bentham’s spell.

But since I have become more interested in the work of Deirdre McCloskey, I’ve come to temper my enthusiasm for always arguing about wellbeing. To sit down and talk for a bit with Professor McCloskey is to ask oneself if there might be more to our moral universe than utility maximization—whether for you, for me or for “society.”

Even greats like Mises have been under Bentham’s spell. Human Action is chock full of references to utility and Mises describes a kind of continuous, solipsistic rat-race to maximize it from one moment to the next. Methodological individualism—even rooted in subjective value—is a rather narrow sort of means-ends thinking. It’s great. It’s important. And we should respect it. I’m not trying to throw out the proverbial baby. I’m suggesting that life may also be about Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow,” for example.

We should ask ourselves: has the Benthamite tradition caused much of humanity to erase some of the invisible structures of life—a latticework of humanity beyond preference functions—which also help make the world turn? And is too much of the classical liberal tradition an ongoing effort to reduce and to collapse everything into the virtue of prudence? In short, are we libertarians trapped in the Enlightenment?

McCloskey thinks we ought to join Alastair MacIntyre and others in rediscovering the virtues—freestanding, but interconnected moral spheres of human existence, some of which we get through “transcendence.” Admittedly, I have a hard time with the idea of transcendence. But I have gotten a little closer by degrees, perhaps as I have sought to appreciate the rational mysticism of Leonard Read, not to mention reorienting my thinking in light of The Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity. (Not to mention being a dad.)

In my exchange with Professor McCloskey, we wrestle with these questions a little.

To be in her presence (however virtually), I sensed she is very much the caring sort. Her mien is one of an intellectual nurturer, which I guess is her calling. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t recommend saying anything dumb—as I did, for example, in our email correspondence leading up to this video interview. She will correct you and send you back to the books before you can spell b-o-u-r-g-e-o-i-s.

And she’s done just that with far more talented and famous people.

I felt a little bad for rock-star philosopher Michael Sandel, for example, after McCloskey wrote a blog review of Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy. In my sit-down with her embedded above, she mentions that article in passing (as Alexander might have mentioned that guy Darius in November of 331 B.C.). That is to say McCloskey had given Sandel a good walloping, despite his size and stature in the intellectual salon.

Consider this sliver from that piece:

Sandel is not untutored. He knows such [pro-market] arguments, I imagine, and anyway they are not rocket science. Perhaps he tells them to the kids in the fifth week of his course. I hope so. But in the present book, the better to cast doubt on a neo-liberalism he detests, he has chosen not to reveal the other side, and to rely instead on a non-philosophical notion of schoolyard fairness as a First Principle. It is as though he has contempt for the common reader, and is unwilling to assume that she could adjudicate the serious arguments, pro and con, if they were presented.


A nurturing mother can brandish a large wooden spoon when the kids get out of line. Despite her self-description as a “small-d democrat” and libertarian Christian, McCloskey will tan your hide if you come with any New York Times sanctimony and talk down to capitalism.

In what some have called “the greatest blog post ever written,” she writes:

No. The master narrative of High Liberalism is mistaken factually. Externalities do not imply that a government can do better. Publicity does better than inspectors in restraining the alleged desire of businesspeople to poison their customers. Efficiency is not the chief merit of a market economy: innovation is. Rules arose in merchant courts and Quaker fixed prices long before governments started enforcing them.

I know such replies will be met with indignation. But think it possible you may be mistaken, and that merely because an historical or economic premise is embedded in front page stories in the New York Times does not make them sound as social science. It seems to me that a political philosophy based on fairy tales about what happened in history or what humans are like is going to be less than useless. It is going to be mischievous.

How do I know that my narrative is better than yours? The experiments of the 20th century told me so. It would have been hard to know the wisdom of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman or Matt Ridley or Deirdre McCloskey in August of 1914, before the experiments in large government were well begun. But anyone who after the 20th century still thinks that thoroughgoing socialism, nationalism, imperialism, mobilization, central planning, regulation, zoning, price controls, tax policy, labor unions, business cartels, government spending, intrusive policing, adventurism in foreign policy, faith in entangling religion and politics, or most of the other thoroughgoing 19th-century proposals for governmental action are still neat, harmless ideas for improving our lives is not paying attention.

And despite the fact that our Austrian brethren might agree with every one those thoughts, we should be warned: Professor McCloskey is not wild about some of the “just so” stories that have come out of our tradition.

McCloskey demands that we look at the evidence and at history. Floating abstracts and a priorism set down as if by an oracle will not always suffice if we are prepared to accept that humanity is a strange, warty species with an elaborate past. And we should not be angry that she’s willing to correct some of our heroes as she would our critics. We should be thankful. Dierdre McCloskey is one of those sui generis wonders of the intellect who makes us better libertarians, whether or not we agree with everything she says. Those who can fully articulate why they disagree with her will have achieved something rare—they will have improved themselves.

In any case, doing this interview with Professor McCloskey was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. And I’m happy to share it with you.

(Watch Part Two, Part Three and Part Four of the Superwealth Interviews.)

  • Max Borders is author of The Social Singularity. He is also the founder and Executive Director of Social Evolution—a non-profit organization dedicated to liberating humanity through innovation. Max is also co-founder of the Voice & Exit event and former editor at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Max is a futurist, a theorist, a published author and an entrepreneur.