All Commentary
Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Great Deirdre McCloskey

Please join me in wishing Professor McCloskey a very happy birthday and for many many more productive, creative, and happy years ahead.

September 11 was the birthday of one of the clearest and most humane voices for sound economics, liberal political economy and a champion of civil and respectful discourse on the most vexing issues social cooperation among beautifully diverse and dispersed individuals.  Her vision is of a society of free and responsible individuals who live in caring communities and can prosper in a vibrant and dynamic market economy.  It is an inspiring vision, not trying to capture past glory for a dead tradition, but to breathe new life and new direction for ideas that were never fully realized by all and need to be championed anew by each generation in creative and constructive ways.

Many years ago she published a wonderful collection How to Be Human Though an Economist which I highly recommend, and which I reviewed very favorably in the now-defunct Humane Studies Review for the Institute for Humane Studies.  The important point to always remember is that liberalism is liberal, it is a vision of a system that exhibits neither discrimination nor dominion, it promises to break all bonds of oppression, it unleashes the creative powers of a free civilization, it is a doctrine of freedom of thought, freedom of association, freedom of contract, and peaceful relationships among all.

In the classic restatement of liberalism in the early 20th century, Ludwig von Mises summed up the vision as follows:

The goal of the domestic policy of liberalism is the same as that of its foreign policy: peace. It aims at peaceful cooperation just as much between nations as within each nation. The starting point of liberal thought is the recognition of the value and importance of human cooperation, and the whole policy and program of liberalism is designed to serve the purpose of maintaining the existing state of mutual cooperation among the members of the human race and of extending it still further. The ultimate ideal envisioned by liberalism is the perfect cooperation of all mankind, taking place peacefully and without friction. Liberal thinking always has the whole of humanity in view and not just parts. It does not stop at limited groups; it does not end at the border of the village, of the province, of the nation, or of the continent. Its thinking is cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes in all men and the whole world. Liberalism is, in this sense, humanism; and the liberal, a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite.

In the early decades of the 21st century, the task of restating and reinvigorating liberalism has been Deirdre McCloskey’s with her trilogy on the “Bourgeois Era” and her emphasis has been on the role of ideas and in particular the way we talk to one another about these ideas, and what we attribute dignity to in our human interactions that matters.  Liberalism is premised on a political order where we are one another’s equal, and a legal order grounded in property, contract, and consent, but these must be embedded in a wide-spread ideological acceptance of basic human equality and the justice of commerce and civility.  Again, language matters, words matter, talk matters.  It is this talk that gives meaning to the incentives that individuals are supposed to be responding rationally to. Fritz Machlup once asked in brilliant rhetorical fashion “What if Matter Could Talk?” to describe the differences between the natural sciences and the human sciences.  McCloskey’s work takes that question seriously and LISTENS to the talk of the humans she is studying.  If you don’t listen, you will not learn, and if you don’t learn you will not understand.  Most practitioners of economics don’t listen, and in fact, the tools and techniques employed are designed to make us deaf to the voices.*  McCloskey on the other hand through her work makes us listen and take notice of the patterns of real lived human experience through time.  She has captured our past, but in doing has given us an inspiring vision of the future.

Please join me in wishing Professor McCloskey a very happy birthday and for many many more productive, creative, and happy years ahead.


*Recently Robert Margo, a very important scholar of economic history, has diagnosed the integration of economic history into economics, but I would challenge those who do economic history to wonder for a second whether this integration into the economics profession has meant that they have lost the past.  McCloskey, while certainly no slouch in the technical wizardry of both econometric analysis and price theory, nevertheless has built a stellar career on recognizing multiple forms of evidence, dealing with contending perspectives, and cultivates a deep appreciation of the role of ideas and rhetoric in human affairs.

Reprinted from Coordination Problem

  • Peter Boettke is a Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University and director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.