“Go forth and shrink the state.”
These are the final words with which Deirdre McCloskey chose to end her lecture to the Legatum Institute in London on her latest book, Bourgeois Equality, the third and final volume in her Bourgeois Era series wherein she ventures an answer to the question of why the modern world, with all its wealth and liberating effects, has come to pass.
The Music of Progress
As I listen to McCloskey’s chorus to “go forth,” I find her words plucking at the strings of my heart with a harmony that sings to my mind, “Let ordinary people have a go!” This is the leitmotif of the future—I tell myself—a theme worthy of a new kind of politics, or rather, a resurgence of a past politics when men had hope in their liberty and virtue to create a peaceful, cooperative, and just city. Such is the song of an egalitarianism that respects distance and difference where everyone is given their equal liberty to have a go at remaking the world for the betterment of all. In tune, McCloskey alludes to the music that helped propel “The Great Enrichment,” giving us a poet’s song, Robert Burns “A Man’s A Man For A’ That”:
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
In the face of immense human challenges, we are presented a basic choice, create or control, and McCloskey answers the question with the former every time. She reminds us we are all fellow creators, each of us with sense and worth, freedom and dignity, capable of innovative action to emancipate us all from our lowly origins. Yet, the latter option of control so often drowns out our songs for equal liberty and dignity—it is the banal song of the state—a low, throbbing drone that only seeks to impose servitude upon our creative capacities and uniformity upon our diverse experiences.
Celebrate the creative, enterprising, and tinkering “town folk” of the world by granting them the right to become as rich as they wish, and we will all be made better off.
Accordingly, the state perverts our values as a people, or as McCloskey would say our bourgeois values. It mutates our plethora of songs for human liberty and dignity into a single pledge of loyalty for the sake of the nation’s power. And with so many ears clogged with such drivel, our understanding of our wealth and basic human agency becomes hollowed out, atrophied into mere symbols, ever-changing statistical short-hands, and ultimately, simulacra of our former economic and civic selves.
But it need not be this way. We can reinvigorate the songs that made us so prosperous in the first place, McCloskey claims, if only we “keep our wits” about us.
The Bourgeois Deal
More than any economic factor or theory of exploitation or institutional arrangement, McCloskey claims our ideas, and how we speak about them, are what enable us to flourish as a species, in particular, our ideas regarding bourgeois virtue and bourgeois equality. Instill virtue and respect people’s equal liberty to pursue their own betterment through trade and innovation—rather than subservience and propitiation to domineering earthly authorities—and watch this wondrous parade of enrichment continue. Celebrate the creative, enterprising, and tinkering “town folk” of the world by granting them the right to become as rich as they wish, and we will all be made better off in the long run—even the most “wretched” and “least” among us.
Such is what McCloskey calls the “bourgeois deal.”
I am willing to take this deal. I can get behind this sort of politics. This is why I got into politics in the first place–to make my fellows as free as possible so they may pursue a peaceful and prosperous future with the “Sense and Worth o’er a’ the earth…That Man to Man, the world o’er, Shall brothers be for a’ that.”
Friendship, it seems, is accepting favors on one’s behalf, even if they only serve as burdens.
Yet, though I have attempted to carry this tune to my little plot of the earth, I keep finding its lyrics fall on deaf ears, or rather, ears that have been tuned to hear only the heavy-handed drone of political control. It is best if I explain this dilemma by attacking the one question, the American state’s favorite refrain, that has been assailing my ears over the last few months.
The Ruinous Drone of Our Politics
My friends and family and acquaintances all know I am passionate about politics–that I am a “political guy”–but that seems to be the full extent of their knowledge. “Oh, Joey he’s into politics,” they say in a vague manner, and so this one question seems to be coming at me from every which way. What’s worse, people seem to offer it up as though they are doing me a humble favor by humoring what they think to be my personal interests. Friendship, it seems, is accepting favors on one’s behalf, even if they only serve as burdens.
I am, indeed, passionate about politics. That is, I adore certain political ideals, and I had hoped that once I sounded my barbaric yawp for human freedom and dignity over the radio airwaves—“let everyone have a go!”— I would get my message across. Yet, I have had little luck. Rather than a robust discussion of ideals on how to better the human race, what I receive in return is this one question, a dangerous and boring refrain meant to supplant the songs of our own making.
This one question: it has been haunting me day and night. The state’s conductors have done their dirty work well. The radio hosts I work with each day ask me. The radio callers ring up our phone lines, haranguing me with the same. I then try to find solace at home, only to have pollsters call up my humble abode to ask me once again. After dispensing with the pollsters by telling them “I’m in media,” I think I’m in the clear only to have my father ask me this god forsaken inquiry over our steak dinner, forcing me to fight back a gagging urge. My brother asks me in the morning. My friends text me it from St. Louis, Auburn, Birmingham, and D.C. My uncle asks me at a birthday party, my aunt at a football watching party, and even my sweet granny puts it to me as I munch nervously on a chocolate Christmas truffle.
O the humanity! O brave new world! And people wonder why I drink my whiskey neat and coffee black.
How is the “freedom” to choose one’s ruler true freedom whatsoever?
What is this one question, you may be wondering? Well, it comes in many different variations, but the essence is this: who do you like for President of the United States?
Asked and Answered and Asked
I can’t tell you how many times I have answered, “No one, and I expect to be greatly disappointed,” but the truth is my disappointment has already arrived with a flood of different questions washing over this mushy sponge I carry in my skull.
What is it about a presidential election that makes the people jettison their ideals and hitch their sense of positive liberty to the state? Why do people find hope, a false hope to be sure, in the ambitions of the powerful? What is it about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or the presidency itself that inspires such an overbearing amount of servile speculation? How does speculating over this spectacle better anyone’s lives? How is the “freedom” to choose one’s ruler true freedom whatsoever? When did we start thinking the best way to save the poor and the middle-class is to fall on our knees at the ballot box? When did deference and prostration to an authority ever make men free? And selfishly, how can I make people stop asking me this maddening question?
Well, for the time being, I do not know the exact answer, but I will endure. Even in the midst of a contentious presidential election, I will continue sharing any and all songs that speak to man’s “sense and worth” free from the shackles of political control. So, let it be known, though I am obliged to cover the presidential election every day on the radio airwaves, I wish it wasn’t so. I wish everyone was free to pursue their peaceful interests rather than “free” to serve this or that state leader. I wish people were free to create their own tune in harmony with man’s best ideals through persuasion, self-learning, entrepreneurship, and art rather than taking marching orders every few years from this or that state conductor.
I wish some far off year from now an election will be held and no one will show up. The people will simply be too busy dancing to music of their own making, carrying out that courageous chorus, “go forth and shrink the state,” by ignoring the state’s siren song altogether.