Deirdre McCloskey Talks About “True Liberal Values”

In a recently published interview, the distinguished economic historian discusses the theme of her soon to be published book, Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All. Here are a few highlights:

[T]he … 18th-century idea of liberalism—which is the theory of a society composed entirely of free people, liberi, and no slaves—gave ordinary people the notion that they could have a go.  And go they did. …  Since 1800, with no believable signs of letting up, it has improved the material lives of the poorest among us by startling percentages—4,300 percent in some places … or 10,000 percent including improvements in quality, or at worst 1,000 percent worldwide by conventional measures including stagnant places. …

[T]he so-called New Liberalism was slow socialism, as was an American Progressivism recommending the sterilization of defectives to improve the Aryan race and a minimum wage to drive non-Aryan immigrants out of the labor force, not to speak of carrying a big stick and joining a war to end all wars.  The slow socialism took longer to implement than the fast versions in Bolshevism and Nazism. It was pushed along by the taking of powers by governments in the 20th-century wars, hot and cold.  Calling it “modern liberalism” has always been an abuse of language.  And it was an abuse of people to implement it.

It still is.  Statism, being the partial enslavement of people to others by way of the government, may or may not be a good idea.  But it is anyway not liberal, whether exercised by kings or by Congress. …

But from the non-technical point of view one can assemble the ethical justification for liberalism by honoring both versions of the Golden Rules. …  The late first-century BCE Jewish sage Hillel of Babylon put it negatively yet reflexively: “Do not do unto other what you would not want done unto yourself.”  It’s masculine, a guy-liberalism, a gospel of justice, roughly the so-called Non-Aggression Axiom as articulated by libertarians 1.0 since the word “libertarian” was coined in the 1950s.  …

On the other hand, the early first-century CE Jewish sage Jesus of Nazareth put it positively: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  It’s gal-liberalism, a gospel of love, placing upon us an ethical responsibility to do more than pass by on the other side.  Be a good Samaritan.  Be nice.  …

In treating others, a humane libertarianism 2.0 attends to both Golden Rules. The one corrects a busybody pushing around.  The other corrects an inhumane selfishness. …

Americans of good will have long been persuaded, on the basis of breathless articles in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, that the Nordics are thoroughly “socialist.” …  No, they are not thoroughly socialist, and in fact they are reasonably close to the U.S., and in some ways more anti-socialist.  They are in fact highly liberal in their economies (and their fastest rates of growth since 1850 were in fact when they were even more liberal).  Almost all prices in Sweden and the rest, for example, are determined by supply and demand, and are nothing like the disastrous socialist interventions by way of price controls in, say, Venezuela.  Setting up a business is not hard. Inherited wealth in Scandinavia and Finland is not honored. Innovation is. …

And government ownership of the means of production is trivial in all the Nordic countries.  When Saab Motors went bankrupt, it came to the Swedish government hat in hand, and the government said, “Get lost.”  When Volvo recently became a Chinese company, the government said, “So what?” You don’t have to exercise much imagination about what the American government would do if General Motors was so threatened: “Here are billions of tax dollars, and so the Federal Government owns part of you.”  The American government in 2008 of course did precisely that. Which country is more socialist, the U.S. or Sweden? A generous safety net … is … not anything like full socialism, and not to be recommended à la Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Jeremy Corbyn on the grounds that Cuba is lovely, Israel evil, and “we should try socialism.”  No, we should not.

There’s lots more, and it’s fascinating throughout. Read the whole thing!

Jon Guze / Director of Legal Studies

Jon Guze is the Director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, Jon practiced law in Durham, North Carolina for over twent...

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