Deirdre McCloskey and the Tremendous Power of Talk
By Donald Boudreaux
When I read Deirdre McCloskey’s 2006 The Bourgeois Virtues soon after it was published, I was impressed. But when, four years later, I read her follow-up 2010 Bourgeois Dignity, I was gobsmacked. Few books have had as big an impact on my worldview as has Bourgeois Dignity. My deep admiration for this book is apparent in my 2014 essay for Liberty Matters. And nothing that I’ve learned in the intervening seven years has dimmed my assessment of this remarkable work.
Indeed, the earth-shaking events that began in early 2020 have only further impressed upon me the validity of McCloskey’s foundational theme that the ultimate governor of human society is the prevailing set of everyday ideas as these are shaped and spread by the way we talk – and write, and blog, and text, and tweet.
How extraordinarily quickly attitudes changed in 2020. What was unthinkable to do in February was unthinkable not to do in October (and perhaps earlier). Talk in March of using lockdowns to “flatten the curve” within weeks became talk of protecting everyone from Covid-19 indefinitely. Even young people, for whom Covid poses little risk, are to be protected with unprecedented restrictions. Judging by people’s widespread acquiescence to lockdown measures and other mandates, this talk was and continues to be singularly persuasive.
People’s “habit of the lip” (to use one of McCloskey’s favorite descriptions of human conversation) soon included denunciations of those whose talk runs counter to the dominant narrative about Covid. According to this narrative – told by much talking to the public by public-health officials and members of the news media across the globe – Covid is so obviously a titanic threat to human life, and lockdowns so obviously the only effective means of addressing this threat, that any contrary talk must not be tolerated. And those who dare talk contrariwise must be explicitly and harshly ridiculed, thus imposing on these renegades a crushing “dishonor tax” (as in my 2014 essay I called the critical talk aimed in the pre-industrial age at merchants).
If several personal reports made to me are to be believed, this dishonor tax is having its intended effect: Many people who disagree with the mainstream approach to Covid are keeping their silence out of fear of incurring the contempt, or even the wrath, of others.
The validity of the mainstream approach is not here the issue. Whether you support completely or dissent utterly from most governments’ and people’s dramatic reaction to Covid, you cannot help but be impressed with how rapidly talk can change popular attitudes. Of course, in 2020 and 2021 technology supplies many more platforms for talk than were available even a mere quarter century ago. Today, nearly everyone can hear their health ministers, prime ministers, and presidents warn of Covid 24/7. Social media, instant messaging, YouTube, Zoom, and the ubiquity of handheld smartphones multiply and amplify the talk of Covid’s grave dangers and of the need for unprecedented responsive action.
Why the doomsday narrative about Covid became the dominant one is a question for others to answer. Regardless of the reason, in the span of less than a year humanity witnessed, in real time, the awesome power of talk to change ideas, and of ideas to dramatically change behavior, policy, and social arrangements.
Talk about the tremendous power of talk!