Editor’s note: Subscribers to our No Due Date book club have been enjoying Deirdre McCloskey and Art Carden’s Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich. In addition to receiving a monthly book selection, subscribers have access to private events. These events include a monthly virtual salon with host Pete Boettke. Pete also has a knack for inviting authors and/or related thinkers to bonuc “coffee chats.” Carden participated in one such event recently. Below he shares his responses to Boettke’s questions.

Q1: Tell us a bit about the origins of this project and working with Deirdre McCloskey

The book actually has an interesting backstory–or at least, I think it has an interesting backstory. Deirdre McCloskey and I go back about twenty years, when I was a second-year graduate student at Washington University in Saint Louis and the Economic History Association had its annual conference there. Not long before my dissertation proposal, in 2005, my advisor John Nye asked me if I would pick her up at and then take her back to the airport when she visited Wash U to present a version of The Bourgeois Virtues, which would appear in print the following year. I read the entire 500 hundred-ish page manuscript in the week leading up to her seminar even though narrow prudence would have suggested working on my dissertation proposal. We traded emails and saw each other at conferences regularly over the next few years, and in Spring Semester 2009 she visited Rhodes College (where I was on the faculty at the time). The Friday of her trip, we drove down to Oxford, Mississippi together, and she gave a seminar at the University of Mississippi that lasted for three hours because of the quality and intensity of the discussion before we finally all agreed to call a time out and go to dinner.

Fast forward to October 2012. I had just joined the faculty at Samford University, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute asked me to contribute to their “I, Pencil” movie project. We agreed that I would go to Chicago for filming since their crew would be there to film Professor McCloskey for the same series, and I sent her an email asking if she wanted to go to lunch while I was in town. We met, and after she treated me to lunch, she mentioned that she was looking to write a sort-of-popularization of the Bourgeois Era trilogy and asked me to come aboard. When a scholar of Deirdre McCloskey’s stature asks you to participate in a project like that, you renegotiate whatever you have to renegotiate so you can say “yes.”

It took a lot longer than we had hoped it would (as projects like this usually do), and it went through a lot of edits and rewrites. In November 2018, I was a little despondent over the referee reports but was inspired while leading an Institute for Humane Studies Weekend Discussion Colloquium at Faulkner University with Jason Jewell, who directs their Great Books program: we needed to write it so that it was short enough and clear enough for students to read the entire thing for an IHS Weekend Discussion Colloquium. We finally finished it in 2019 and it appeared in print in October 2020. The paperback edition will be out this Fall.

I’m under no illusions about being the one making breakthrough contributions here; in a lot of ways, I’m like Stephen Dubner, the journalist who co-wrote Freakonomics with the economist Steven Levitt. For the kinds of things I find interesting and important and for the kind of institution I’m at, however, it was an ideal project as I moved into the middle of my career.


Q2: Does the past have a useful economics? And what do you see as the relationship between economic history and economic development?

The past absolutely has useful economics (and for that matter, economics has a useful past, but that might be another discussion). First, I’m reminded of one of the mantras from Battlestar Galactica: “all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again” and the verse in Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun. Things that look unique are actually pretty common across space and time. Slavery is just one example: as we argue in the book, if slavery per se could cause a Great Enrichment by financing industrialization with the spoils of exploitation, the Enrichment would have happened somewhere else a very long time ago. We agree with the historian Niall Ferguson here: imperialism was actually the least original thing Europeans did after 1492. First, studying history and especially economic history helps us understand how to approach things that aren’t as unique as they might at first appear. We still study the Peloponnesian War, and not just to show that we’re erudite and cultured. Second, it helps us understand how we got to where we are as a species–and what our prospects are for trying to start over at Year Zero (twentieth-century experiments with communism show us they’re not good). These are also recurring themes in Thomas Sowell’s historical work, particularly his trilogy Race and Culture, Migrations and Cultures, and Conquests and Cultures.


Q3: Your book does an outstanding job demonstrating progress over time.  Why do you think pessimism sells?

Speaking of things we’re still reading and acknowledging the fact that Deirdre McCloskey held an appointment in the Department of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago, I think Shakespeare’s Hamlet has something interesting to say here in this passage:

“To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country from whose bourn,

No traveler returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have,

Than fly to others that we know not of?”


We can learn from the experience of the past (see the answer to Q2!), and when we look back at the past we can see how things turned out okay enough for us to be here. There’s no guarantee that we will continue to “get it right,” as Douglass North explains in Understanding the Process of Economic Change. Moreover, the world is a very complex place filled with people making decisions we don’t understand and don’t have incentives to consider in great depth or detail and that might just appear arbitrary and irrational.

Think about how airlines board planes. I used to wonder why they had assigned seats and boarding groups when it would have been much more efficient either to board the plane from back to front or to do what Southwest does, with no assigned seating. Then, as the opportunity cost of my time increased, I came to understand the value of knowing I won’t have to gate-check a carry-on bag and being able to get some work done because I’m in an early boarding group. Airline and hotel status isn’t about people thinking you’re fancy, and if I’m looking to my Delta Silver Medallion status to solve my existential puzzles and give my life transcendent meaning, I either need to talk to my pastor or my psychiatrist.

In short, the world is a confusing place, and we all lack the local, context-specific knowledge–knowledge of what Hayek called “the particular circumstances of time and place”–to know just how people will solve the problems they confront.


Q4: What is the most difficult argument from your book to communicate to critics and which continues to keep you up at night thinking of better and more persuasive ways to communicate?

Friendly critics like the book but aren’t convinced the Great Enrichment was caused by a change in ideas and rhetoric in part because it doesn’t fit the model-and-measure methods of the social sciences and in part because economists are wired to look for changes in relative prices when trying to explain social phenomena. “Ideas and rhetoric” look to some like a deus ex machina rather than rigorous, serious science. I have a lot of sympathy for this, as so much of my time is spent trying to persuade students and others that incentives matter. We haven’t gotten a lot of direct criticism on this point, but I’ve heard from a friend who assigned the book that a few students were put off by our claims about how the tree of western prosperity wasn’t watered with blood shed by our ancestors through slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and killing (S.I.C.K.). I have a lot less sympathy for this position because I think there’s overwhelming evidence against it and because at best it will lead us down blind alleys with respect to the policies we make and the history we write.

I lose sleep thinking about how to better communicate a lot of things. Since the last time I taught Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, I’ve come to believe that my listening and reading skills are bigger problems. I’m trying to read a lot more carefully, generously, sympathetically, and appreciatively: I know how frustrating it is to hear people brush off centuries of carefully-thought-out economic wisdom by saying something like “the problem is that economics assumes people are rational” or something like that; I wonder where I’m doing the same thing with other disciplines. Real conversation isn’t possible if people are just waiting for their turn to talk instead of listening actively, so instead of mentally prepping my detailed response to someone holding forth at a dinner party about the economic and social consequences of immigration, I’m trying to listen a lot more carefully so I can ask better questions.

Art Carden is Professor of Economics & Medical Properties Trust Fellow at Samford University, and he is by his own admission as Koched up as they come: he has an award named for Charles G. Koch in his office, he does a lot of work for and is affiliated with an array of Koch-related organizations, and he has applied for and received money from the Charles Koch Foundation to host on-campus events.