McCloskey on Liberalism
By David Henderson
Concretely I mean that the bizarre 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. In the earliest if hesitatingly liberal societies such as Britain and France, and among the liberi in societies still fully dominated by traditional hierarchies such as Russia and much of Italy, or the slave states of the United States, the turn of the 19th century saw a sharp rise of innovation. “Innovation” means new ideas in technology and organization and location, ranging from the electric motor to shipping containers to opening a new hairdressing salon in town, or to moving to Chicago away from Jim Crow and sharecropping. 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 (that factor of 44), or 10,000 percent including improvements in quality, or at worst 1,000 percent worldwide by conventional measures including stagnant places, in a world in which rises of 100 percent had been rare and on Malthusian grounds temporary.
Nicely put. This is from Eric Wallach, “An Interview with Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Economics and of History, UIC,” The Politic, February 10, 2019. There’s a lot of good material here.
She also states:
The central misconception is to think that one can claim the honorable title of “liberal” if one approves of one form of liberty, such as mutual consent in sexual partners or the ability to drill for oil where you wish, but excludes the other form. Liberty is liberty, and is meaningless by parts. You are still a slave if only on odd days of the month.
She’s getting at a good point but I think she overstates in the middle sentence. Liberty is not meaningless if it’s incomplete. It’s just that it’s not as meaningful as if it’s complete. It’s a “think on the margin” thing. If you don’t have the freedom to ingest cocaine or heroin, you’re less free than if you did. But your freedom to ingest marijuana is not meaningless. Possibly she said it this way because it’s an interview and you often say things in interviews–I speak from personal experience–that aren’t quite what you meant.
So here’s what a Liberalism 2.0 favors. It favors a social safety net, which is to say a clean transfer of money from you and me to the very poor in distress, a hand up so they can take care of their families. It favors financing pre- and post-natal care and nursery schools for poor kids, which would do more to raise health and educational standards than almost anything we can do later. It favors compulsory measles vaccination, to prevent the big spillover of contagion that is happening now in Clark County, Washington. It favors compulsory school attendance, financed by you and me, though not the socialized provision of public schools. The Swedes have since the 1990s had a national voucher system, liberal-style. It favors a small army/coast-guard to protect as against the imminent threat of invasion by Canada and Mexico, and a pile of nuclear weapons and delivery systems to prevent the Russians or Chinese or North Koreans from extorting us. All this is good, and would result in the government at all levels taking and regulating perhaps 10 percent of the nation’s production. Put me down for 10 percent slavery to government. Not the 30 to 55 percent at present that rich countries enslave.
Sentences 2 through 5 are some pretty big exceptions to liberty. Of the 4 sentences, the sentence about compulsory measles vaccination is probably the one that makes the most sense. Notice that her argument is the standard economist’s argument about negative externalities: “big spillover of contagion.” But I’m not convinced that it makes enough sense to justify compulsion. Take her case of Clark County, Washington, which is her Exhibit A (at least in the United States) for why one should get vaccinated. As of February 6, there were 50 confirmed cases. Of those cases, 43 were people who were not vaccinated, 6 were uncertain, and only 1 was someone known to have been vaccinated. So the best way to avoid this “big spillover” is to get vaccinated. Maybe the externality is huge, but Clark County is not a clearly good example.
Also, on education, I wonder if she is aware of the path-breaking work of the late Edwin G. West. He showed that even without compulsion or important subsidies in mid-19th century Britain, there was widespread education and widespread literacy. (Here’s a nice summary of his work.) And remember that this was, as McCloskey well knows, during a time when incomes were much, more lower than now and education is generally thought of as a normal good. So with our huge incomes today, even for the poorest Americans, it’s hard to believe that taxing people to provide education for others and requiring them to attend schools would be necessary.
There’s much more in the interview that’s very good and I recommend you read it. That probably explains why many of my friends have posted positively about this interview. It’s true that when Deirdre McCloskey is good, she is very, very good. But her big exceptions to liberty are big exceptions.