This interview was conducted by Javier Toro.
Deirdre Nansen McCloskey is Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her latest book is Why Liberalism Works.
Liberalism is the claim that society should consist of free people, with no masters and no slaves. It is equality of permission. As the Leveller Richard Rumbold said from the scaffold in 1685, “I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.” In 1685 such a claim was viewed as crazy. Everyone then was supposed to have a master. How else would things get done? But in the next century, the idea spread that all humans were created equal, and were best equipped to decide what to do. They were not imagined to be equal in wealth —which would vary by luck or skill— but equal in freedom. No slaves to others. Women under liberalism would not be slaves to men, nor citizens to governors. In this, liberalism contrasts with ancient aristocracy and with modern bureaucracy. “Freedom” is not the same thing as wealth —we already have words for that, and anyway it turns out that a liberal society makes poor people well off, to the extent of one or two thousand percent in real terms, from 1820 to 1999. Freedom is not the ability to do anything you want, such as flying to the moon or having a castle in Spain. It is the condition of being able to say No to another human: no, I will not take your offer of a job; no, I will not serve in your police force; no, I will not be your sexual plaything.
The only reason that we are shockingly better off than our ancestors —the one or two thousand percent, with doubled life expectancy, access to education, adequate nutrition— is that we were made free. Liberalism was a shocking now idea in 1800. Agricultural societies were strictly ranking, from king to slave girl. Then in northwestern Europe and spreading rapidly to the rest, the idea of liberalism broke the ranking. Liberalism is equality of permission. It turned out to inspire ordinary people to open a shop, move to a new job, start a factory, invent a new coffee mill. All of these made other people better off, what is called The Bourgeois Deal: Let me, a bourgeoise, devise a bettering deal in my dress shop, and I’ll make you rich. And she did. The “other factors” were necessary, of course. But investment was ancient, as was the rule of law. What was new was permission to venture. It’s like a mechanical watch. The gears are necessary, of course. But the motive force is the spring. Liberalism was the spring. It still is. Let people alone, and they prosper. Rule them from Caracas or Washington, and they stagnate.
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