Interview of Deirdre McCloskey

This interview of Prof McCloskey appeared a month earlier:

She says liberalism should not be adopted selectively but comprehensively:

I recently read that the term ‘liberalism’ only acquired political significance in 1769 (when Scottish historian William Robertson published The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V). What exactly do you take to be the essential features of ‘liberalism?’

The idea is earlier than 1769, if not the very word.  Yet as you say in the 1770s it springs to political life.  The ur-liberals were Locke and Voltaire and Turgot, and behind them earlier, executed radicals such as Spartacus in 71 BCE or the Lollard Priest John Ball in 1381 (“When Adam delved and Eve span / Who then was the gentleman?”) or the Leveller Richard Rumbold 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”).  No slaves, whether private or public.

Besides possible misjudgment as to liberalism’s prudence–as a political philosophy/guide to public policy–do you think there are any common misconceptions about what liberalism actually is and what its followers believe?

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.

In Latin America, for example, the word “liberal,” once meaningful there, has long been appropriated by conservatives who like to drill for oil where they wish, but hate gays.  In the United States, it has been appropriated by sweet, or not so sweet, slow socialists, who celebrate diversity, but regard economic liberty as not worthy of much consideration.  

The Bulgarian-French critic Tzvetan Todorov quotes the protagonist of Forever Flowing, the posthumously published novel of Vasily Grossman (1905-1964), whom he says was the sole example of a successful Stalinist writer who converted wholly to anti-Communism (“The slave in him died, and a free man arose”):

I used to think freedom was freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience.  Here is what it amounts to: you have to have the right to sow what you wish to, to make shoes or coats, to bake into bread the flour ground from the grain you have sown, and to sell it or not sell it as you wish; for the lathe-operator, the steelworker, and the artist it’s a matter of being able to live as you wish and work as you wish and not as they order you.

The economist Joseph Schumpeter remarked long ago that “As a supreme, if unintended, compliment, the enemies of the system of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label,” namely, “economic liberalism.”   He could have broadened the enemies to cover anyone who wishes that some people remain slaves to others, even if only on odd days. Northern Europeans (not the wise Latins in Italy, France, Spain, and offshoots) wished for a century after the 1870s that gays be imprisoned.  The political majority after the 1870s wished that rich people be expropriated. Don’t tax him, / Don’t tax me. / Tax that queer / Behind the tree. It’s not liberal.

 

 

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