Deirdre McCloskey speaks to stu­dents Tuesday, March 8 on clas­sical lib­er­alism for Praxis.
Eric Ragan | Courtesy
Deirdre McCloskey is a renowned free-market econ­omist, essayist, and pro­fessor who has written more than a dozen books and hun­dreds of scholarly articles. A modern expert in eco­nomic history, McCloskey, who worked for several years with Milton Friedman, is a modern expert in eco­nomic history and out­spoken critic of aca­demic the­o­rists who limit humans based on utility max­i­mization. She is perhaps best known for her ground­breaking work regarding the bour­geois virtues and how they con­tributed to the rise of an affluent West in history, which is also the topic of her latest book.

You explicitly push back against people who describe you as “con­ser­v­ative,” and opt instead to define yourself as a “lit­erary, quan­ti­tative, post­modern, free market, pro­gressive Epis­co­palian, Mid­western woman from Boston who was once a man.”

That’s absolutely right. I’m a Christian, but a free-market Epis­co­palian. I was a guy, now I’m a woman. I’m from Boston, but I’ve always lived as an adult in the Midwest. Being post­modern doesn’t mean you have to be left wing. Being post­modern is to say that I don’t believe in the naïve theory of knowledge that facts are just lying out there, we go collect them, and that’s it. We ask human ques­tions. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr said that back in the 1920s. Physics is not just about the world, physics is what we as humans can say about the world. That is the essential message of the Sophists of ancient Greece, and of Mon­taigne and Shake­speare in the late six­teenth century, and of the ‘crazy,’ post­modern people in English depart­ments. I’m quan­ti­tative: So many social and sci­en­tific ques­tions depend on how big things are, numbers, quan­tities. Yet, I believe truth can be found in poetry, the­ology, phi­losophy, and history. It is truth that cannot be trans­lated without loss into propo­si­tional state­ments, like E=mc2. But what is human life about? One kind of answer is there was once a babe born in Beth­lehem of the house of David. This other kind of knowing is not propo­si­tional, but it’s very important to humans. It’s not softer than math. To talk about knowledge as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ is sexist — it means girls can’t do math. A stupid dis­tinction. The Greek aorist mood is harder to under­stand than most cal­culus. Human­ities is not easier than physical and bio­logical sci­ences.

What is the one idea you would like to com­mu­nicate to someone who never for­mally studied eco­nomics?

The crucial thing is to realize that trade is mutually ben­e­ficial. This stupid stuff that Donald Trump comes out with about the Chinese beating us in trade is ridiculous. Are you defeated when you buy some hair­spray? Trade deficit talk is silly talk. Both parties are made better by trade. Suppose no one in the United States knew what the balance of pay­ments was with China. No one would know so no one would worry. It’s not like with other things. If there was rampant inflation like in the 1970s, you wouldn’t need gov­ernment sta­tistics to know it hap­pened. If there was mass unem­ployment like in 1933, you would see the people and bread lines. When income goes up, if you’re old, you know. You know your house was smaller as a kid and your car is more reliable now. You can see these things. Now suppose we cal­cu­lated the number of mol­e­cules of oxygen in the air in Hillsdale, or some­thing else nitwit. You could print the numbers in a weekly news­paper and get all worried, but it would tell you nothing. I wish the gov­ernment didn’t collect sta­tistics on the balance of pay­ments. It is a figment. It’s an accounting fact that no one needs to know. It is a silly thing to measure because it gets people worried for no reason. It’s also part of the United States’ xeno­phobia, which is anti-ori­ental. Thirty years ago, the concern was the balance of surplus with the Japanese — they were sending us Toyotas and TVs and we were sending soy­beans. Now it’s the Chinese. It’s only the ori­entals we worry about. We’re racist. Hostile. We engage in a straight­forward anti-ori­ental crusade that’s been going on since 1880 with the Ori­ental Exclusion Act.

Have you always cham­pioned the Aus­trian school of eco­nomics?

I was an anar­chist, socialist, une­d­u­cated Trot­skyite. I was Key­nesian econ­omist, a social engineer. We weren’t even learning basic eco­nomics at Harvard. We were learning a lot of highly tech­nical stuff, and most of it proved worthless. It didn’t amount to any­thing but a waste of time — and it’s gotten much worse today. I had a roommate in college that was an engineer. Here I was, studying Key­nesian eco­nomics because that’s what Harvard offered in the early ‘60s. My roommate in college was an engineer who would read ‘Human Action’ by Mises in between solving math problems for his courses. I can still see David sitting there, smoking Gauloises and reading ‘Human Action.’ I thought he was crazy for reading all that con­ser­v­ative crap. David probably ended up knowing more eco­nomics than I did when we grad­uated. Now, I am very sus­pi­cious of people who never change their minds — it sug­gests they aren’t thinking, Grad­ually through the study of eco­nomics, I became a free-market, quasi-Aus­trian econ­omist with an expertise in eco­nomic history. Quasi-Aus­trian because I don’t read German and you have to read German to be a real Aus­trian.