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Liberty > Ideas > Wealth. The must-read interview of Deirdre McCloskey


Why did you decide to write a trilogy about the bourgeois?

As a socialist when young I thrilled to anti-bourgeois writing. The thrill is common among young members of . . . the bourgeoisie. It is of long standing. When Balzac  wrote Le père Goriot, in 1834, he thought it was funny to have his pathetic protagonist be  a retired manufacturer of vermicelli, which as you know sounds funny in French or  Italian—little worms. And so forth, down to the Wall Street movies. (By contrast, I just  saw a brilliant movie, Joy, about the inventor of the easy-wringing mop, Joy Mangano,  which treated entrepreneurship and invention and business with respect. It is unusual.)

As I learned much later—really, not until my 30s—more about the economy I realized  that the merchant and imprenditore and inventor and banker are essential to how an  economy works for the poorest among us. The drum-beat of often idiotic criticism of the  people who make the economy work for us all began to irritate me. I wanted always to  help the poor—it is why I was originally a socialist. But I gradually realized that a rich  economy helps the poor much, much more than any redistribution from the bosses  could.

Then early in the 1990s, age 50, I was reading on an airplane a book by John Casey called Pagan Virtues, and it hit me that I should write a book called The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics  for an Age of Commerce, a full-scale defense of “capitalism” and the bourgeoisie, aimed at  people like my earlier self who believed it to be evil (even as they enjoyed the food and  housing and education provided by it!). I expected the trilogy to be one book. But when  in 2005 I reached 500 pages (the first book resulting came out in 2006) I was only 1/3 of  the way through my outline! So I had eleven more years to study and write, and two  more books, a trilogy!

What then are the virtues and the strength of the bourgeois?

The strength is its creation of the modern world, and its honoring of ordinary people. A  society of aristocrats (or bureaucrats) and peasants (or watchers of game shows on RAI),  is essentially uncreative. It cannot, and has not, made enough of the ordinary goods and  services for a dignified life for the mass of people. It turned out—no one anticipated it  in 1700, and very few in 1800—that letting the bourgeoisie free, as in the French  Declaration of the Rights of Man, or in the U.S. Constitution, enriched us all. It is the “Bourgeois Deal”: “You allow me, a bourgeoise, to try out trade-tested betterment in cars  and plumbing and forward markets, without protection or subsidies or regulation  or licenses or socialism, and in the third act of the social drama I’ll make you-all [voi]  rich.” And she did. We were once all living on $3 a day (in today’s prices). Now we  live on $87 to $127 a day, the Italian and American averages according to the so-called  Penn Tables, the best estimates available.

Why do you speak of the “Great Enrichment”? How rich are we today? And how has it  changed our lives?

The real amount of stuff we Italians or Americans enjoy, you see, has increased since  1800 by a factor of 30. That’s nearly 3,000 percent! Such a change can be called “great”  without violating the norms of language. In previous times—the Quattrocento, for  example, or the Song Dynasty in 12th-century China, or the glory of Greece, or the  heights of Egyptian civilization—one might have seen a doubling of the real income of  ordinary people, for a while (and then a drift back to the usual human condition of $3 a  day). But a doubling is only 100 percent—as against from trade-tested betterment since  the year 1800 fully 3,000 percent, achieving nowadays in OECD countries $80 to $140 a  day. And it’s even more (much more) if we take into account the better quality of many  modern goods and services—better travel, better medicine, even better economics. A  three thousand percent increase in goods and services available to the average person,  and to the poorest among us as well, solves a lot of social problems. In 1800 most  Italians were illiterate, for example. Now very few are. Life expectancy worldwide has  since 1800 doubled, and especially in the past few decades. Now many people go to  university. In 1800 hardly anyone did. And on and on.

Who are “we”? Aren’t there around the world still many many poor people?

Yes, there is still out of the 7 billion people on the planet a “bottom billion,” as the  economist Paul Collier points out. We must help them help themselves. Charity, such  as transfers from north to south in Italy, results merely in corruption and too many  governmental employees. The better plan is to encourage people to adopt equality  before the law and social dignity—in a word, liberalism—and let them make themselves  well off.

But as Collier also points out, forty years ago the horribly poor of the world were a  bottom 4 billion, out of a lower world population, of 5 billion. The level of poverty has  fallen in the last few decades like a stone. It is falling in China, since 1978, and in India,  since 1991. That is, China and India adopted liberal economic principles, and let  people trade and invent, and have grown spectacularly fast. Poverty is falling much less  slowly in, say, Brazil and South Africa, to mention two countries I know and love and  wish fervently would see the light.

Why and how have we become so rich?

We are rich because of the liberalism I mentioned, defined as equality before the law and  equality of social dignity. Read again the Declaration of the Rights of Man (and Woman, dear!). It says it. Liberalism was a new idea in the 18th century, tried out on a big scale  in the 19th century, in places like Holland and Britain and the USA and then in Belgium,  France, and at length in Italy. And now it can enrich the world—where it is not  undermined by uncontrolled corruption and excessive regulation and full-blown  socialism (namely, the condition and policies of the present-day Italian state).

What liberalism did was let ordinary people, as the British say, “have a go.” They  massively did, giving us the millions of trade-tested betterments we see all around  us. Large plate glass. Air conditioning. Clean food. Big newspapers. If more people  are inspirited to innovate, of course, we get more betterments. It is why the gloomsters  who say that betterment is finished are mistaken. As now-poor countries become  enriched, more and more innovators will emerge from them—which is how they are  going to be enriched. We in the already-rich countries will benefit from their new ideas,  the way we benefited from Olivettis when Italy became relatively well off or from  Toyotas when Japan did.

 What then is the power of ideas, which ideas you think of and how could they be carried out  from a certain period in some certain countries?

There are two levels of ideas (and it is ideas, not the investment in capital that follows  from the ideas, that made us rich). One is the level of trade-tested betterments, such as  reinforced concrete and window screens and antibiotics. Bravo. But what encourages  people in the mass to have such ideas is liberalism, that equality before the law and  equality of social dignity. To be sure, liberal societies are imperfectly so. The liberal  society of the early 19th-century USA had, after all, millions of slaves. Women could not  vote until the 20th century. Gays in northern Europe were assaulted freely by the police  from the 1880s until the 1970s. And so forth. But compared with the old guilds and  aristocracies and serfdoms of earlier times, liberalism was much freer, and inspired  ordinary people to open a corner grocery store or invent the radio.

Why can’t the usual economics explain this enrichment for you?

The usual economics, whether “Samuelsonian” (that is, conventionally bourgeois) or  Marxist, supposes that capital makes us rich. It doesn’t, as the disasters of foreign aid to  poor countries have shown. Capital is necessary, of course. You can’t have buildings  without bricks and concrete. But so is oxygen in the air necessary. And night and  day. And the Sun. These are not original causes in any useful sense.

Pouring more capital into a country or region does not have a “multiplier” effect. We do  not need an “original accumulation of capital.” Prosperity does not “trickle down” or  trickle up. What we need are ideas for trade-tested betterment. If we have them, the  capital will follow. For example, early cotton textile factories in Britain did not require  much capital, and what they needed was provided by retained earnings and small loans  from friends. And so what is wrong with conventional economics is that it focuses on  the intermediate cause and ignores the originating cause, the human creativity released  by letting masses of ordinary people to have a go. In a word, liberalism.

You wrote of the bourgeois equality: what is this equality and what does it refer to? Which  are its practical basis and its theoretical fundamentals?

Another word for liberalism is equality, which is what I have in mind. Not the equality  of result, but the equality of opportunity. Not “French” equality, as we may call it in  honor of Rousseau and of Thomas Piketty, but “Scottish” equality in honor of Adam  Smith and Milton Friedman. As Smith put it, what we need is “the liberal plan of  equality, liberty, and justice.” Look at his words. Smith was an egalitarian. So am I. So  is liberalism.

Are liberalism and the bourgeois strictly connected?

Yes. It is an old, and correct, cliché of European history that the revolutions of 1789 and  then of 1848 were bourgeois. But in freeing itself, the bourgeoisie freed us all. Letting  businesspeople make money is, obviously, only successful for them if we like their  products and want to buy them at the prices the businesspeople are willing to sell them. That’s what I mean by “trade-tested” (in the phrase I prefer to the misleading  word “capitalism”). Trade-tested betterment made us rich.

Have they got the same enemies? Which are the worst?

Yes. The “clerisy,” as I call it, the intellectuals and artists (and journalists!) who come  from la Borghesia but hate their fathers.

Which are the worst?

The clerisy such as Lenin and Mussolini and Hitler, the murderers of millions in the  name of Revolution against the bourgeoisie, against property, against the spontaneous  order of the market that made the poorest among us 30 times better off.

Why do you think they have found such a great hostility in history?

That is hard to answer. Partly it is because trade-tested betterment did not pay off  quickly, and the utopian thinking characteristic of Christian Europe promised instant  betterment, the Land of Cockaigne bursting in, candy growing on trees, whiskey rivers.

And why, in spite of this attacks, have they managed to prompt this great enrichment?

Because the high clerisy did not always get its way. The two worst inventions of the  clerisy in the 19th century were nationalism and socialism. (If you like these perhaps  you would like to try their combination, national socialism.) But the best invention of  the previous, 18th, century, liberalism, was so powerful—if slow—in its effects that the  clerisy’s sneering at the bourgeoisie did not prevent bourgeois entrepreneurs of all sorts  from succeeding. An Italy that nurtured anarchism and then communism also nurtured  Fiat and Olivetti.

Do you think liberalism is still a recipe today, also for stagnating economies such as  the European Union?

Yes. If we want economic growth we cannot propose, as the Italian Parliament did in  July, 2016, to regulate by licensing them the cookers of pizza. Licensing, regulation and  other forms of socialism “lite” are catastrophes for market-tested betterment.

And what kind of liberalism are you thinking of?

The kind that worked to enrich the poor of the world, 1800 to the present, enriching  your Italian ancestors and my Irish, Norwegian, and English ancestors.

What is the bourgeois like today? Has it still got many opponents, that is, do you still find  anti bourgeois attitudes in western countries?

Yes: after each crisis there arises some new version of socialism (syndicalism,  environmentalism). People grow up in loving families, mostly. And so they think that a  country of 80 millions can be run as though a loving family. It can’t. Much better to  have cooperation and competition on the enormous scale that we have in liberal  economies.

Do you think in some way corruption or some arrogance contributed to bourgeois attitudes?

And not the corruption and arrogance of Lo Stato? They are human sins, but no more  common in business than in the police force or in the Parliament.

Do you think we’ll get richer (as a world)? Are you optimistic for the future? Why?

Yes, I am optimistic. The whole world will become as rich as Italy or the United States,  and we will have a brilliance of world culture that will put the Renaissance in the  shade—world music, world cuisine, world science, world entrepreneurship, all manner  of world discovery and creativity pouring out of, for example, sub-Saharan Africa, as it  is beginning to pour out of China and India.

What is humanomics and what is it useful for?

Humanomics is merely a new economics, retaining all its mathematics and its emphasis  on the virtue of Prudence, with an addition of the other forms of argument (literary,  philosophical) in scientific method, and the addition to the account of behavior the other  human virtues expressible in a commercial society, added to the understanding of the  economy: Temperance, Courage, Justice, Faith, Hope, and Love. These, with Prudence,  are the seven principal virtues of the Western tradition (St. Thomas of Aquino discusses  them in detail), a merger of the four pagan virtues and the three Christian or  “theological” virtues. All seven, and the lesser virtues derivative from them (honesty,  piety, ecc.), play a part in the economy, and need to be acknowledged and theorized and  measured.

You talk with great passion of “ordinary people”: what is their power for you?

I am a democrat, a Christian libertarian. I am not a “conservative,” if that means looking  down on ordinary people. I don’t, or try not to. My statist friends left and right do look  down, and wish to govern the poor. I wish to remove the chains on the poor.

I have read very interesting and ironic self-definitions of yourself, how would you define  your positions/theories? You said you are not a conservative but a Christian libertarian

As I just said.

Is it true you turned Christian after the crossing?

Yes. By changing gender in 1995 I had brought my soul and my persona closer together.  I realized, without fully articulating it to myself, that that I needed to go further in such  unification. I became in 1998 a progressive Anglican.

In your articles there is a great sense of humor. Do you think some more of it would be  useful also for the economic scientists who seems sometimes a little detached from reality?

It’s not so much detached from reality as you think. But, yes, a sense of humor, unless it  is at other people’s expense, keeps us all from lofty arrogance.

You work in an almost totally male environment: was it difficult for you?

Not when I was a man! Now it is sometimes funny, sometimes irritating. If the  conversation turns to how few women there are in economic science I sometimes  remark, “Well, I did my part!” The women laugh and the men become uncomfortable!


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One ounce of action to promote liberty is worth a million books on liberty. One Thatcher = a million Hayeks.

I have noticed a tendency among some academics to exaggerate their importance in the real world.

But that’s grossly inappropriate.

One ounce of action to promote liberty is worth a million books on liberty.

Even Hayek was merely a pen pusher, in the end. The affairs of men are not governed even REMOTELY by the writings of pen pushers.

Thatcher or Reagan were far superior (by an order of magnitude) to all the academics in the world combined.

It is extraordinarily difficult to actually achieve liberty in the real world.

The contribution of Narasimha Rao to liberty in India is a million times more than the contribution of any academic/s.

I challenge any academic to even remotely try to create and run a liberal party and persuade actual voters/ citizens to their point of view. They just don’t have 1/10th of the skill set needed for that purpose.

All real liberals have been political actors, starting with Locke. No one can be a liberal and sit out there pushing a pen.

The liberal must continually engage with society and directly fight for liberty.

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The need to mandate freedom. Because none of us – not even groups of people – are “wise” enough.

There are two key points about freedom that need to be clearly understood.


The ONLY way to protect freedom is to prescribe it; to mandate it.

But one may well ask: how can authoritarian action (rules) make us free? Is that not a contradiction in terms?

To understand this is critical for anyone who wishes to promote freedom. The end goal of all political action to promote liberty is to mandate it through the laws.

And this is why: because otherwise we are going to depend on the whims and fancies of whoever is the “ruler”/ “decision-maker” at a given point in time. And since “rulers” are short lived, we become dependent on interpretations of judges – who are more often than not busybodies and inclined to impose their views on the general public.

Locke was only partly right. There may well be a concept of “natural liberty” but it is entirely meaningless without the protection of the laws.

In the real world there is only that much liberty which is “prescribed” in the laws. And laws are “mandatory”.

The best example of this point is the USA. The only reason the USA will survive socialists like Obama/ Clinton/ Trump is because its Constitution prescribes freedom. The best example is the First Amendment. This amendment forbids the imposition of any limitations to speech. It says that no matter how wise you are, the House of Representatives or the American President can’t do anything about what you may choose to say.

The key point here is that it was the founders of America who deliberately constrained themselves through this process. They were extremely wise people but they said that neither they nor anyone else in the country would prevent people from saying what they wanted. Only if they harmed others (e.g. libel, criminal intent such as shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre without there being an actual fire, etc.) could the govenrment do anything about it.

Some people argue that a Parliament is “supreme” and so should have the ability to prescribe – based on the situation – whether something can be said or not, or how free the people can be.

But that’s the whole point about freedom: for the people to mandate that no one shall restrict their freedom.


The sub-text of the above point is that there are no wise men.

There is clear proof that consulting a group generally leads to a better and more informed decision.

On the other hand, there is a huge issue with group think. Also, the opinions of members of a group can be extremely wrong.

Extensive evidence abounds that “experts” in human affairs make no better forecasts than anyone else. There are no “experts” in human affairs.

Given this fundamental constraint, it is crucial that no group of people constrain other people’s freedom of thought/ action.

Groups must mandate freedom.


This post is closely related to my previous point about there being absolutely no scope for prior consent in a liberal party. The only way to ensure that is to MANDATE that the NE will not stop party members from acting.

It requires rules to be established to ensure freedom. It requires the NE formally constraining itself, just like the founders of America constrained themselves. No person or even group, should have the power to stop members from acting.

Only after an action has occurred, and it is found incompatible with the party’s manifesto or the general ideology of liberalism, should the party have a role in the matter.

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The sugar industry in India – preliminary notes

SBP issued a press release on the sugarcane industry yesterday.

This has led to a question regarding the calculations in the media release.

“The market price of molasses is around Rs.7,000 per ton but the UP state government pays mills a no more than Rs.2000 per ton.” But the price you have quoted is the MSP, a price applicable only if the farmers fail to sell their produce in the running season and this is the amount government offers to them as a degree of relief. It is not true that the farmers are forced to sell at this price initially. Even when they fail to sell sugarcane in the running season, there is no force to sell it to the government. It is an offer, which they may take to reduce their losses or decline and suffer the full loss.

Besides, we would like you to furnish some links of credible reports that say that the Uttar Pradesh government is offering Rs 2,000 per tonne for molasses.

My initial response

This matter is rather complex as farmers receive a price for sugarcane, not for molasses. A key leader of SBP made calculations and worked out that the effective price being paid to farmers for the molasses component is well below Rs.2000 per ton.

The issues raised in our press release have been raised here:


“A sugar industry official said the compulsory sales to the liquor manufacturers would result in a distorted market, where price of molasses to liquor manufacturers is one-sixth or 16-17 per cent of open market price.”

and here: http://www.sugaronline.com/website_contents/view/1217071 “But with the state government favoring blatantly the liquor industry,”

The problem is that this is a highly detailed calculation, and all the facts are not available to the outsider (i.e. farmers). There are wheels within wheels in the sugar industry. It is hard to disentangle the mess.

All one can say is that there is no business for the government to be dabbling in administering prices, setting quotas, restricting trade, etc.



Rangarajan Report of 2010: Report of the Committee on the Regulation of Sugar Sector in India: The Way Forward

Parliamentary research blog’s report: http://www.prsindia.org/theprsblog/?tag=frp

Indian sugar policy: Government role in production expansion, and transition from importer to exporter  [this report suggests that farmers are being given higher prices than international prices, to ensure high supply of sugar in India.]

Question in Parliament: http://www.indiansugar.com/PDFS/FRP%20FOR%20SUGARCANE-LS-1754.pdf

Quora question: Why are Indian sugar mills running under a loss? If there is surplus production, why don’t they export it?

Various Problems of Sugar Industry in India

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