SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to the Free Mind podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm joined today by Deirdre McCloskey, distinguished professor of economics and history emerita, and professor of English and communication emerita at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Professor McCloskey has also held tenured appointments at the University of Iowa and the University of Chicago. She's received nine honorary degrees, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the winner of numerous academic prizes and is the author of 22 books. Our conversation today explores topics in her latest book titled Leave Me Alone and I'll Make You Rich, co-authored with Art Carden. We discuss the effects of liberalism on human progress, the challenges and benefits liberalism derives from innovation, whether popular economic critiques of liberalism hold water and her unique intellectual biography that spans over 50 years in higher education in a wide variety of academic disciplines. 

All right, Deirdre McCloskey, welcome to the Free Mind podcast.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: I'm very pleased to be here.

SHILO BROOKS:  It is a delight for us to get to host you at the Benson Center, especially given that you've just sort of reached the culmination of quite a trilogy of books. The Bourgeois Era trilogy. I had the pleasure of reading a book that, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but the thesis of what seems to be, or the purpose of which seems to be to condense some of that down...


SHILO BROOKS:: Into a readable book, popular book.


SHILO BROOKS:: It's called everybody out there, Leave Me Alone and I'll Make You Rich. And

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: And it's on Audiobooks.

SHILO BROOKS: It's on Audiobooks, so everyone should listen to it. But what I want to start out by asking you is I want to ask you about this Bourgeois Era trilogy. These books are long, it's 1900, 2000 pages worth of work, a kind of magnum opus by you. Can you tell us the thesis and purpose of this trilogy? What does it contain?

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Oh, it started out in the early two thousands. I had been thinking about it for a little while, about a defense of what we ordinarily call capitalism. And I felt that the opposition to capitalism, which you find in academic life a lot by my friends in English and history and so forth, comes from a false position. And so I wanted to defend it. So I did in a book called The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. And it turned out to be what they call in the philosophy department, virtue ethics, which sounds rather commonsensical, but is sort of is unusual in philosophy departments, in that it says that a virtuous society or a virtuous person in business, or a virtuous person in academic life should have named virtues. Things like temperance, love, justice, prudence, so forth.

So having done that, having to my satisfaction, defended this so-called capitalism, I realized that I had stumbled on an answer to Adam Smith's question, namely, what are the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. And that question, how we got so rich, is obviously central to economics because the enrichment of the last two centuries is completely bizarre. It's not just confined to the United States or Britain or something. It's now in China and India. And the world in general has been growing at a rapid rate that is income per head.

And so in the next two books I used, starting from this virtue ethical perspective, I said, what was it about the 18th century and the 19th century that resulted in this enormous, what I call the Great Enrichment, much better term, I think, than the Industrial Revolution. And here's why, the Great Enrichment is a factor of 33,000% increase in real income per head. And so I thought in the next two books, I'd say what I had concluded about the causes of the wealth of nations and the cause basically was liberty. Hence this popular book, Leave Me Alone and I'll Make You Rich. Right? We call it the Bourgeois deal, the middle class deal.

SHILO BROOKS: So you say in the trilogy, as you just put it, that the cause of progress is liberalism.


SHILO BROOKS: That liberalism is the cause.


SHILO BROOKS: As a social scientist, as I was reading the book, I thought, all right, well, here's what she's doing. She's boiling down a multivariable cause into a single cause.


SHILO BROOKS: And in a way, I study Nietzsche. Nietzsche says one thing that philosophers always like to do is they like to take a causa prima, give it as an account of the entire world and its development. And he says, this is a great way to tyrannize over the world, to say a single cause is responsible for everything. Can you give a deeper and more complex and nuanced account of liberalism as a cause, given the fact that it almost looks like a reduction to the point of over simplicity.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: I understand. And people often say this about my work and this and lots of other works. They say, oh, things are always multi caused, but you know, if I drop a pen on the floor, it proceeds by the, it accelerates at 32 feet per second squared. And yes, there's air resistance and other things going on, but not much. And so I think in science or scholarship, what we're looking for is the biggest cause or 90% of the explanation. And I would argue that freeing people from older hierarchies, which is the basic liberal idea, made them, inspirited them, you might say, to innovate and it's innovation that makes the other things that might be useful for a society like capital accumulation or skilled labor or something. It's the innovation that makes it valuable. That is to say, unless there's some purpose to having a railroad, there's no point in investing in one.

And the idea of the railroad comes before the investment. You have the idea and you think gee would really be good to have a railway between Manchester and Liverpool. Let's call it a railway. And then someone says, well, okay, maybe let's try that out. And they do. It works. Among the very many ideas that don't work. And what happened is that astonishingly after around 1800 in a place like Britain, there was this explosion of these new ideas, all kinds of new ideas. In this book with Art Carden, this popular book and in my books, my own books, I give long lists of amazing innovations like containerization, and so it's ideas that are the spring and they more or less have to be. Now in a way it is mono causal, I concede, but surely if we can agree on anything, it's that thought precedes action and a plan of action precedes the action and the action precedes the result. So I don't think it's wrong historically or economically to go back to ideas that caused the Great Enrichment.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. That's fair. And you spend a significant part of the first third, let's say, of this book citing statistical evidence that shows that progress has indeed occurred since 1800.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: And I have friends who deny it. I have friends on the left and so on the right say, oh, no, things were better in the old days, that would be the conservative view, or, oh no, this modern system is terrible for the poor people. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, which is not true

SHILO BROOKS: Right. Well, let me ask you this question, which I suspect is one you've fielded before, but one of the things, as I was reading through that I noticed was you tend to cite axes of material progress as evidence for your progress. And I think there are, some would argue, you mentioned conservatives a moment ago. Maybe some would say that there's been extraordinary material progress, and yet that has been accompanied by a deep moral and spiritual regress and possibly even degradation.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: I don't think so.

SHILO BROOKS: Well, go ahead.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: I'm not a conservative, I'm a 19th century liberal. And I don't believe say with Thomas Carlisle that the Middle Ages were very nice and that serfdom was wonderful and slavery was wonderful, for instance, that's a somewhat extreme case. But I think that as a Christian, I'm an Episcopalian, Anglican. And I believe that in fact, there's been spiritual progress since the 18th century and it often accompanies material progress.

Now people are always saying in an old tradition who you find in South Asia and in Christianity, that people are made virtuous by being poor, that if they have nothing, then they're better. And I don't think that's true. I think opportunities such as the one we're having that are only possible with modern technology and enrichment improves people's spiritual life. So you could say that riches are corrupting, and I think they can be, I think Donald Trump is a corrupt person. He's in his own personal hell right now. And always will be because he takes material acquisition as his north star. And that's surely a mistake. But being rich makes you able to buy onion skin editions of the Greek New Testament and so forth.

SHILO BROOKS: Right. Well, but I think there's some question about whether, and I want to pursue this line of thought, whether enlightenment is salutary. I don't deny it does what you say. Let me ask you a prior question though, that you could say the purpose of preliberal politics is to make human beings better. Let's take the ancient world, Aristotelian polis to make the citizens better. And then some will say that, well, what happens with liberal politics is really that we give up on the notion of making men better. And we say, pursue your appetites to their end.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: That's what people say.

SHILO BROOKS: Is this an accurate account of what liberalism does? I'm saying this because the first parts of your book are extraordinarily optimistic.


SHILO BROOKS: And I'm then trying to play devil's advocate and say, well, now liberalism, in fact, has caused some kind of moral degradation. It gave up on the notion that the purpose of politics to make men better, and merely unleashed their appetites, such that they're now last...

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Well, there's a man at Notre Dame, Patrick Deneen, who makes this case, this argument. And I think it's mistaken. Now, in one sense, as you say, liberalism does give up on this project of improving people, simply in the sense that it is prepared to countenance very many styles of life. So if you're gay or transgendered as I am, or a Catholic or a Protestant, in fact, liberalism comes out of the ending of the wars of religion, this idea, well, okay, we've slaughtered a third of the population of Germany, that didn't seem to achieve much now, what can we do by way of just tolerating each other?

And so in that case, the project, if you had it, to improve people by making them all good Catholics, for example, is abandoned. But that doesn't mean that liberalism isn't without an improving result. I think it is. I think, look, it can take this amoral uncentered materially distracted view. Someone was asked, a political philosopher was asked, does capitalism erode character? And he said, yes, of course it does, but so does everything else. We're fallen creatures, to put it in Christian terms. And so of course, socialism corrodes character. Orthodox Christianity can corrode character, take a look at the scandals in the Catholic church these days. Lots of things can corrode character, but I would argue and am actually in a book that I'm working on called God and Mammon: Public Theology for an Age of Commerce, that there's a form of liberalism, you could call it Christian liberalism, that does not abandon this project of seeking the good character.

SHILO BROOKS: And so under, and I'm interested in this project and I'm interested in what you just said, because I've been reading Tocqueville with a friend of mine. And of course, one of the things that Tocqueville thinks is crucial for the maintenance, at least, of American democracy, is Christianity.


SHILO BROOKS: He thinks that these two things are sort of like bread and butter in this way. Would you make the same argument that the maintenance of a liberal capitalistic society, or let me rephrase this, that the moral character of a liberal capitalistic society must be undergirded by a religion and that Christianity, in Tocqueville's case, is the one. And that when this stops happening, liberalism is in trouble.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Well, it may be in trouble, but the problem is that the alternatives also put people in trouble. And if you take a Christian nation to be the instrument, it can turn into a pogrom, dangerous, hateful, populism against Muslims or something. And if we build a theocracy, that won't necessarily make for good people, it's an issue I can see, but as I say, I don't think it's special to liberalism. And I think there's, look, the very Great Enrichment that came from what I call innovism, which is a much better word than capitalism, because it focuses on what actually caused the enrichment of people, new ideas in technology and institutions, that enrichment gives at least the possibility of universities like the University of Colorado, of higher education on a massive scale, on pursuing spiritual enlightenment in a way that a person who's unclear where her next meal is coming is not able to do.

It's not the case that the Middle Ages or something was more holy than we are not. Look, what you're asking is essentially, does commerce undermine the transcendent, the transcendent purposes of life? The answer to the question is so what? And my answer, I think, is it can, but needn't.

SHILO BROOKS: See this is good because one of the questions that I had for you is given the trajectory that you sketch for liberalism and the way that you wed its development to what you call innovism, I wanted to ask you, do you ever reach a point at which the innovations being spawned by liberalism undermine liberalism? And the reason I ask you that is because today I teach engineers political theory. Today, many would say that we've reached that place, that the kinds of innovations coming out of Silicon Valley, certainly with social media, the privacy questions, these sorts of things, the question of free speech and social media. And can you ban the President? That the innovation has led us to a moment in the history of liberalism when the liberal government itself, or at least liberal principles, are unable to control the very innovation that they nurture and nourish?

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Well, I don't think we need to control innovations because to think you control them is an engineer's view that I invent an automobile and then I steer it. And I think that's a dubious project, socially. Suppose we had central planning of the English language. How would that work out? Or central planning of friendship? You get a control from some governmental agency of who you're allowed to have friends with.

SHILO BROOKS: So one of the questions that I wanted to ask you was, is there a moment in the lifespan of liberalism when liberalism nurtures innovation to such an extent that those innovations undermine liberalism?

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: And the answer is no. Or to follow the same line of reasoning as I did before, it could be, but it doesn't have to be, because look, it's happened repeatedly. We invented writing and people railed, like for example, as Socrates did, against writing as contrasted with the kind of conversation you and I are having now. If it's written down, it's dead, isn't that terrible. You just have to follow the thoughts of the person you are reading. When the printing press was adopted in Germany, it had been invented actually in China centuries earlier, it had exactly the same results as the Internet does. Most of what was published was sermons on the one end and pornography and scandal on the other end and. And the newspaper, the great invention of the newspaper in the 17th, especially the 18th century in Europe, was first used massively for extortion

One of the ways that these little newspapers that published a few thousand copies a day or a week made their living was to threaten people to publish stories that would embarrass them and extract, this was routine. When the steam press came into existence in the middle of the 19th century and print runs got much better, much longer, vastly longer. You could publish, you could print in a single day half a million or a million copies of a newspaper, that made advertising the way to support the newspaper. But then it too had a corrupting effect, right? And the great newspaper barons in the United States, around the 1900s caused the Spanish Civil War. And you see what I'm getting at. As a historian, I have always to say, it's my professional responsibility, that there is no new thing under the sun.

And indeed, in this case, there is no new thing under the sun. That doesn't mean the problem goes away. It just means we don't need to get crazy and say, oh my God, my God, the sky is falling. The sky is not usually falling. And if it starts to fall, we can delicately prop it up.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. I think I, in general, tend to agree with your point of view. Although, one thing that I think is different between say today and the printing press, is what Silicon Valley's done is it's turned every single human being into a publisher, every single one of them

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Yeah. Well that was rather the effect. That's what people said about the printing press, right? This is outrageous. We used to have people copying manuscripts and it's taking half a year to do one. And this is awful. Now we're going to get tons of these things, right? My God, heresy is going to flourish. And indeed it did. One of the causes of the Protestant reformation, which was the last and most successful of many attempts to reform the church, the Western church, was the result of the printing press.

SHILO BROOKS: This is an interesting line of thought for us to pursue. And I've got a couple more questions along these lines that have occurred to me. I wonder if you might reflect on the phenomenon of what people call woke capital, now that we're talking about threats to liberalism and capitalism historically, is there a sense in which capitalism is acting as a kind of moral bludgeon, especially in recent years in a way that perhaps the system wasn't designed to?

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Well, I want to banish the word capitalism from our conversation, just if you don't mind because I much prefer the word innovism because capitalism gives the impression that capital accumulation is what mainly happens in the modern world. And that's not correct. The first cause is ideas and especially freedom of ideas. So we must be very careful about, say, increasing the severity of the laws of libel in Britain. They have much more strict laws of libel than we have in the United States because of the constitutional history of the First Amendment, which by the way, it didn't have much effect at all until the 20th century. Well into the 20th century. Local governments were ignoring the First Amendment. This happened quite frequently. So we need to be careful about... Again, we need to be wise.

We need to look at the long run and ask ourselves, are we not rushing to attack the latest excitement of the newspapers? There's an old saying in journalism, the formula is simplify then exaggerate, and that sells newspapers or gets clicks on the Internet, but it's not wise. And we as academics certainly need to keep trying to get people to be a little wiser than they are. But I think that companies should be allowed to express their ethical opinions if they want. It's always been so. That company that used slave labor or associated with itself with the Nazi regime was subject to criticism by consumers, boycotts and so forth. I think that's fine. I'm not too worried about it. As long as it's... In fact, here's one very important point. As long as it's not expressed in law, I think we'll be alright. The great danger is to bring in state coercion into the matter. And then I am deeply worried because you can go down a path from which you never recover if as in Erdogan's Turkey or Putin's Russia, you don't allow free speech in a radical way.

SHILO BROOKS: This is good because what we've done here so far, we've talked about whether innovation undermines liberalism. We looked at this phenomenon, sort of moral bludgeon of capitalism, although I know you don't like that word.




SHILO BROOKS: Although it's not liberal to police my speech, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: As long as I don't have power of coercion of the state.

SHILO BROOKS: That's fair.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: If I could call a cop and say, look, this guy isn't calling it innovism. Take him away.

SHILO BROOKS: That's a problem. That's a problem. Let's look at this phenomenon from the point of view, a little bit, from the left. And that is, I was in Silicon Valley last week, doing some fundraising work with these fantastically wealthy people. And one of the things they kept doing was telling me that they thought that the greatest political problem we faced was the wealth gap. And they all seem to feel very guilty that this existed. And much of their innovative intellectual resources have, they're marshaling in an effort to solve the problem of the wealth gap from which they think they benefit unjustly. So I'm curious to get your view of the threat that the wealth gap poses to the future, say, of American liberalism and just the talk that this is a tremendous threat for us, given your account of the optimism inherent in the liberal project.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Oh, but the talk is the problem. Not the facts. Fact is, that world inequality has radically fallen in the last 40 years. I think if you're going to talk in an ethical fashion about income distribution, you need to look at it in a world context, not just look at in California or something. But you have to ask, okay, if you're calculating Gini coefficient, or percentage of income, going to the top 10% versus the bottom 10%, in the world, because of the extraordinary development of China and India in the last 40 years, that wealth gap has gone down, not up. So it's just not true that there's a world problem of wealth gap, nor is there indeed in the United States or Britain or France. Really. So it's the talk that's the problem. People talk about it and talk about it and talk about it and come to believe it. If you say wrong things often enough, people assume they're true.

And furthermore, the people in Silicon Valley, I wish I had been there when you talked to them, because I would've contradicted them and said, look, understand. You're rich because you had a good idea. Most of the benefit of which is going to go to ordinary consumers. Bill Nordhaus, Nobel prize economist at Yale, calculated that since the Second World War, 2% of the social gain from innovation, such as Walmart's use of barcodes to control inventory, which was a big improvement in retailing, went to the people like the Sam Walton family, 98% went to consumers in lower prices.

So it's not the case that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer because the poor are in the 98%. And in any case, all that aside you, Silicon Valley person, ought to accept that the benefit in the first instance comes to you as a signal to the rest of us. It's not that you deserve it in some mythical sense because God has favored you, but you were lucky enough or smart enough to see that people might like to have a little device that could play music, would fit easily in their pocket or that they would like a personal computer when everyone around you is saying, no, no, all we need is a few enormous mainframe computers.

And those signals are terribly important for fueling innovism. If you don't have them, if you say, well, that's terrible. We'll take all of those gains away that the Walmart family or Bill Gates or something makes and hand them out to us, to the poor, the signals will be distorted. If you paid brain surgeons the same as you paid waiters, you'd have an excess of waiters and a massive shortage of brain surgeons. That would be a disaster.

SHILO BROOKS: Isn't one of the things that people, so I think you address in a very interesting way, the notion of wealth gap, insofar as you say something like, well, the measurement of the quality of life is not exclusively monetary. In other words, you mentioned the Walmart...

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: That's another point

SHILO BROOKS: That the goods that are provided at a low cost are themselves measures of progress. But what would you say to this, that people will say, well, the other dimension of the wealth gap, so there's this monetary one, but then there's the question of opportunity. That the opportunity has gone away, such that were you to be born, as many of the great Silicon Valley founders were, sort of ordinary people who had an idea in their garage, that the corporate control of this particular market and others is so pervasive that opportunity has gone away.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Yeah. Well, that's the monopoly argument to put it in one word. And it's been important in economic thinking for about a century and a half. And it's always the exception that people have. And the annoyance. People are talking these days about Google and Facebook and so forth being monopolies, or Walmart or Amazon, there are a bunch of monopolies and it's silly. They're not monopolies. They're very successful companies that do a very, very good job at what people want. And if you do a very, very good job at what people want, you get to be big. Classic example of this is McDonald's. Very interestingly portrayed in the Michael Keaton movie, The Founder, you take this ordinary small company and make it into McDonald's. That's because people want McDonald's. You say, oh, it's evil. That's not good food or something, but it's an inexpensive, moderately nourishing meal for ordinary people and a gathering place for families and so forth.

So we've got to get away from thinking that the price system and innovism is about individual justice or individual merit. I just did a debate with an English socialist in the magazine, not Discovery. What is it called? Anyway, I can't remember the name, but it's about, he says, should we hate billionaires? He said, yes, we should. And I said, no, we shouldn't because their billions are this massive signal. I'm not sure I've answered your question. I think I got off it a bit.

SHILO BROOKS: No, I think you're on the way to addressing it. And I just was asking about opportunity, the question about...

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: And so okay. And that's the other point. Has monopoly increased in the last couple of centuries? Everyone thinks so, it's completely wrong. Factually speaking, monopoly has dramatically fallen. And the reason is that modes of transportation, modes of communication have enormously cheapened, with the result that you can ride across town in your new bicycle to go to another store, or you can get on the Internet to find out what the reputation of this store and that store is. You can find a job in the yellow pages, not in the yellow pages, in the help wanted pages of the old time newspapers, all these developments that we... International obstacles to trade have been massively broken down since the Second World War. All these tend to make monopoly less permanent.

Walmart is a very successful business, but that doesn't make it permanent. Look, monopolies come from coercion. And the monopoly of coercion is the government. If the government insists that American Telegraph and Telephone company will have a monopoly over providing phone service in a certain area, then that's what happens. And that can go on for a very long time. Monopoly of AT&T existed for 80 years. So it's governments that make permanent big monopolies that actually harm us. But being big is not in itself what monopoly means. Being big can mean, and in the case of Walmart and Google and so forth, it means that they're very good at their job, leave them alone. And I'll make you rich.

SHILO BROOKS: I've heard that phrase somewhere before.


SHILO BROOKS: I want to turn the conversation now to something I heard you say in a video. If people are interested, Dierdre has done all sorts of talks and they're available on YouTube. And I encourage you to go listen to them. I read her book and went and watched a number of talks that she'd given over the past five or six years. But you were describing your intellectual development, and you said that you started off a Marxist. And then you became a Chicago school economist. And then you became a sort of libertarian. And I'm interested in that journey. Can you tell us how, because that's not, I suspect, I mean, I don't know, I'm not an economist myself, but it can't be that common. Maybe it is. But can you tell us how...

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: It's pretty common.

SHILO BROOKS: How did you, in your case?

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Well, I think it's the most, not the most, it's a very common intellectual biography in the 20th Century. And I think it'll continue to be, to start on the left as a generous socialist. When you're raised in a middle class family, my father was a professor too. You don't know where meat comes from and you don't understand the market at all. And when you discover as a, I say, a generous 14 year old or 15 year old, that there are poor people in the world, then your immediate instinct having been raised in a loving family is to apply the family model to the whole society. Let's make everyone happy by dividing up daddy's income. And it's an honorable office. It's an honorable thing to do. I don't think that people are bad to do this, but there's an old saying, an old joke.

Someone who is not a socialist at age 16 has no heart. Someone who's still a socialist at age 26 has no brain. Because this explosion of the family model to the nation doesn't work for the obvious reasons that although small groups of friends and families can give the right incentives to work hard and so forth. As St. Paul said, if you do not work, you should not eat. So those small incentives work very well in a small case, but they don't in a large. Then you get massive free riding. In the old Soviet Union, they would say, we pretend to work. And they, the government, pretends to pay us.

So that transition from the initial rather routine belief in socialism, as a family matter as a family theory, you should get over it as you enter the real world. And you notice that supply and demand works. And that meat comes from cows that you had to kill and so forth. And you get a more, as Freud said, you adopt the reality principle. Now it's interesting, my students who grew up on farms or in small businesses where they participated, had no trouble understanding this. It's only in these middle class occupations, very far up the supply chain, so to speak, where they don't see how the economy actually operates, that you get these 56 year old people who still haven't learned that socialism doesn't work.

SHILO BROOKS: And so this occurred to you relatively early in your academic career. And when you get to Chicago...

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: That's right. By that time, I was already tending towards free markets because I noticed that economic theory which I had learned at Harvard, not very well, but I'd learned it, applied to the world. You could actually use it to understand the world. I was interested in economic history. I wanted to understand olden times and supply and demand curves, and prudence as a principle and opportunity cost, and so on, seemed to make sense of that world. So when you believe in economics, as we say in economics, it's kind of a shorthand for people who believe in the market, but it's like infant baptism. Someone asks you, do you believe in infant baptism, believe in it, I've seen it. And when you get older, you start, if you're observant, you start to see that we're bathed in mutually advantageous deals, and that's really how the world works. And it's not the capitalist piling up, like Scrooge McDuck, masses of money in the back office.

SHILO BROOKS: But you know, one of the things that occurs to me as you describe these insights and describe your intellectual biography, is that when I read your work, and even as I sit here and talk to you, you bring to bear the insights of a person who is not narrow in their intellectual interests. And I know that you've held appointments outside of economics appointments, for example.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: English literature.

SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, exactly.


SHILO BROOKS: That I cannot emphasize enough to my students, how important that is, that curiosity. And I'm curious if you might reflect on the field of economic history for a moment because I have a friend who's an economic historian here at CU and he says this. I told him I would read it to you on the air. He says from his perspective, the field of economic history used to be dominated by debates about slavery, railroads, the role of institutions, the nature of the British Industrial Revolution, et cetera. But then he says, with few exceptions, the core of the field is less oriented around disagreement over these big ideas anymore. And he wonders if this seems right to you and whether this is a good development, and I ask you this now, because you're a big ideas thinker, you're a big ideas writer and that's, in his view and he's a tenured economic historian here, a dying breed. And he aspires in a way I think, to be that way.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Well, he should. My advice to him is to keep at it. The best advice I ever got was from my driving instructor in high school, aim high in steering. Don't aim the car in front of you, but look down the road to see the guy coming off on the right, and it turns out that if you steer aiming high, you don't wobble. So it's all together. And that became my motto in life. This was a very wise driving instructor.

SHILO BROOKS: Apparently.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: And if you aim high in steering and he's perfectly right, there's been a tendency to do what was called by the great philosopher and archeologist and historian, R. G. Collingwood. An essay he wrote in 1939 was called “Scissors and Paste History”. And he contrasted it with scientific history, which is history that asks a question and sees its way to answering it, as an important question was implied. And he's perfectly right. Was slavery going to die in the United States of its own weight? Well, we concluded, we economic historians, that it wasn't. So these apologies for the South saying, oh, the war of Northern aggression was unnecessary and just don't worry. Slavery was actually quite nice. And anyway, it was going to fall of its own weight. That turned out to be completely wrong.

Some others of us, including me, looked into the question of whether innovism in Britain had failed in the late 19th century. This is a big question, important because this is the first industrial nation. And if it had failed by the end of the 19th century, certain left wing views of the system, and indeed, right wing nationalist views, both of them are justified. But no, it hadn't failed. I think there's a sort of a failure of nerve, which I see that he doesn't have, if it's a man and, he should keep at it. [foreign language 00:44:20] as you say in Italian.

SHILO BROOKS: Right. I'm going to tell him you said this. When did it occur to you, I'm just curious in your career as we wrap up, that you needed to think bigger about English literature, about philosophy that these were...

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Well, the advantage I have is that I came from a family that encouraged ideas and I was confident. All three of my mother's children are confident because she always encouraged us. She died about six months ago at the age of 98, having had a full life. And all three of us are self-confident in a kind of crazy way that we don't think of academic life as a job, a routine job, we regard it as a calling. And so all three of us go way out on the thin ice. And I was very willing to do this, having learned at Chicago really, after Harvard, I was 12 years on the faculty at the University of Chicago. And that's where I really learned to think like an economist in the conventional sense, having learned that, frankly, I got rather bored with it and wanted to do something else.

And I saw that you could, well, I started thinking about the rhetoric of economics, how economists argue. And eventually very slowly, I got to the point where I saw that speech persuasion runs the economy, the actual economy, not just its theory. I have actually a longish article that describes this intellectual development. I can't say that it happened very quickly. I'm a very slow thinker. I'm kind of stupid. And that's the key point to keep asking the question and don't let the fashionable answer get in the way. Say, oh, geez, gosh, I don't understand that. Oh, wow. This is what caused modern economic growth.

I remember in graduate school when I first realized that the function of prices is to allocate not to be just, that justice has nothing to do with it. That doesn't mean it's unjust, but it does mean that's not what it's about. And I had been told this in my first course in economics, six years before or five years before. And I can remember studying for my general exams. It hit me that this was true. That's why my forehead is sloped. I keep banging my forehead. Oh my God. Oh yeah. Is that it?

SHILO BROOKS: Well, you're an embodiment of why we call the podcast The Free Mind podcast, to think outside the fashionable trends. I have one closing question for you. And this is a question I ask everybody who comes on. And that is if you could recommend to our listeners who are interested in your ideas and your intellectual trajectory, three primary source books, not scholarly books, primary source books that they should read, what would they be? I know you're a big fan of Adam Smith. So I suspect Smith has to be among these, but what would you say?

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Well, I would certainly recommend The Wealth of Nations, but it's an 18th century book and it's a little hard to read for moderns.

SHILO BROOKS: That's okay.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: That's okay. But I'd also very much recommend his other book, which I didn't read until I was in my late fifties, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was his other book. He would not have tenure at a major university these days. He only wrote two books, and no articles.

SHILO BROOKS: Ah, unbelievable.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: It's really, just, man's obviously not taking life seriously. So those would be two books I'd recommend. Let's see, I can think of text books that would be good to read but...

SHILO BROOKS: It could be novels, anything, any book that you think someone interested in what you're interested in, the Bourgeois era, you know...

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Well, actually a wonderful book that I've used in courses is Thomas Mann's first successful novel Buddenbrooks, which was about his north German merchant family. They were dealers in grain and it's a deep inquiry into Bourgeois virtues, into what a person in the middle class is like. And they're not evil people. Without them, we would be very poor. So I highly recommend the Bourgeois virtues.

SHILO BROOKS: That sounds good to me. And I recommend Leave Me Alone and I'll Make You Rich. Everybody, you can pick it up in audio book or in hard copy. Deirdre McCloskey, thank you so much for being with us today. It's been a pleasure.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Thank you, dear. I've enjoyed it.

SHILO BROOKS: The Free Mind podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. You can email us feedback at, or visit us online at