Deirdre McCloskey at Cato Unbound
This month’s Cato Unbound features a lead essay by economist and polymath Deirdre McCloskey. Though she’s been professionally associated with the Chicago School, her ideas are anything but predictable, and she’s been one of the strongest critics of the mainstream of her discipline.
Economic activity, she argues, is driven primarily by forces outside of conventional economic theory. Sure, there’s supply and demand, and we all know the story, and there’s nothing terribly wrong with it, at least as far as it goes. Elaborations on the model aren’t wrong either — externalities, transaction costs, asymmetrical information, problems of coordination and public goods — these too are fine, as far as they go.
Where she disagrees is in her claim that a whole lot of things have to happen inside people’s minds before these things become terribly interesting to talk about. The decision to enter a marketplace, or to behave in ways that we might call “a market,” or even just the decision to look for economic incentives, all depend on some fairly deep value judgments. The creation of a highly market-driven society implies a commitment to a set of values.
What values are we talking about? Here’s a sample:
The Big Economic Story of our times has not been the Great Recession of 2007–2009, unpleasant though it was. And the important moral is not the one that was drawn in the journals of opinion during 2009 — about how very rotten the Great Recession shows economics to be, and especially an economics of free markets. Failure to predict recessions is not what is wrong with economics, whether free-market economics or not. Such prediction is anyway impossible: if economists were so smart as to be able to predict recessions they would be rich. They’re not. No science can predict its own future, which is what predicting business cycles entails. Economists are among the molecules their theory of cycles is supposed to predict. No can do — not in a society in which the molecules are watching and arbitraging.
The important flaw in economics, I argue here, is not its mathematical and necessarily mistaken theory of future business cycles, but its materialist and unnecessarily mistaken theory of past growth. The Big Economic Story of our own times is that the Chinese in 1978 and then the Indians in 1991 adopted liberal ideas in the economy, and came to attribute a dignity and a liberty to the bourgeoisie formerly denied. And then China and India exploded in economic growth. The important moral, therefore, is that in achieving a pretty good life for the mass of humankind, and a chance at a fully human existence, ideas have mattered more than the usual material causes.
A society that denigrates small businesses, small landowners, entrepreneurship, thrift, and innovation will see less of each. It will have different laws, customs, and institutions. Its resources will be used differently. Even its class structure will be different.
As another example, the French Old Regime had a Law of Derogation (dérogation is a cognate in French; it’s also where we get the word “derogatory”) that kept nobles out of certain professions on pain of losing their nobility. These tended to involve retail, money changing, and certain industries and crafts. The French had another unpleasant word for these trades — vil — and it’s also a cognate. A third word — roturier — has no precise English equivalent. It denotes “a person who is not a noble,” but its connotation is more like “a bastard.” French is full of words like these, while most similar words in English are relatively shallow imports from other languages: canaille, hoi polloi, plebes.
Societies that make a place for the artisan, the entrepreneur, the innovator — societies that see these people as valuable — will prosper. Mainstream economics, however, might not be able to say just why.