Reprinted from Future of Freedom Foundation
Leave me alone and I will make you rich – how the bourgeois treaty has enriched the world By Deirdre Nansen McCloskey and Art Cardin (University of Chicago Press, 2020).
Throughout almost human history, people have lived miserably – much worse than Thomas Hobbes famously said. Improvement? There was none. Happiness? It was only for the rulers. The people of humanity were expected to endure life without complaint. Rewards may come later.
Then something strange happened introducing a new idea, name progress. People start using ideas to make themselves better. Like a chemical reaction that started from a small flask, a revolution in social and economic thought spread from a few small places in Europe. As a result, the standard of living has increased and is about 3,000 percent higher today than it was a few centuries ago. What, exactly, brought about this?
According to authors Deidre McCloskey and Art Carden, the answer is that the people accepted what they called the “bourgeois agreement.” The title of the book explains the important point, which is that progress will happen when people (all of them, not just a few) have the freedom to work for themselves. The “development” that some bring will spread to the benefit of everyone else. The catalyst for the rapid progress of mankind was freedom and liberty.
This is exactly what happened, the authors (the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Samford, respectively) argue that the idea of independence originated in northwestern Europe. The old social system (in Europe and elsewhere) held aristocrats, priests and military men in high esteem, while merchants, artisans and peasants were in the lower plains. There was no reason why this change should have started (in the Dutch Republic, ca. 1500), but it was there that people began to think that it was a good thing to produce, trade and make a profit. Thus began “innovationism”, not “capitalism” (a term disliked by writers). People with heads for business were free to produce and trade, while others could gain for themselves if they produced what they were willing to give, or lose when they did not.
Prosperity comes from freedom. What extinguishes freedom is power, and the worst governments run by power. McCloskey and Carden write, “Big governments impose more power on more people – people chat innocently or stream or weave or trade in the economy. We believe, and you should, that the more unwilling masters the citizens have, the worse they are materially and spiritually. With many masters with excessive power, they are reduced to children. Absolutely corrupts power. “
And that’s what worries McCloskey and Carden – the possibility that we’re going the wrong way, narrowing the field of freedom. There are a lot of people in the society who have a great idea to fix what they think is wrong and they want to get it done through the government. Some of them are “progressive” statisticians and others are “conservative” statisticians, and where they agree that government is the right tool to achieve their goals. Those who oppose their plans are best known as “liberals” and the writers consistently refer to themselves as such. I applaud them for working to rescue a good word from a century of abuse, as well as clarify our political discourse.
The writers are irresistibly optimistic. They know that free people will innovate, cooperate and solve problems peacefully. But they also acknowledge the power of pessimism to undermine freedom. Their book is one of the most challenging for statisticians, and here is one of my favorites: “You see pessimism as more honorable than optimism. Pessimism says you really, really care about the world’s poor and miserable, and really, really want to do more, or at least force other people to do more. “That’s right. Fills their lives with a display of their sympathy, which is always associated with government coercion.
Most Leave me alone Dedicated to refuting the general objection that statisticians have raised about the perceived dangers of a truly liberal society.
One of the criticisms is that if we allow “excessive” economic freedom, the result will be moral and spiritual decay. Michael Sandel, a professor at Harvard Philosophy, for one, complains that marketing “corrupt” things that he believes should be treated at a higher level than “uncomfortable” trade. McCloskey and Cardin responded strongly:
Sandals worried that the market might crowd out the Holy. A corporate financing in the primary classroom can crowd out self-critical education about innovation. Yet Sandel did not tell his students that state funding could lead to a multitude of self-critical educations about bad outcomes, say, the unimaginable patriotism taught to McClosky in childhood or the unimaginable environmentalism taught to Cardin.
Another reason many people reject liberalism is that they believe that for some, economic progress must come at the expense of others, especially the world’s poor. Americans are told that our wealth should make us feel guilty because it means poverty for the “poor.” Naturally, statisticians play with that guilt for taxing foreign aid and economic development programs. They don’t do any good work, they create jobs for the lucky people who can run them.
McCloskey and Carden go back to the zero-sum notion that wealth for a small number of people includes poverty for the rest. They write:
For one thing, as we have argued, the poor have been the main beneficiaries of great prosperity, considering that eating enough food is a little more important to a billionaire than any other yacht to human well-being. For the other, prosperity was not limited to Europe and its overseas expansion. Even many poor countries like Bangladesh are now improving rapidly.
But what about the environment? If we let liberalism work, will we not destroy the planet, change the climate, and run out of resources? Of course, we must have strong government policy to prevent this, right? The author answers in the negative. They agree that we need to be concerned about the environment but argue that we do not need massive government intervention, which ensures that there is no need for much benefit among the poor if we return to the “primitive, zero-sum world that is underpinned by populism, left or right.” . “
Another argument against liberalism is that it leads to “unacceptable” discrimination. The rich will be much richer, which the government has to prevent. The authors respond that material equality is not a morally relevant goal, writing that “what matters is the perfect material quality of life, not anger that anyone else can do well.” The statistics are based on jealousy, but, as the authors say, we should not allow this to become an obstacle to progress.
We need more than just big government to “save us” from liberalism and prosperity, we need to remove it from the trap it has created for us. Even “mild socialism,” they write, “puts people under pressure to commit state-induced violence or racism or environmental irrationality.”