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From the beginning, classical liberalism has been a big tent with a wide diversity of ideas inside it. Watch the full interview with Dave Rubin and Brandon Turner here .
Comments Off on No, you can’t multitask. To succeed, you need to focus.
If you want a great career in the 21st century, you need to stop trying to multitask and start doing “deep work.”
That’s one of the big ideas from Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport. He urges us to be aware that “there are different types of work and some types have way bigger returns than others.”
In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport explains the difference between deep work and shallow work. You are doing deep work when your professional activities are “performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push[es] your cognitive capacities to the limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
In contrast, “shallow work describes activities that are more logistical in nature, that don’t require intense concentration.” Shallow work efforts, explains Newport, “tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” In other words, they’re the type of work efforts that make it easy for your employer to replace you.
Deep work, Newport explains, is rare.
A 2012 McKinsey Global Institute study found that more than a quarter of the average worker’s day is spent answering and reading emails. When you throw in other disruptions such as meetings, checking your phone (the average user spends over 2 hours a day in 76 interactions with their phone), and social media, it is easy to see why deep work is rare.
Yet, Newport argues, while deep work is becoming increasingly rare, “at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
It takes deep work to master hard things. To thrive in today’s rapidly changing economy requires a commitment to a never-ending process of deep work. Newport offers this example:
Intelligent machines are complicated and hard to master. To join the group of those who can work well with these machines, therefore, requires that you hone your ability to master hard things. And because these technologies change rapidly, this process of mastering hard things never ends: you must be out to do it quickly, again and again.
The importance of deep work is echoed by George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen in his book Average Is Over. What Cowen calls “quality labor with unique skills” will still remain scarce in this highly competitive global economy. Cowen offers up some questions to help us see if we will remain competitive:
Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are computers helping people in China and India compete against you?
Take a hard look at your work day. Are you honing your ability to do deep work? Your position in the labor force is likely to deteriorate if you are only capable of shallow work.
If you’re only doing shallow work now, what can you do about it?You can cultivate your ability “to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” explains Newport. One of his suggestions for engaging in more deep work is: stop trying to multitask.
Are you multitasking?
I write “stop trying” because research shows that human beings can’t multitask, they can only switch-task. Each time we switch-task, we lose the possibility of entering into a highly focused state, what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” Switch-tasking is so disruptive that it can reduce our productivity by up to 40%. You are literally working harder to produce less.
Echoing Csikszentmihalyi, Newport describes how good a state of flow in deep work feels compared to the stress of shallow work:
We know it’s satisfying to enter a state where you’re giving full, rapt attention to something that you’re good at…. [On the other hand,] someone who’s based mainly in shallow work, neurologically speaking, is going to eventually construct an understanding of their world that is stressful and fractured.
The late Stanford University communications professor Clifford Nass, along with his colleagues Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner, studied multitaskers with the belief that they would uncover cognitive powers of focus that multitaskers had that others didn’t. They couldn’t find such a power.
Not only do chronic multitaskers lose time switch-tasking, but they also alter their brains in not-so-salutary ways. In an interview, Nass explains, “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.”
The multitaskers “actually think they’re more productive,” but they are deluded. Nass explains why: “They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand.… They’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it [than nonmultitaskers]. So they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”
Multitaskers claim, “When I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused.” But according to Nass, the truth is that “they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.”
In other words, multitaskers have lost the ability to do deep work. The way back to deep work takes time and commitment. As Nass explains, “When we try to revert our brains back, our brains are plastic but they’re not elastic. They don’t just snap back into shape.”
In a Microsoft study on shrinking attention spans — “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted”—Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella observed that an important trait for success was becoming rarer: “The true scarce commodity of the future will be human attention.”
Stop making excuses.
Are you blaming your circumstances — for example, a demanding boss — for your choice to not engage in deep work? Are you keeping your eye on a future prize — for example, a promotion or a salary increase — rather than making the day-to-day choice to engage in deep work? Are you reading this article and thinking, “Easy for Newport to say, but he doesn’t know my world?”
In her book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, Winifred Gallagher offers this guidance: “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love — is the sum of what you focus on.” What are you focused on today? How much of your day is spent on emails, meetings, or social media? How you choose to spend your time today may be crowding out the uninterrupted time necessary for you to do deep work.
To make deep work the core of your working life, Newport suggests keeping a scoreboard:
It seems like a simple thing, but without it, it’s so easy to go through a week and just say, “Well, I was busy and I think I did some deep work in there.” Once you start keeping score, you look at it and say, “I did one hour out of a 40-hour week? I’m embarrassed.” A compelling scoreboard drives you to action.
One caveat: a scoreboard only drives us into action if we stop blaming, take a hard look at the consequences of our choices, and decide there is a better way. If we can honestly say, “My choices have left something to be desired, and now I am ready to make different ones,” then we are at the bus stop for real change.
Comments Off on The right to refuse service? Business owners and gay marriage
Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, by John Corvino, Ryan T. Anderson, and Sherif Girgis, Oxford University Press, 352 pages, $21.95
Steve Tennes, an orchard owner in Michigan, recently refused to host a same-sex wedding on his property, instead referring the couple to another orchard.
Business owners have profound incentives to serve customers. It is a rare proprietor who will turn away a paying customer because of a religious conviction.
Yet over the past few years, several business owners like Tennes have done just that. These men and women believe their faith prohibits them from participating in same-sex wedding ceremonies.
Contrary to popular belief, what Tennes did is perfectly legal in Michigan. The Great Lakes State, like about half of the states, has no law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
But the Michigan town of East Lansing, where Tennes brings his produce to the farmers’ market, has a local ordinance prohibiting such conduct. Because Tennes will not host same-sex weddings at his orchard, the city banned him from selling fruit at its market. He responded by suing the town for violating his religious freedom. Litigation is ongoing.
Such cases are at the heart of Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, a new point-counterpoint book by John Corvino, Ryan T. Anderson, and Sheriff Girgis. All three authors value religious liberty and oppose unjust discrimination. But as they point out in their joint introduction, “The devil is in the details.”
The Case for Limiting Religious Exemptions
Corvino begins the debate by providing a reasonable case for severely limiting religious exemptions. In good libertarian fashion, he contends that laws restrict liberty and so they shouldn’t be passed unless there are very good reasons to do so. If such reasons exist, all citizens should have to follow the laws regardless of their religious convictions.
So, for instance, his solution to the problem of Native Americans who feel compelled to use peyote in religious ceremonies is not to exempt them from laws banning its use but to eliminate the law altogether. Then anyone, religious or not, can use peyote for whatever reasons they desire.
Corvino doesn’t like religious exemptions, but he doesn’t reject them altogether. He concedes, for instance, that the state should not compel citizens to kill. If the nation is conscripting soldiers, pacifists should be offered an alternative to military service. Similarly, medical professionals should not be forced to participate in abortions or euthanasia. These accommodations should be available to religious and nonreligious citizens alike.
Other than in issues of life and death, most accommodations would disappear in Corvino’s ideal world. This is not to say he is entirely unsympathetic to florists, bakers, orchard owners, and others who believe they should not participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies. He suggests three different ways in which they could be protected without religious accommodations. His preferred method is to revise antidiscrimination laws to exclude small firms that offer expressive or wedding-related services.
The Case for Religion as a Basic Human Good
Anderson and Girgis, by way of contrast, make a robust but accessible philosophical argument for the importance of religious liberty. Drawing from the philosopher John Finnis’s work, they contend that religion is a “basic human good” and that the purpose of the state is to “protect the ability of people to pursue all the basic goods.”
Anderson and Girgis recognize that no right is absolute. If the state has a compelling reason to prevent a religiously motivated action, it may do so. With respect to discrimination, they propose that antidiscrimination laws should trump religiously motivated actions only when private treatment of a particular group imposes material and/or social harms that the law can best cure, and the particular proposed antidiscrimination provision is drawn narrowly enough to (1) suppress interactions that inflict those material and social harms, (2) avoid banning too many legitimate or harmless interactions, and (3) avoid treading too far onto other interests like conscience, religion, and speech.
Applying this test would protect the orchard owners, bakers, and florists who have been sued or prosecuted under antidiscrimination laws. But it would not exempt every religiously motivated action; for example, racial discrimination could still be prohibited.
There is much, much more to this book. Collectively, the essays provide an excellent overview of the main issues in cases involving religious liberty and antidiscrimination statutes. Both sides offer reasonable and well-articulated arguments to support their positions.
Far too often, debates about these matters degenerate quickly into impugning motives and calling names. A critically important contribution of the book is that Corvino, Anderson, and Girgis show that people with deeply held convictions can have a rational argument about controversial issues.
Dave Rubin and Deirdre McCloskey: Free Trade, Trans in Academia, and the (Classical) Liberal Heritage — Full InterviewComments Off on Dave Rubin and Deirdre McCloskey: Free Trade, Trans in Academia, and the (Classical) Liberal Heritage — Full Interview
Dave Rubin: We’re continuing our partnership with Learn Liberty this week, and joining me is an author of seventeen books, a former professor of economics, history, English, and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a historian and economist in her own right, Deirdre McCloskey. Welcome to The Rubin Report.
Deirdre McCloskey: Well, thank you. I’m very glad to be here.
Rubin: That is quite a bio for you. It took me a while because there was a lot that I had to leave out but there’s only so many words I can say in a sentence.
McCloskey: Well, I’m very old, so I’ve had a very complicated life. I’m also an adjunct professor of classics and philosophy, or was, and I’ve taught philosophy for money in Holland. I feel that you can’t be a real economist, which is what my original training was, without at least reading books in the other fields, to kind of put the rationality of humans in some kind of context, so you include the other things they do.
Rubin: Yeah. All right, so before we get going here, I thought the best way to start would be to read a quote from you. I’ve never done this before in the year plus that I’ve been doing this show, but I thought this was so perfect, and it sort of captures everything about you, and I think you know what I’m going to read already. I want to get this right. “I’m a literary quantitative post-modern free market progressive Episcopalian Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man, not conservative. I’m a Christian libertarian.”
McCloskey: That’s me there. That’s me. All the way.
Rubin: I mean you’ve given me everything here. I don’t even know where to go from here. Okay. Where should we go from here? All right, well, let’s start because I don’t think we have to spend a tremendous amount of time on it unless you want to, but let’s just start with the trans stuff.
McCloskey: Well, sure. I was born Donald, which by the way in Irish means world ruler, so you can apply this to our president, our new president.
Rubin: Oh, lordy, lordy. We’ll get to him in a little bit.
McCloskey: We’ll get to him in a while. Then I, from age eleven on, I wanted to be a woman, but I was born in 1942, so I’m very aged. In 1953 there was nothing to be done about it, so I said, okay, I got to be a guy. So you’re looking at the captain of her high school football team, admittedly a very small school. I was an athlete in college and was married for thirty years to the love of my life and have a couple of grown children and three grandchildren. I had a full male life up to age 53 and then I…. My joke is: did I want to be an old man or an old woman? I thought, oh well, let’s be an old woman. It’s not as trivial. This isn’t about cost and benefit. It’s not a career move to become a female professor. That doesn’t improve you….
Rubin: Yeah, the idea that you even framed that within an economic model is sort of amazing.
McCloskey: I did. At one point I did about two months or so before I realized that I could do it and should do it, which was August of 1995, I actually did a cost-benefit study of changing gender. I mean, this is insane. This was not how you make decisions.
Rubin: So what did you do? Did you sat down with two columns and….
McCloskey: I sat down with two columns. It was completely ridiculous and then in the middle of August in ’95, I, as the English say, they’ve got a nice expression, I twigged to it. I got it. That I could do it and should do it. I was not a sad sack before. I was not going to commit suicide or something, but I’m happier. Unfortunately my marriage family turned against me. My former wife of thirty years and my children haven’t spoken to me since those days.
Rubin: Wow. Did your wife know when you first got married or throughout the marriage that….
McCloskey: Yeah, throughout the marriage she knew what I knew, which was that I was a heterosexual cross dresser. Eh, every once in a while, not very often, I would dress in women’s clothes, not in her presence, and it wasn’t a big deal. If like a foot fetish or something, guys as women learn to have a lot of little weirdnesses that they go in for and it doesn’t really amount to anything often. That’s how I viewed it for decades.
I was terribly ashamed when I was younger, and then finally, in my forties or something, I said, oh well, okay, so what? So we went along perfectly well and then that last year, 1995, I finally twigged as I said.
Rubin: When you did it, at that age…. I mean people think of it now…. I mean trans has become sort of hot now.
McCloskey: Not in 1995.
Rubin: It’s the.… It…. Right, it wasn’t at that time. There was really sort of nobody to.… I’m sure you could find somebody academically to look at.
McCloskey: Not too many.
Rubin: If you did some research you could find somebody.
McCloskey: Very few.
Rubin: But very few in terms of culturally and on television and all that kind of stuff. When you decided to do it, what was the reaction after? You had a career, you were a professional, etc., etc.
McCloskey: It was kind of funny because the economists tended to.… You know, all economists, even if they’re not free market economists, tend to think that choice is desirable, and there’s not controversy about it, so they would say, oh well. It’s okay if he, I mean she, wants to do it. I mean, whereas my historic.…
Rubin: So that would be the libertarian view of it.
McCloskey: That’s the kind of libertarian view, but most economists, even if they weren’t libertarians seem to have this attitude. My historian colleagues and my colleagues in anthropology and so on, they were less, it’s less easy for them because they think in terms of identities. They think, and we … Once you have an identity you’re supposed to keep it. If you’re Chicana, you’re Chicana, period. I think that was their problem, but it wasn’t.… You know I didn’t, very few people turned away from me, and the women especially of all descriptions were wonderful.
In my book called Crossing, a memoir published in 1999, I have an opening section where I thanked all the women who helped me a bit, you know, in sending a nice letter or inviting me to lunch and so on. It was 240 names in the three years of my transition.
Rubin: Wow. What’s the part of being trans that people don’t think about it? Is there a piece that.…
McCloskey: Well, what they don’t get is it’s not true the kind of journalistic phrase of a woman trapped in a man’s body or vice versa. It turns out there are about equal numbers on the other side, going the other way. They think it’s this terrible conflict, whereas, you know, people adjust. People adjusted to extermination camps. They can adjust to almost anything. I don’t mean to compare being a guy to being in an extermination camp, but they can adjust.
Then the other thing that they need to know is that it’s a minority interest. It’s more common than we once thought, but it’s not going to change the gender ratios. It costs about as much as a new car, kind of a moderate new car, not a Mercedes. When I see new cars on the street, I say, oh, why didn’t those people change gender instead. Oh yeah, they don’t want to. Most people are satisfied with their gender, even if they regard how men are treated or how women are treated as makes them uneasy and they worry about gender stereotypes, nonetheless, they don’t want to change.
Rubin: Yeah, did you have any regret after? I know.…
McCloskey: No. There’s something that’s really important for straight people to understand. No one has regret. A, the number of people who have a regret one way or the other, male to female, female to male, is minuscule, and B, if they have regret they can change back. You say, okay, well, gee, you can’t grow a penis. Well, so what? Many perfectly well-functioning men don’t have penises from terrible accidents or war injuries. Big deal. It’s how you present yourself. It’s how you live in the world. That’s what determines how society takes you on. You know what I mean.
Rubin: I’m curious. You mentioned the economists that you worked with and the historians and the sociologists. What about the psychologists at the university?
McCloskey: Oh, the psychologists are fine.
Rubin: Even back then? None of them were.…
McCloskey: Not a problem. But the psychiatrists are really dangerous.
Rubin: Yeah. Can you explain the difference, for someone that doesn’t know the difference between a psychologist and a.…
McCloskey: Well, a psychiatrist is one with an MD. Is a doctor. They’re usually he but some shes. Anyway, he’s a doctor that specializes in diseases of, mental diseases. Thank God there are lots of things we can do about depression and a little bit about schizophrenia, and drugs and so on have been developed, and I’m all for it, but the trouble is the psychiatrists now, the MDs know nothing about transgendered things, yet they figure they’re an expert. You know the old joke is, what’s the difference between God and an MD? God doesn’t think he’s an MD.
I was seized by my sister twice. She tried it three times for mental observation and confined in a madhouse twice. It cost me $8,000 in attorneys’ fees to get out of these places.
Rubin: This was when you were transitioning?
McCloskey: This is in ’95, the end of ’95. The psychiatrists were just really creepy. It was the worst horror movie you can think of. Here’s my advice to anyone who gets seized for.… I mean, the cops come, seized for observation. Don’t make any jokes. They have no sense of humor. You make a joke, they write it down.
Rubin: They write it down. That wasn’t funny.
McCloskey: It’s really scary.
Rubin: That’s really.… You know, I never really thought of this before, but so for a psychiatrist in a weird way, they would be the least qualified to deal with a trans person because their method is based in drugs, right?
McCloskey: It’s based in drugs, and it’s based in extreme pathologies. Thank god.… I mean, I’m not against psychiatry as a profession. I think it’s fine, although by the way it’s the source of homophobia, 100 years of homophobia in Northern Europe was I think closely connected with the rise of psychiatry as a profession. But in any case, not against them in general, but they deal with people who are really ill, and so they want to put you in some illness category. Instead of saying, “Oh well, that’s kind of weird. Hey, how about them Hawks?” That’s actually how the students at the University of Iowa, where I was teaching at the time, that’s how they reacted. They had seen rock musicians with eye makeup and Boy George and so on. They didn’t care. It didn’t bother them.
Rubin: You know, it’s funny. I only went to a psychiatrist once because I wanted to get Xanax because I used to have anxiety related, just to fly, when I was on a plane, and that was it. That was the only reason I wanted it. The psychiatrist would not let me leave without telling me that I had time-shift disorder, which sounds like an absurdly made-up thing, and gave me a prescription for something else, which I proceeded to throw out when I walked out of the building, but that sort of idea, we can prescribe everything.
McCloskey: Here’s the symbol of it. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM, it’s been through five editions since, I think, the 1960s. It’s going to name and tell you how to diagnose all the mental disorders. It starts in the 1960s being about that thick, about half an inch thing. By now it’s about three inches thick, which implies that we’ve all become crazier since the 1960s.
Rubin: Well, what does that.… Does that say that our modern lives have made us crazier, or that the pathology of finding things wrong with people.…
McCloskey: It’s the authoritarian mentality. It’s the “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” mentality. It’s the nudge mentality. It’s the socialist mentality. It’s the conservative mentality. It’s everything except true liberalism, which is if people are not doing something to hurt you, leave them alone. There’s a deep libertarian argument here. The famous psychiatrist Thomas Szasz used my case in his last book as an instance of the overreaching of the profession of psychiatry.
Look, you get put in the mental hospital, you may not ever get out. Because they’re in charge. If you’re put in jail for, I don’t know, armed robbery, you pretty much know your chances of getting out and so on because it’s on TV all the time, at least in the movies. You have some conception, you know, from your friends, but you don’t know with psychiatry. It’s very scary. I was very frightened by these episodes.
My sister was a psychologist, academic psychologist. At the time she was at the Harvard School of Public Health. You can be sure that when she wrote to the judges she used the Harvard stationary.
Rubin: Yeah, which I assume helped at some level.
McCloskey: Oh boy, did it. She could say.… She told lies. Now she and I are very close, but it took a few years for me to get over it.
Rubin: All right, so one more thing on trans, and then I want to move to actual issues. Not to diminish the trans issue, but we’ve established it.
McCloskey: Unfortunately it’s going to be at least the second sentence of my obituary. I’m trying to drive it down into, I don’t know, the fourth sentence.
Rubin: Well, look, you gave me a lot of good other buzzwords here, so we’re going to get to those in just a second. My last thought on it would be 2016, this was the year that trans really became mainstream, you know.
McCloskey: Oh yeah, it’s amazing.
Rubin: From Caitlin Jenner to.…
McCloskey: Caitlin Jenner.
Rubin: Orange Is the New Black and just this feeling of there are trans actors, now there’s a visibility.
Rubin: Transparent. Of course I’m forgetting.
McCloskey: Where the only sane person on the set is the transitioner.
Rubin: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Right. Really flipping everything on its head. That must feel incredibly validating for you.
McCloskey: Well, it isn’t so much validating. I had a lot of years to work on validation, but it’s another freedom. Look, all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. A slave owner wrote that, yet it’s been the kind of marker, laying down a marker for American politics, and we keep pushing it. First we got rid of slavery eventually. Then we had votes for women. Then we had, finally, civil rights in the South. Then we had rights, then we had feminism. Then we had gay rights. Then we had handicapped rights. All the ones that happened during my lifetime I have the correct opinions about.
I was in favor of the civil rights movement. I was against Vietnam. I was in favor of gay rights. I was in favor of women’s rights, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t burn my draft card. I was still Donald. I didn’t do.… I just said, oh gee, that’s good. Then God, in 1995, tapped me on the shoulder and she said, she’s my Anglican god, she said, okay, deary, now you can testify. If you don’t do this, if you don’t.… I mean allow yourself to be a public exponent for trans people then you’re just a jerk, and so I did.
I’ve been giving talks. I’m not a professional gender crosser. I’m a scholar. I’m a teacher. I’m a writer. Yeah, but I think I should, a tenured professor should be the one that stands up because she can’t be fired.
Rubin: Yeah, that’s a little bit.… It reminds me sort of when Jason Collins, the NBA basketball player, came out, he was really sort of at the end of his career, wasn’t.… It allowed him to do it in a way where they knew the Nets could sign him, and then at the same time, he wasn’t going to play much. It would sort of go under the radar, but something good would have come out of it. But you put.… Even though you took risks obviously. You’ve put your butt on the line.
McCloskey: Well, I thought I was going to lose my job but actually it turns out that the University of Iowa, where I was teaching at the time, was very progressive in these matters, way more progressive than my alma matter, which is Harvard, in the nineties. Harvard, you know, the Eastern privates took a long time to get on this particular train.
It didn’t happen, but it shows in such a career-driven person as me, such a person that wants to publish books and so on, it shows how much I wanted it when I realized I could do it, that I was willing to lose my job.
Rubin: Now let’s shift to some of those other issues because you said something in the midst of all that that I think is a sort of beautiful thing about what real liberalism is. One of the things that I’ve really been making the focus of this show is to show people what real, true, classical liberalism is because I think it’s been conflated with a lot of leftist ideas in America, but really all over the West and to also show that it doesn’t mean that you’re purely a libertarian because I think there’s some problems with that. What would be your.… Do you consider yourself a classical liberal?
Rubin: That would be your.… If I had to put another label on you?
McCloskey: Yes. Yes. I’m certainly a classical liberal. The only trouble with the phrase is that as soon as you say classical, people say, oh well, that’s old-fashioned. In a modern complicated economy we can’t have, we got to regulate, which is of course exactly the opposite of the truth. In a modern complicated economy it’s too hard to regulate. In a household, households are socialists enterprises, entirely appropriately. Mom is the central planner and everything works out just fine. People share. Okay, that’s cool.
That’s for a very simple little economy. For what Friedrich Hayek called the Great Society before Lyndon Johnson took the phrase, namely, a large society, you can’t do the sharing stuff. That’s not how it works. You got to trade and you can’t regulate it. It’s insane to try to regulate it as though people in Washington knew better what to do than the people on the scene. I call it real liberalism. I’m working on a book that maybe I can, of essays that I’ve done on this, called How to Be …, hear this, a Sisterly Real Liberal. I’m hoping to catch my left-wing friends because the word liberal in Britain and the United States got way off track in the late nineteenth century. Came to mean anything.… Came to mean slow socialism.
Rubin: Right. It came to mean progressive basically.
McCloskey: Progressive, yeah.
Rubin: But, as I’ve said many times, progressiveness is starting to veer into regressivism because these ideas are not for liberty and freedom.
McCloskey: It’s not starting to. Right from the beginning, because it was.…
Rubin: So I was just late to the party.
McCloskey: In the late nineteenth century it was terribly paternalistic and in the form of American progressivism, Wilson and Roosevelt, first Roosevelt and all that, it was highly paternalistic. Nasty even, racist. One of the things that my friends on the left think is just grand is the minimum wage, and 100 years ago the minimum wage came into being in the United States, state by state, and its declared purpose was to keep immigrants, women, blacks, Chicanos out of the labor force. To drive them out entirely. Newspaper editorials, economics profession, they all said, oh boy, this is good for the Anglo-Saxon race.
Rubin: Right, basically because those people would be the ones qualified, because those were good jobs to have.
McCloskey: Those were good jobs and you just take all those people out and then the only people that are left are Northern Europeans. It was a terrible, terrible thing.
Rubin: What did they think was going to happen to the other people?
McCloskey: They were going to.… They literally said they’re going to die out. Now how women are going to die out, I don’t quite understand, but these were people in favor of immigration, closing immigration, in favor of segregation. Woodrow Wilson famously would not have a great black scientist to the White House, and so it went.
Modern liberalism was conceived right from the beginning in this authoritarian way, and it’s still, even though they.… My friends, the liberals, liberals in the American sense, have this assumption that people who are not progressive are just bad people. Why would you listen to Hitler? So they don’t listen to arguments that you or I make, so they don’t get that what they’re actually about is authoritarian control over other people’s lives.
Rubin: Yeah. You know, I’ve mentioned this many times over the last couple years, but as I’ve sort of had my awakening to this, and I mentioned to you before, I kind of, I basically was a progressive for a while.
McCloskey: I was too. I was a Marxist at one point.
Rubin: We’ll get to that too. That as I’ve had my awakening, I’ve seen that the most intolerance comes from these people when I try to debate them on ideas. Friends, I’m talking about. The amount of friends that I’ve lost in the last couple years.
McCloskey: I was just reading this morning a column in the Times, the London Times, by my friend Matt Ridley, who’s a science journalist in Britain. He was saying that environmental regulations aren’t working very well. The comments were just terrible. They were oh, you’re a bad man.
Rubin: You must be being paid by the fossil-fuel people.
McCloskey: You must be being paid by the fossil-fuel people, etc., etc. it’s as though they’re just not listening. Matt was making very simple quantitatively based arguments. I don’t need to go into them. Their reaction was not to listen.
Rubin: Right, they sort of hate, progressives sort of hate religion, and yet they love the purity test of religion, they love that.
Rubin: I want to back up to something you said about minimum wage, because just in the last week I was seeing, there were these marches for $15 minimum wage here in the States.
McCloskey: Oh God, what a mistake.
Rubin: So we can unpack that a little bit, but at the same time that I was seeing this, I was also seeing in the news that Amazon is now opening stores that are going to have no employees. You’re just going to walk in, and your phone will recognize something over wifi, and you’ll be able to take what you want. I thought what a disconnect in an idea and the actual world. Amazon is saying we don’t need humans to do any of this anymore and blah, blah, blah, and meanwhile you have these people out there. I think most of their intentions are good.
McCloskey: Of course their intentions are pure, and it’s sort of like Immanuel Kant. They think that all that matters is intentions, and I wish they’d get over that. Look, they’ll say, my friends on the left, and I do have a lot of friends on the left, they’ll say we ought to put a tax on soft drinks because, boy, it’s making poor people obese. This is part of the paternalism. Then I say, well, isn’t labor the same way? If you make the price of labor higher, won’t people consume less labor? No, no, no, no, no, that’s not true. But dear, you just said that it works for soft drinks. Why not for labor? Oh, labor and soft drinks are different.
McCloskey: Okay. Gee whiz. People are going to hire people at $15 when they’re only worth $10. Hey, what kind of insanity do you think prevails in the business world?
Rubin: Right. Then the same people who are out there protesting for the $15 minimum wage are the same people who are buying a lot of stuff on Amazon privately at home.
McCloskey: Of course they are.
Rubin: It’s … We all sort of live in this strange place between our actions and our.…
McCloskey: I know, it’s like being against Chinese trade yet and buying a $5 hammer made in China. Or like Donald Trump being against Chinese trade and those ties that he wears four inches too low are all made in China.
Rubin: Right. So in Trump’s case, when I saw people tweeting about that, I actually argued he was making logical sense because he was saying, look, our deals are bad, so me as a businessman makes them in China or in Mexico, but I want the deals to be better. Do you think that’s a fair.…
McCloskey: I think that’s a fair characterization of his thinking.
Rubin: Yeah, I’m not saying it’s right, but I’m saying that …
McCloskey: To the small extent that he thinks at all, but it’s not, I think you agree it’s not sensible as economics. You can’t get a better deal than more or less free trade and that’s where we’ve moved. After the war, every country was protectionist. There were no free trade countries. Even the old free trade country, Britain, had long since, thirty years before become protectionist country.
Since then we’ve been moving steadily towards free trade, and it’s been very good for the poor of the world. This idea that the poor are made worse off by free trade is just lunacy.
McCloskey: Because, you know, it’s the wage per.… What you can get with the wage is the key point. What you can get with the wage has steadily increased, even though you’ve heard people say, oh, things are getting worse. No, they’re not. The sky is not falling.
Rubin: So what do you make of Trump when it comes to economics, because on one hand I think there’s a sense.… You know a lot of people like the fact that it was “buy America, we’re going to fix these trade deals, we’re going to do that,” but that’s also, that’s not really a conservative position.
McCloskey: No, it’s not.
Rubin: Because it is going to take more government interference.…
McCloskey: Of course it is.
Rubin: To do those things so he’s sort of.… What does this say really about the conservative movement actually?
McCloskey: Well, he’s not a conservative, and that’s why people like Ryan didn’t like him. Romney and so forth, who embarrassingly bowed to the new emperor.
Rubin: You saw that picture at dinner?
McCloskey: Oy vey. But okay. I want what’s best for the American people. I don’t care if it’s thought to be progressive or conservative or liberal, real liberal, classical liberal. His policies are just not going to help the ordinary person. In fact, what I kind of hope … Actually I don’t hope it exactly, but I think what is going to happen is it will be so plain that his policies don’t help those 80,000 people who got him in the White House that maybe they’ll wake up. I hope they do and see that.…
Look, manufacturing jobs in the United States peaked in 1977. They’ve been going down ever since. Why? Is it because of China, Mexico, and so on? Not much. That’s maybe 10 percent of the lost jobs. Jobs are being lost either to other Americans, moving to California or Texas, especially to Texas, or to automation. Just as you said, the store, the bricks-and-mortar store for Amazon, has no people in it. Well, that’s what’s happening, and now, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.
The purpose of the economy is not to make jobs. Jobs are infinite. We can make construction workers use teaspoons instead of shovels and that will make for more jobs. The purpose of an economy is to get more goods and services so that we have the leisure to pursue our hobbies and to educate ourselves.
Rubin: Would a classical liberal want a true.… What would be the difference in an economics sense from your argument as a classical liberal to someone like Paul Ryan, who I think is probably more of a libertarian, but at the same time he’s stuck in it with the Republicans and it blurs the lines?
McCloskey: Well, some of the proposals that he and especially Trump are going to make, and I hope they pass, make sense to me, like cutting the corporate income tax. Corporate income tax, most economists left and right agree, is a kind of a silly tax. It’s double taxation to start with, but it’s also.…
Rubin: Can we just explain why that is because I know people say that but for business owners that money’s been taxed throughout. You paid payroll tax and all the.…
McCloskey: It’s taxed.… Exactly. All the people involved, the human beings involved, the workers, people employed by the suppliers to the corporation, the owners of the various corporations that have supplied them, the customers, the owners of the stock in the corporation you’re talking about, all of them get taxed on their income.
I wish not. I wish there was other ways of taxing like consumption taxes, but set that aside. Income tax, we know who pays it pretty much. When I get taxed, I get taxed. There it is. Deirdre McCloskey pays about a third of her income to the government. Okay. At least the marginal income. We don’t know who pays the corporate income tax. We’ve been working on it for about seventy years, trying to figure out with econometrics and fancy math, and eh, we do studies. We don’t know who pays it. It may be the workers for the corporation, it may be the managers, maybe the owners. That’s who people think, it’s these rich owners and for one thing they’re not rich and for another thing we don’t know they pay it. Maybe the customers.
Rubin: Right, meaning that it trickles down to the workers or the customers, the cost.
McCloskey: It goes away. The cost is imposed at the level of corporate profits. Suppose the corporation moves to Ireland. Who ultimately pays for that? Who gets hurt? Who gets helped? Well, some Irish people get helped, and some Americans, employees, say, get hurt. In effect, the burden of the tax is on these American workers.
McCloskey: I’m not saying we know that because we don’t know. It’s crazy to have a tax that you don’t know the incidence of. You don’t know who really pays it.
Rubin: So when Trump then says we’re going to renegotiate these trade deals to keep companies in America, that makes sense to a lot of people …
McCloskey: I know, but it also …
Rubin: You’re saying it doesn’t because of regulation, it’s done via regulation.
McCloskey: Well, no. The problem with it is that we don’t know who’s going to get the benefit. What we do know, suppose we just cut off foreign trade entirely. Now that’s not his proposal, but suppose we just walled off the United States. Well, then, every American would be poorer. Every single American.
Now, some of them would get fancier jobs because we’d have to make our own steel instead of importing it as we do largely now, but so, plus for them. Everyone else gets hurt. That’s true of the minimum wage. It’s true of a lot of the.… Look I was talking to the make-up person here about licensing hairdressing. She’s also a hairdresser, besides being a cosmetologist. Cosmetology is not licensed. Hairdressing is. Hairdressers have a little bit higher income, say, not that high but a little bit higher because of these crazy licensing laws. You have to go to school for two years to become a hairdresser. What? We economists are not licensed. You can set up as an economist tomorrow.
Rubin: I just spray once and then kind of.…
McCloskey: Well, forget about the hair. You can become a professional economist tomorrow by hanging out a shingle.
Rubin: It’s that easy?
McCloskey: It’s that easy. There’s no.… You don’t have to get a PhD or anything. You just say, “I’m an economist,” because there are no laws against that. But there are laws against calling yourself a hairdresser without licensure. That means that every one of, all the women especially, have slightly higher prices for hairdressing, and this little group of hairdressers are a little bit better off.
Now that’s a lousy deal. That’s what this anti-trade, minimum wage, more regulation, that’s what it does. It gives George or Harriet a little bit, and it’s like agricultural subsidies, and everyone else is made worse off.
Rubin: Because then all the people that have to use them have to pay more.
McCloskey: Exactly. They have to pay more.
Rubin: And then they have less money for something else.
McCloskey: Take a look at agricultural subsidies. Cotton farmers. Large cotton farmers are the main.… I mean large. Rich people. 500 of the, no, 20 of the top billionaires in the United States, billionaires get agricultural subsidies from the United States government. I don’t mean that’s the main source of their income because agriculture is quite a small industry in the United States, but you can tell. Big massive cotton fields in Alabama are being financed by the United State government. It’s nuts.
Rubin: So how do we untangle some of that stuff? There’s so much of that, this idea of crony capitalism and the giant, these twenty people that can pay all the lobbyists. This of course is what Trump was running against. It’s what Bernie Sanders was running against.
McCloskey: I know.
Rubin: How do you untangle some of that stuff without actually burning down the system? Because that’s what I think a lot of people think is we have to burn the system down, and I certainly wouldn’t be for that.
McCloskey: It’s puzzling because, look, the system is democracy, and I’m in favor of democracy. I’m a democrat, small d. H. L. Mencken, the great libertarian journalist of 100 years ago, said democracy is the theory that the ordinary people know what they want and deserve it good and hard. That’s, I’m afraid, is what’s happening with Trump, but what to do?
Well, maybe Trump will be able to stop some of the regulations, but there’s a clumsiness about it. He’s put this oil man forward as his secretary of state, and he’s handed over the Department of the Interior to another oil man.
Rubin: Right, so Rex Tillerson, the Exxon guy, we’ll see. By the time this airs.…
McCloskey: He might not.…
Rubin: It sounds like he is, but I.…
McCloskey: He might not make it.
Rubin: Yeah, we know that Trump tries to.…
McCloskey: But the secretary of the interior is not a problem. He’s.… Is it a he or a she? I can’t remember, but in any case, oil corporations, big corporations are going to do very well in the Trump administration, and you notice that by the way on the stock market.
Rubin: Right. Stock market’s.…
McCloskey: And oil stocks in particular have gone up. They said, oh well, maybe this guy, we can work with this guy, and that’s exactly the problem that you mentioned. It’s crony capitalism, not the kind of capitalism that you and I admire, which is not cronies. It’s letting people do what they want and depending on the tremendous amount of cooperation that goes on in a free market system and the competition that goes on to protect consumers as it does.
I don’t know. I’m a little bit pessimistic that we can untangle it because, here’s why I mention democracy. Because the reason we have big government is that about 100 years ago, the people, now fully enfranchised in countries like Britain and France and the United States, demanded it. They demanded protection from the government. So people keep voting for socialism essentially. I mean, the size of governments, the United States and Japan are among the smallest, but still they’re very big in the rich countries.
The people keep voting for subsidies and blah, blah, blah. The extreme case is Argentina, where everyone subsidizes everyone else. Now just think about that for a moment. You can see that’s not going to work out. There is this conflict between the democracy of politics and the democracy of the marketplace. I’m in favor of both of them, but I recognize that there’s a dilemma, there’s a conflict here and that the democracy of politics tend to want to kill off the democracy of the market.
Rubin: Yeah, that’s really interesting. So when somebody would say, and I think this is most of the criticism that I hear when I’ve brought on classical liberals or libertarians, and they say “free market, free market. We don’t like crony capitalism, but we want the free market.”
McCloskey: That’s me.
Rubin: Most of the pushback that I get is people say, “Well, wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense. If you let people do whatever they want, then ultimately that’s what will breed crony capitalism.” Now I suspect you don’t agree with that, but how would you argue against that?
McCloskey: No, I don’t agree with it. There’s this tremendous fear among my friends on the left about shoe companies. They’re terrified at the big corporations, you know. New Balance, just oo ee scary music, oo ee the monopoly. It’s so silly because the big monopoly is the government, because the government has the monopoly of violence, alas. Well, it has to. I’m not in favor of multiple competing violent forces.
Rubin: Right. You’re for one government that should have the army.
McCloskey: I’m for one government that has the monopoly of violence, but then we’ve really got to watch it very closely because it’s easy to misuse it. The underlying threat of a government is violence, physical violence, and the trouble is that they, they can use it, whereas New Balance can’t force you to buy, can’t put a .38 to your head and force you to buy its shoes. Nike and New Balance and all the others are competing with each other, and that’s by far a better protection for the interests of ordinary people than the so-called protections that the government offers.
Let’s take food quality. Why aren’t, why isn’t there very frequent cases of people being killed by restaurants, poisoned. Why not? Hey, what’s stopping it. They’ll say, oh yes, food inspection. This is crazy. Any person who owns a restaurant knows that the food inspectors come once or twice a year max, and often they’re corrupt and you can pay them $20 to overlook the rat feces in the kitchen. Okay? Whereas, look, put it this way. If Coca-Cola, if they found one mouse in one can of Coca-Cola, anywhere in the world, the Coca-Cola Corporation would go bankrupt.
Rubin: Yeah, the endless PR, the years.
McCloskey: The endless PR, all the years of building up Coke as the real thing would go right down the drain. That expenditure they make on advertising is a bond so to speak. It’s a bond they’ve put up. An enormous billions-of-dollars bond to shore up their reputation for having a soft drink that doesn’t have mice in it.
Rubin: I think they tried that. Wasn’t that new Coke?
McCloskey: There was a.… Well, that was consumer preference, but poisoning is not popular. There’s a nice fact. If you ask, who’s that guy that travels around doing food shows?
Rubin: Oh. Anthony Bourdain.
McCloskey: Yeah, Anthony Bourdain, he’s great. If you ask him what to eat in a foreign country, he says for God’s sakes don’t eat the hotel food. Eat the street food because the street vendors have regular customers in their neighborhood, they poison someone, they’re finished.
Rubin: That’s it.
McCloskey: Whereas the hotels, they go away.
Rubin: That to me is the best argument for a free market.
McCloskey: I think so too.
Rubin: Your own interests, if you own a restaurant, it’s not that the inspector is going to force you to do it or that the government comes in or as you said you can pay him off and all this stuff, but the best is that your reputation, the caring of your work which is a great segue to I want to talk about: virtue.
McCloskey: Well, that’s why, by the way, that’s why we need a free press. That’s why these movements in Russia and now in Turkey, in imitation of Russia to close down the newspapers is a complete disaster for the ordinary people.
Rubin: Where do you think that puts us in America right now because Trump has this massive fight with the press. As an alternate press guy, as a digital online guy, I see a lot of value in what he’s doing, and at the same time I absolutely see the risk in what’s happening.
McCloskey: Yeah, it’s completely.… He’s a danger to the First Amendment. Fortunately the genie is out of the bottle. You can’t put it back in so far as electronic media is concerned. The newspapers are slowly descending, which I, I personally love having a newspaper, but okay. It’s like the invention of the printing press. In many countries, although not all of them, the printing press was very hard to control, and now it’s even less easy to control the internet. The Chinese do a fairly good job of it, but when I was in China a month ago my friends told me, “oh yeah, here’s how you get around that.” It was free. You could do it and sneak around the wall that they have put up around China.
Rubin: So the Great Wall was probably more effective than their internet wall.
McCloskey: The Great Wall was surprisingly effective actually. Its purpose was to slow down the barbarians long enough to bring reinforcements.
Rubin: Yeah, I don’t know if the reinforcements are going to come in time to stop this barrage.
McCloskey: That was the problem. Every two or three hundred years in China, the Great Wall defense would fail.
Rubin: Yeah. There’s some parallel to the internet wall there.
McCloskey: Yeah. There is. Well, what there is is that the cost of liberty is constant vigilance. It’s in the interests of the government, more or less every time to cut off free speech, and if they can get away with it they will, more or less no matter who’s in charge. Obama, who I didn’t vote for but I don’t think is the antichrist as some of my conservative friends think, claimed that he was going to have an open government. No way Jose. He kept closing it, but that happens in every administration.
Rubin: Yeah, so it just happens, no matter what they say beforehand, like when he said Obamacare, we’re going to air the hearings on CNN or on C-SPAN, right. Of course that didn’t happen. He’s jailed whistle blowers. Look at Snowden and all that.
McCloskey: Yup. Snowden, etc.
Rubin: And yet the left lets him off the hook on that because we’ve all been just sort of relegated to our teams, right?
McCloskey: I know.
Rubin: You just pick your team.
McCloskey: I know. I know. It’s because people come to their political opinions in their late teenage hood, most of them, and then it becomes part of their personal identity. I have a roommate of mine, a man who I love very much from college. He was a lefty as I was in college and he still is. You know he still, he.… And then my sister, my beloved sister who I really do love, the other day, the other month, she said, “You know, I watch RT, Russia Today, and I think that’s just great. They give me an alternative view.” I said dear, don’t you know this is Putin’s propaganda arm? “Oh really? Oh I don’t think so. I think it’s wonderful what they do”.
People get these identities, left and right, and then they don’t ever listen to any more evidence. Another hero of my youth, John Maynard Keynes, was.… Someone complained that he had changed, Keynes had changed his views on free trade, to which Keynes said, “When I get new information, I change my mind. What do you do?”
Rubin: Isn’t true liberalism?
McCloskey: Of course it is.
Rubin: Isn’t that, that finding new information.…
McCloskey: An open-mindedness.
Rubin: Bertrand Russell, there’s that great quote about not being tied to an ideology but to reality.
McCloskey: Except he was tied to an ideology, except for that, probably. The perfect example of this is John Stuart Mill, who was very open-minded. He was open-minded to socialist ideas. Harriet, his friend eventually became his wife, was more of a socialist. This is the middle of the nineteenth century. He was very open to that. Someone who’s been a great economist friend of mine said John Stuart Mill tried the experiment of being fair to his opponents. This experiment has never again been done in economics.
Rubin: Yeah, in economics or almost in any field anymore, right?
McCloskey: Look, the assumption on the left in the United States among progressives is that if you make a free market argument, it’s because you’re a bad person who hates poor people. Why pay attention to such a person? Why pay attention to Hitler? Hitler may have arguments, to hell with it, I’m not going to listen to Hitler. I don’t listen to Hitler. I don’t say, oh gee that’s interesting. Let’s exterminate the Jews. Maybe that will be a good idea. No, I don’t. I don’t view that as on the table.
It’s this off-the-table business that makes our friends on the left impervious to any argument. We make arguments against, I don’t know, against the minimum wage or agricultural or.… Look, talking to a friend of mine on the left the other day, and she said, “I’m very suspicious of this Uber business, the breaking down the taxi-cab monopoly.” I said, “What? You mean you’re in favor of taxi monopolies? Do you know who owns those?” She said, “No, I don’t know. Isn’t it the cab drivers?” No, it’s not. It’s the millionaires, the multi-millionaires who own thirty taxi medallions in New York, each of which sells for a million and a half bucks.
Rubin: Yeah. You’re not making that up, by the way. That’s actually true. To get that medallion that a cab driver needs.
McCloskey: In Chicago it’s a third of a million. In New York it’s a million and a half. You know, so it’s so strange. Any free market argument is just off, the image of being off the table is I think correct. It’s just not for discussion. It’s maddening. We on the free market side, you know we laboriously argue against this, that stupid regulation and that stupid regulation. We offer facts and have comparisons of one country to another. We’re very earnest, and we expect our friends on the left to say, “Oh yeah. You’re right.” No, they don’t. They don’t listen, so they don’t understand the arguments.
A spectacular example of this is the bottom of page six in the English translation of Thomas Piketty’s book on Capital in the 21st Century, where he screws up supply and demand curves. I mean he really does. He doesn’t understand supply response to a higher price. He doesn’t even think it’s possible. He’s an economist.
Rubin: Yeah, maybe he wrote the book upside down?
McCloskey: I don’t know what went wrong with him. Actually I know what’s wrong with him. He was educated in France, and in economics that means you’re educated in mathematics without knowing anything about how an economy works. I plead with him, please, and they won’t listen.
Rubin: What do you do then if.… Well, first off I know a certain amount of people are going to watch this and say, “Well, wait a minute. Then Deirdre must be right because you focused on the left here.”
McCloskey: Left, right.
Rubin: And it’s just nonsense.
McCloskey: That’s all people can do. We say, we real liberals say now look, there are at least two dimensions. One is economic freedom, left, right. That’s pretty easy to talk about. The other is personal freedom, left, right. And we libertarians are up on the left, left quadrant. We believe in keeping out of people’s bedrooms and keeping out of people’s voluntary deals in the economy. It’s a keeping-out mentality.
What’s the beef here? Why are you complaining about some deal I want to make? Shut up. It’s none of your business. Let’s just make it, and that’s it. We believe in freedom, whereas in one aspect or another our opponents, whether Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or progressives, they all believe in compulsion. They all believe in getting out the government gun and forcing people to do things. They think that’s going to make the world better.
Rubin: It actually makes the world more resentful, I think.
McCloskey: Usually it does. Now look, there are some things.… Always it’s so tedious. I always get people, my progressive friends will say, don’t you think there should be a role for government, and I say yeah, yeah, there should be a role for government. Preventing force and fraud and a few other things.
Rubin: So basically you’re not an anarchist?
McCloskey: No, I’m not an anarchist, although we real, true Christian liberals view our anarchist friends, and I have some, with a certain sisterly sympathy, but I’m not an anarchist. I don’t believe in zero government. Actually my first politics was when I found Prince Kropotkin’s book, Mutual Aid, in the local Carnegie library. I like the irony of that, in Wakefield, Massachusetts, and for you know six months when I was fifteen I was an anarchist.
Rubin: How did those six months go for you?
McCloskey: Well, I didn’t tell anyone about it, so it didn’t bother anyone.
Rubin: Yeah, it was fine. You just kept it to yourself.
McCloskey: I wasn’t secret about it. I just didn’t notice that politics was about telling people stuff.
Rubin: Yeah. All right. I want to back up to virtue, because I think it’s sort of a through line in almost everything we’ve discussed here.
McCloskey: Yes, it is.
Rubin: And you’ve written a lot about it. You talk about it, and I think it’s something that’s so missing in society. Doing something virtuous just because.
McCloskey: Yeah. You know, and I’ve been studying China for the last ten years. For a long time I tried not to because I knew I would become fascinated, and I needed to know more about Europe and the United States. I was afraid I would drift off into China studies. The interesting thing about the Confucian attitudes that started in the sixth century BCE is that it claims that the main protection of the citizens is the virtue of the governors, and that’s correct to the extent that they’re being treated by the government.
The Confucians were not particularly, they didn’t have a lot to say about regulation of the economy. You have the economy off to one side, and indeed it was heavily regulated in China as was everywhere else, but let’s talk about the relationship between the government, the emperor, and the citizens. The Confucian idea is not the balance of power of the founding fathers where we’re trying to make a machinery that will keep people, keep the governors from hurting their citizens.
Rubin: Right, which is what we have here.
McCloskey: What we have here, and we try to make it work, and I’m all for it because.… But they, the Confucians like the so-called civic republicans in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth century said, look, rulers need to be good as well. That I think this is true. Look, corruption in Italy say, you’re not going to solve Italian corruption by passing another law. They’ve got laws against corruption.
McCloskey: The problem is.…
Rubin: The laws will actually breed more corruption, right, because they actually breed somebody to do this.…
McCloskey: They easily do it, particularly if the ethical mentality of Italians is the government is a band of robbers into whose clutches we’ve fallen, to quote a famous anarchist writer. We’ve got to evade every law we can. As long as you do that. As long as the people are not being virtuous, sensibly, following the sensible laws and the government is not being virtuous. It’s stealing from everybody. Passing another thing through parliament is not going to have any effect at all. There has to be an ethical change, and I claim, this is my big claim in this trilogy of mine called The Bourgeois Era, which I, praise the Lord, I just finished last spring, that it’s a change in attitudes towards the virtues of the bourgeois that made the modern world.
That up until liberalism, the coming of liberalism in people’s heads in the eighteenth century and then in actual policies in the nineteenth century, until that happened, people were extremely suspicious and hostile towards merchants, manufacturers, inventors. Innovation, the word innovation in English, you can look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, was until the nineteenth century a bad word. You don’t want to innovate. He’s innovated, eh, that will disturb things. That was the universal attitude. Then in liberalism, the basic idea of which is let people alone. As Adam Smith said is what we need is the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice. Equality, he didn’t mean equal income distribution. He meant equality of social standing by liberty. He meant the ability to start a business or become an economist or whatever you want.
Rubin: Equality of opportunity.
McCloskey: Equality of opportunity. Justice means equal justice before the law, neither of which is perfectly attained in any society I know of, but the change from say the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century was dramatic, and that made people bold and they enriched us all. I speak of the bourgeois deal. You let me, a bourgeois start a business, and in the first act, I’ll make a lot of dough if it’s a good business. In the second act, these pesky competitors will come in and drive out my profit, but oh well. The third act, I’ll enrich you, and that’s what they did. There’s an ethical change.
Rubin: Wait. How do you get from the second act to the third act? The second act now, the competition now comes in.
McCloskey: Competition, and so my profits are eroded, so everyone’s doing it the better way, whatever it is, Uber or improve.… Look what happened to film. When I was young, Kodak and then boom, suddenly we had pixels.
Rubin: Yeah, and now we’re doing [inaudible]. I don’t know how it’s happening, but it’s happening.
McCloskey: I don’t know. Here we are.
Rubin: Yeah. The third act then is that the product itself gets better.
McCloskey: Exactly. Those cameras that are pointing at us are by historical standards, they’re ridiculously small. These are high-quality cameras that do as good a job as an enormous TV camera, much better job than a TV camera and even better than the great big film camera in the 1930s. There they are, and that’s, the first person to think of this made a ton of money, but actually in the end the inventors don’t make that much. They make about 2 percent of the social gain, which, if you’re Steve Jobs is a lot of money, but still 98 percent goes to us, the consumers.
Rubin: Right. And bringing this around to Apple, they make a lot of the stuff. The ideas come from Cupertino as they always tell us, but a lot of it’s made in China, and don’t they do everything they can to avoid corporate taxes.
McCloskey: Of course.
Rubin: Which sort of ties in everything that we’ve talked about.
McCloskey: There’s a crazy regulation that the EU, the common market is trying to impose to equalize corporate taxes across the EU because they don’t like what Ireland’s doing, which has a 15 percent, no 12.5 percent corporate tax instead of our 35 percent corporate tax and the people in Brussels are really annoyed at the Irish. I think it’s outrageous. There should be the Cayman Islands. There should be competition. The government shouldn’t have us as serfs to extract money from any time they want to invade Iraq. To heck with it.
Rubin: What I always find to be the funniest argument is that the progressives argue that they want, that the government is deeply corrupt.
McCloskey: I know. I know.
Rubin: Then at the same time their response is to make it bigger.
McCloskey: I know. I know. Look, I’ve spent some time in Italy in the last few months, and I love Italy. Who doesn’t? The Italians know how to live, but they all ought to be classical liberals because any sentient Italian knows that sending more money and power to Rome is a terrible idea, just awful.
Rubin: Framed with that, saying Rome actually adds to the picture.
McCloskey: Well, it’s like our Washington or Springfield in Illinois. Everyone knows it’s a terrible idea, yet the Italians keep voting for socialists or for conservatives who are actually socialists. I can’t understand this. In Sweden I get it. I’ve taught in Sweden, and I like Sweden a lot. Lots of friends there, and they all tell me, well, you know our government is honest, and I say, yeah, yours is. Minnesota is, but Illinois isn’t. Italy isn’t.
86 percent of the people of the world are governed by governments that everyone would agree are completely corrupt and incompetent. The Italians, of 180 or so governments that were surveyed, the Italians ranked 75th, and yet they keep voting for more of this. I don’t know what to do. I’m desperate.
Rubin: Yeah, I wish I had an answer for you, but you’re not going to get it to me. There’s so much more that we could do here, but I will end on something that you slipped in once or twice. That you used to be a Marxist.
McCloskey: I was.
Rubin: The word Marxist, I think people have no idea what they’re talking about. Like socialism, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Most of these words, most people don’t know what they’re talking about, but Marxist I find to be the one that people really just have no concept of what they’re talking about. First, can you just define what a Marxist is and then just tell me a little bit about your journey?
McCloskey: Well, a Marxist really in the simplest terms is someone who follows Marx. Just as I am a Christian, I follow Christ. Marx was, now here’s where I get my right-wing friends, just they go nuts. I say Marx was the greatest social scientist in the nineteenth century without compare, and all my friends at the Hoover Institution go eh. Then I say, but he got everything wrong. Then my friends on the left go ahhh. Which is why I haven’t got any friends.
Rubin: The life of a classical liberal. It ain’t easy. It ain’t easy. Well, you’re pissing off people on the both sides.
McCloskey: Pissing off people on both sides. Now the basic idea of Marxism of course is that history has a particular pattern and that ideas come from that pattern, from that material pattern, that the class struggle is central. The history of all hitherto existing societies, to quote The Communist Manifesto, is the history of class struggle. If you believe that and you believe that ideas are just epi-phenomenal, that they just come from your class position, which is what Marxists are supposed to think, then you’ll be a follower of Marx. Oddly, from about 1890 to about 1980, nice symmetry there, most intellectuals in the West were some kind of Marxist. Even the conservatives were. Even the conservatives believed that material interests were what determined ideas.
Whereas my claim and the claim of a growing number of historians and especially historians is that no, no ideas themselves have an influence, an independent influence. The idea that all men and women are created equal is a terrifically powerful idea. It’s that egalitarianism of eighteenth-century liberalism that I’m trying to re-invigorate.
Rubin: Yeah, well, I think you’re doing an incredibly good job at it.
McCloskey: My books. You got to mention my books.
Rubin: Yeah, well, I’m going to tell people about Twitter and the whole thing. This, the.… Wait, the.…
McCloskey: This is the first book, The Bourgeois Virtues, and there’s Bourgeois Dignity, and then the last one is the thickest called Bourgeois Equality. In 1906.… Sorry, I’m a historian. In 2006, 2010, 2016, all available at the University of Chicago Press. I’m hoping for a boxed set like Harry Potter. The three of them together.
Rubin: I’m a Star Wars guy personally, but that works for a trilogy too.
McCloskey: It makes a wonderful Christmas present. Your mother will be delighted to get these highly academic books.
Rubin: Well, you know what, we’re going to put the link right down below and then people will just be able to click it and get it. It really was a pleasure talking to you.
McCloskey: Thank you dear. It’s been fun.
Rubin: You know these are the ideas I’m trying to get across too, so I guess we’re going to have.… We’re stuck in the middle, right?
McCloskey: We’re stuck in the middle. We get unfriendly fire from both sides.
Rubin: Yeah. But we got each other. There you go. All right. Well, I want to thank Deirdre McCloskey and Learn Liberty for sending her our way, and for more on Deirdre you can follow her on the Twitter. It’s @deirdremcclosk. Thanks for watching. We’ll do it again next week.
Comments Off on Ritual sacrifice of chickens: religious freedom vs animal cruelty laws
I love animals as much as the next person — just ask my dog, Sammy, or the baby swallows my wife and I have been protecting (from our dog, among other things) on our front deck.
But I understand that some religious citizens believe it is necessary, on occasion, to kill animals in a ritualistic manner. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read the Torah (the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament).
Most Jews, Christians, and Muslims no longer sacrifice animals, although some continue to practice rituals that include killing them in specific ways. For instance, a federal judge recently protected the ability of orthodox Jews in California to practice Kapparot, an ancient atonement ritual associated with Yom Kippur that usually includes the slaughter of chickens.
Court Decisions on Ritualistic Slaughter
The most famous case involving ritualistic slaughter involved practitioners of Santeria, an Afro-American religion of Caribbean origin. More than two decades ago, the city of Hialeah, Florida, attempted to prohibit Santerians from sacrificing animals, even as it allowed animals to be killed for a variety of other reasons. A unanimous Supreme Court declared the ordinance to be unconstitutional in 1993.
Hialeah’s ordinance was clearly unconstitutional because it prohibited animal slaughter in religious contexts while still allowing it in secular contexts. Such ordinances and laws are constitutional only if they are “justified by a compelling interest and [are] narrowly tailored to advance that interest,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy stated when delivering the court’s opinion.
Almost no statute meets this test. Nevertheless, to this day, Louisiana bans the ritualistic slaughter of animals. So, for instance, if you owned a farm in the state, it would be legal for you to slaughter a chicken there under normal circumstances, but not if you did so as part of a religious rite.
Kentucky’s Religious Reptile Ban
The only statute I’m aware of that specifically targets a religious practice and might survive this level of judicial scrutiny is Kentucky’s law against handling “any kind of reptile in connection with any religious service or gathering.” The statute is aimed at prohibiting the rare religious practice (primarily confined to Appalachia) of handling venomous snakes in church services. Presumably, it is legal to handle them for fun or profit!
Because the state has a “compelling interest” in the health of its people (even those who choose to pick up rattlesnakes) this law might be upheld in a court challenge. But the law would be far more defensible if it were neutral with respect to religion — that is, if it simply banned the handling of venomous reptiles in all contexts.
Religiously Neutral Bans on Animal Slaughter
Such neutral laws, especially those regarding the humane treatment and slaughter of animals, may still have the unintended effect of restricting religious citizens’ liberty. For instance, humane slaughter laws in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries have “effectively ban[ned] the ritual slaughter methods prescribed in both Muslim and Jewish tradition,” NPR reports.
In America, because such a law is neutral, it would not violate the First Amendment. Fortunately, many states proactively craft accommodations to protect ritualistic slaughter. These states properly recognize that whatever interest they have in prohibiting animal cruelty, this interest should not override the religious convictions of their citizens.
It is not unreasonable for states to prohibit animal cruelty or to require the humane slaughter of livestock. However, when these laws interfere with the ability of sincere citizens to practice their faiths, legislatures should craft narrow accommodations to protect citizens’ ability to act according to their religious convictions.
Comments Off on Forget about your passion. (Advice for new grads)
Popular culture teaches that finding your passion is a major ingredient for career success. When Marsha Sinetar published her 1989 book Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow, she probably had no idea of the millions who’d come to see her book title as solid career advice. What if that advice is wrong?
It is not hard to find people Psychologist Robert Vallerand conducted a study of Canadian college students with the aim of learning if they were passionate about work or education. His startling findings were that “less than 4 percent of the total identified passions had any relation to work or education, with the remaining 96 percent describing hobby-style interests such as sports and art.”
Are these passionless individuals just unlucky? Did the passion muse pass them over? Do they need to take more career guidance tests or attend “find your passion” workshops?
To be sure, “find your passion” workshops have plenty of potential customers. According to a 2016 Conference Board survey, only about 50% of those employed are satisfied with their jobs. A Gallup survey finds that over 50% of employees are not engaged with their work and an additional 17% are “actively disengaged.”
From my experience delivering leadership workshops, I know many people are certain their work environment is the source of their dissatisfaction. Many point to obsolete hierarchical management styles as the problem. But what if their own mistaken ideas about success, passion, and job satisfaction are the real problem?
First, be good at something
During a 2007 interview with Charlie Rose, comedian Steve Martin was asked to elaborate on career advice he once gave on how to be successful. At the time, Martin stated the obvious: “You have to be undeniably good at something.”
The obvious answer, Martin reflected, is not what many want to hear. Martin explained, “What they want to hear is, here’s how you get an agent. Here’s how you write a script. Here’s how you do this. But I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”
Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport used Martin’s advice as the title of his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You — a book that debunks the passion hypothesis.
Newport believes that having a craftsman mindset, rather than a passion mindset, is the way to a fulfilling career. Instead of waiting for passion to strike, Newport’s research finds that people get passionate about work as they become good at work. “Passion,” explains Newport, is a “side effect of mastery.”
Success comes by offering great value
Newport advises, “If you want a great job, you need something of great value to offer in return.” By itself, your passion is not of great value. Every career path is littered with passionate but unsuccessful people.
“Whereas the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world,” writes Newport, “the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.” Newport emphasizes the need to offer value to the world.
For entry-level positions, the passion mindset leads to chronic unhappiness and a feeling that something is missing. Newport explains:
First, when you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness. This is especially true for entry-level positions, which, by definition, are not going to be filled with challenging projects and autonomy — these come later. When you enter the working world with the passion mindset, the annoying tasks you’re assigned or the frustrations of corporate bureaucracy can become too much to handle.
Second, and more serious, the deep questions driving the passion mindset — “Who am I?” and “What do I truly love?” — are essentially impossible to confirm. “Is this who I really am?” and “Do I love this?” rarely reduce to clear yes-or-no responses. In other words, the passion mindset is almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused.
For those who want to whine about their unfulfilling job or career, it is probably best to avoid Newport’s book. Newport offers tough love. The craftsman mindset “asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is ‘just right,’ and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good.”
No one owes you a great career
Newport writes, “No one owes you a great career…you need to earn it — and the process won’t be easy.”
When individuals examine their careers through a passion mindset, they often make statements that begin with, “If I had the courage, I would quit my job and do…” Newport believes they are missing the point: “Great work doesn’t just require great courage, but also skills of great (and real) value.” In other words, if you leave a job prematurely, before developing your career capital, you will likely fail.
In an interview, Ira Glass, the famed creator of the longtime radio series This American Life, cautioned, “In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream. But I don’t believe that. Things happen in stages.”
Mastery takes hard work and time. Glass didn’t just fall into his great job. He offers this advice: “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase.”
Newport believes that the craftsman approach to work leads to the accumulation of “career capital.” You obtain career capital by developing “a collection of hard-won, rare, and valuable skills.” You can then exchange your capital for a “fantastic job.”
In short, with a craftsman mindset, you can earn a great job. If you are blinded by a passion mindset, you may never begin the journey.
Comments Off on Why Freud still matters (even though he was wrong about almost everything)
Recently, a colleague in psychology asked me why I still read Freud. It seems that Freud is looking a bit tired in clinical circles these days, having been surpassed many times over by better treatment techniques and better models of cognitive analysis. “The only people that still talk about Freud,” she went on, “are people in the humanities.”
This was, I thought, probably true — after all, I love talking about Freud! Freud is great; lots of talk of repression and incest and libidos and all that. Whether or not it’s true is, in some ways, quite beside the point.
Understanding psychoanalysis and redescription
Of course, Freud offers more than just the sex parts. Psychoanalysis offers a remarkably fertile and versatile interpretive framework — a kind of kaleidoscopic lens through which the everyday and the not-so-everyday can be reexamined, reevaluated, and reimagined. Whether you’re thinking about recurrent dreams, your strained relationship with your siblings, or why Hamlet seems perhaps a smidge weird about his mother, Freud promises explanations that almost always prove, at the very least, interesting. Making the deal even sweeter is the fact that Freud’s concepts have achieved cultural ubiquity — chances are, you haven’t read much of Freud’s 1899 study, The Interpretation of Dreams, but I bet you’re familiar enough with the concept of the Oedipus complex.
Freudianism is unusually suitable for what can be called acts of redescription, which go something like this. Take an ordinary, straightforward act — say, “the man sat, smoking a cigar” — and, with the help of a rudimentary understanding of Freudian psychoanalysis, you can assign an entirely different (and, usually, far more interesting) meaning to it. Sure, the man is smoking a cigar, but what he is also (or, perhaps, what he is really) doing is satisfying an oral fixation of such and such nature, and doing so via this joyously phallic utensil — in other words, now it’s a party.
The value of interpretative frameworks in the social sciences
Intellectual (and pseudo-intellectual) life is brimming with these sorts of lenses — interpretive frameworks that allow the viewer to see behind, to recognize and understand the veiled forces that animate the surface world of everyday activity. Now, on the one hand, this is pretty much what the social sciences are about — the whole idea, from Adam Smith’s efforts to describe the operation of the invisible hand behind market activity to Karl Marx’s attempts to explain social and political ideology as a function of class conflict, is to place human activity within an objective and (hopefully) testable framework. If we want to understand human conduct in a systematic and scalable way, we can’t always rely on what people understand themselves to be doing — we must, to some extent, interpret their behavior under certain assumptions about what motivates their behavior.
On the other hand, however, some of these interpretive lenses go deeper than others. Freudianism, for one, sees into every nook and cranny — no secret desire, no nervous tic, no deeply felt passion can escape the psychoanalytic eye. Freudianism peeks into subjectivity itself, and remakes it at the same time. What you thought was just you was, in fact, very much not you! Behind your lived experience, an epic and endless battle is being waged by forces — ids and egos and superegos, death drives and sex drives — that are utterly beyond your control. For Freud, this force is, fundamentally, sex; for Marx, it’s class; for Foucault, it’s power. You might not like the analysis, but there’s no denying that, as tools of redescription, they’re quite powerful.
Powerful in appropriate contexts, anyway, and of course very useful. Particularly when we’re operating in, well, academic modes, these lenses can function nicely as method: if we want to think about George Eliot’s motivations, or the historical development of sexual morality, or why certain film genres emerge at certain times, we can apply these interpretive frameworks and churn out interesting results.
The limits of interpretative frameworks for any serious thinker
But, in other contexts, such acts of redescription are, for lack of a better word, very rude. If your child shows you his artwork, it is rude to tell him that it is almost comically bourgeois; if your lover turns to you and says, “You look beautiful tonight,” it is rude to say, “Yes, I tried to look as much like your mother as I could stand.” And, of course, it is rude to tell someone engaged in an attempt to have an earnest argument that their ideas are attributable to their class position or their privileged place within the relevant discourse.
These examples demonstrate rude behavior — and dangerous thinking — because, in attributing the thoughts and actions of others to the forces that operate behind their consciousness, you deny their agency. You suggest that what they say, what they make, what they find attractive: that these aren’t really theirs at all, that they are properties of forces surreptitious and impersonal.
But you, dear libertarian or classical liberal, you would never do such a thing. After all: Marx? Foucault? Freud? More like Sigmund Fraud, amiright? You love honest discussion, and you love the earnest exchange of ideas.
Well, I’m happy to hear it.
I’m happy to hear that I don’t have to worry about you redescribing the ideas of others as mere attempts to improve their standing with their in-group; I don’t have to worry about you dismissing your interlocutors as hapless victims of their own unacknowledged and unexamined bias; and I don’t have to worry about you labeling every idea you don’t agree with as mere virtue-signaling.
Or do I?
Comments Off on F.A. Hayek accomplished several careers’ worth of economic achievements in one lifetime
F.A. Hayek would have celebrated his 118th birthday today. When he passed away in 1992, he left behind a prodigious body of work on several discrete issues.
Hayek was the 20th century’s most prominent developer of the Austrian business cycle theory. He extended Mises’s argument about the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism in his classic essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” and in the papers that were collected into Individualism and Economic Order in 1948.
As a student, he developed the basis of a cognitive theory, which he revised and published in 1952 in The Sensory Order. He wrote extensively on the method of the social sciences in The Counter-Revolution of Science, also published in 1952 and one of his most important statements on the subject.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he developed a body of social theory about knowledge and competition. These became The Constitution of Liberty (originally published in 1960) and Law, Legislation, and Liberty, released in three volumes during the 1970s. He was awarded the Nobel Prize, which he shared with Gunnar Myrdal, in 1974.
Each of these separate bodies of work would constitute a monumental achievement. Hayek did it all over the course of a single career that established him as one of the most important social thinkers of the 20th century. He was most famous, however, for his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, a more popular treatment of many of the ideas expressed in Individualism and Economic Order that had a deep and profound effect on the English-speaking world.
Its theme — that statism, socialism, and the erosion of economic liberty meant the erosion of political and civil liberty — was a brilliant exposition of classical liberal ideas and a rank heresy to the established intellectual order. It is through The Road to Serfdom — which was condensed by Reader’s Digest and circulated (in its condensed form) by the Book of the Month Club — that Hayek likely had his biggest effect on public policy.
The Hayekian Tradition
There is a rich and vibrant body of scholarship in the Hayekian tradition — what Peter Boettke calls “mainline” (as opposed to “mainstream”) economics — a tradition that builds on the original insights of Adam Smith and Ludwig von Mises and that would later find application and expression in the work of Nobel laureates Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, Douglass North, Vernon Smith, and Elinor Ostrom. Hayek’s ideas are not the curios of intellectual history. They remain fresh and applicable to a wide array of settings where they are being used today by scholars in several disciplines.
Hayek (and Mises, and many others) was vindicated in a sense by the demise of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Still, his insights have not made full inroads into scholarship and public policy. Liberty and prosperity are hardly the natural outcome of political orders, and they are under constant threat from some who mean well and others who do not.
The world is certainly a better place, though, because F.A. Hayek explored and explained the institutional foundations of a free and prosperous society. For this we should be grateful.
Comments Off on Islam and classical liberalism: Are they compatible?
At first glance, classical liberalism and Islam may seem not just incompatible, but in complete opposition.
Classical liberalism is a political philosophy that aims at maximizing individual freedom. Islam, on the other hand, is a religion that stresses “submission” and “obedience.”
Moreover, today’s predominantly Muslim societies are not beacons of liberty — to put it lightly. The Muslim world is full of dictatorships, some of which — such as Iran or Saudi Arabia — justify themselves with references to Islam. According to Freedom House, a Washington-based think tank that measures freedom in the world, among the nearly 50 Muslim-majority states on the globe, only one, Tunisia, ranks as free.
All this has led some classical liberals and libertarians to consider Islam as an enemy of liberty — in fact, the biggest threat to liberty in the 21st century. In my view, however, they are making a mistake. They are looking at the most rigid, bigoted, and aggressive manifestations of contemporary Islam and then judging a whole religion accordingly.
With the same logic, one could have had a very negative view of Christianity a thousand years ago by looking at its most rigid, bigoted, and aggressive manifestations — such as the Inquisition that tortured and killed “heretics,” or the crusaders who slaughtered “infidels.” The same Christianity, however, also gave us thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith who saw liberty as a divine gift. Islam is a similarly diverse religion, and while its own Dark Age is at its zenith now, Islam also has classical liberal interpretations that give hope for the future.
Just like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is an Abrahamic religion. It is based on the belief that the whole universe is created and sustained by an all-powerful, all-knowing God who guides humanity through prophets and revelations. Islam, in fact, honors the preexisting monotheistic religions, claiming that it completed them with the final revelation given to the Prophet Muhammad, which is the Qur’an.
The Qur’an — just like the Bible — has various commandments that interfere in human lives: Do not worship idols. Do not eat pork. Do not consume intoxicants. Do not have extramarital sex. Do not eat or drink during the day throughout the holy month of Ramadan. And so on. Are these commandments, by definition, encroachments on human liberty?
The answer depends on whether these commandments are moral or legal. In other words, is refraining from intoxicants — alcohol, drugs — a moral commandment that the individual Muslim may (or may not) decide to follow? Or it is a legal dictum that will be imposed on every individual?
If Islamic commandments are moral categories, then there is no clash with classical liberalism. Just like observant Jews in Western society who only eat kosher foods or who rest on the Sabbath, Muslims can freely chose to be observant. Conservative Muslim women can freely choose to cover their heads, for example, and that would be the way they experience liberty.
However, if Islamic commandments are legal categories, then the Qur’an seemingly justifies states like Saudi Arabia or Iran, which impose their vision of an “Islamic way of life” by law. They force women to cover their heads and punish people for engaging in “immoral behavior,” or spreading “false religions.” These states also criminalize acts they view as apostasy or blasphemy, leading to dramatic violations of freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
The key issue, therefore, is whether Islam is a religion to be voluntarily followed by individuals and communities in a free society, or a legal system to be imposed by a theocratic state.
“No Compulsion in Religion”
On this key issue, I must confess that the classical mainstream interpretations of Islam tend toward theocracy. Since the very beginning of Islam, Muslims had political power, and divine commandments evolved into earthly law broadly called the Sharia.
In that classical age of Islam — say, from the 7th century to the 19th century — there was at least one gain in terms of liberty: Muslim states did not have a single law of the land. They rather had multiple legal systems to which individuals would be subject based on their religion. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, the Sharia was binding on Muslims, whereas Christians and Jews had their own laws. While alcohol was forbidden to Muslims, it was allowed for Christians.
In the modern era, theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia have taken a much worse step by making the Sharia the law of the land. That is how Islamic commandments became binding on non-Muslims as well. Thus, Christians visiting Saudi Arabia from abroad may not drink or even possess alcohol — or, alas, even a copy of the Bible — for example, and are subject to imprisonment for violating the law.
Yet in the same modern era, there have also emerged reformist Muslims who call for revisiting this whole idea of state religion. These reformists — my humble self being among them — argue that the marriage of Islam and the state is just an accident of history, not a requirement of religion.
They emphasize a key Qur’anic verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:258), and argue that the Sharia must be reinterpreted in light of this principle. Compulsion, they add, breeds not genuine religiosity but only hypocrisy. Jihad, they argue, is only a justification for defensive and just war, not a warrant for aggression and conquest.
This reformist argument makes sense to many Muslims around the world and is promoted by plenty of scholars, intellectuals, movements, and parties. (Tunisia’s recent success was made possible partly because its main pro-Islamic party, En-Nahda, is led by Rashid Ghannouchi — a prominent Islamic scholar who takes the “no compulsion in religion” principle seriously.)
The Limited Muslim State
While Muslim reformists argue against certain aspects of the Islamic tradition, they embrace other aspects of it. One of them is a little-noticed but crucial feature of the Sharia: It was not a law devised by state power. It was rather a law devised by religious scholars who were often independent of state power.
That is why and how, throughout the long centuries of classical Islam, the Sharia often acted as a constraint on arbitrary rule and became the guardian of rights. (It is not an accident that in Arabic, the term “law” translates as huquq, which literally means “rights.”) The rights that the Sharia protected included property rights. This protection was crucial at time when despotic states could typically plunder wealth at will.
In a tell-tale episode, when Alaud-din Khilji, a fourteenth-century Muslim ruler in India, wanted to overtax his wealthy Hindu subjects, he was dissuaded by his top scholar because doing so would violate the property rights recognized by Islam. “Whenever I want to consolidate my rule,” Khilji complained, “someone tells me that this is against the Sharia.”
To further consolidate the protection of private property, medieval Islamic scholars developed a version of the legal doctrine of trusts. This allowed the transmission of wealth across generations through the creation of the charitable foundation, the waqf, which was legally immune from governmental interference. The result was a vigorous civil society, including charities, hospitals, and schools, all supported by the private foundations that were under the Sharia’s protection.
The medieval Muslim state, in other words, was a state limited by law. Thanks to the sanctity and independence of the Sharia, a form of checks and balances was established that allowed nonstate institutions to flourish. If there was a big secret to Islam’s much-praised golden age, it was this notion of a limited state.
Today, what are we supposed to understand from this whole legacy of the Sharia? A good answer comes from a theory developed by a 14th-century Islamic scholar named Imam Shatibi. He studied all injunctions of the Sharia and reasoned that the “intentions” behind all of them could be rendered to the protection of five values: religion, life, property, intellect, and lineage. Reformist Muslims often take these “five intentions” of the Sharia as the guiding light and argue that any state that protects them — and is constrained by them — is welcome regardless of whether it is “Islamic” or not.
There is one more area to consider: the economy. What kind of economy does Islam envision? Answers among Muslims vary, as there are defenders of so-called “Islamic socialism.” Others, however, argue that if there is a specific Islamic model of the economy, it is certainly capitalism.
This argument for capitalism is partly rooted in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Before the beginning of his religious mission at the age of 40 in the city of Mecca, he was a successful merchant. This meant that he saw the blessings of trade and understood the mechanisms of the market. No wonder he has many recorded sayings in which he promotes trade and praises the “honest merchant.”
The same spirit can be found in the Qur’an. It is quite notable that the longest verse of the Qur’an (2:282) is about how to write a proper loan contract with the right witnesses.
In a remarkable episode in Prophet Muhammad’s life, we also read that he was asked by his faithful believers to regulate the increasing prices in the marketplace. He responded negatively, saying: “Only God controls the prices.” Some later commentators have seen a spirit here similar to Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
The protrade spirit of Islam’s prophet and scripture led to the rise of a financial and commercial capitalism in the Middle East in the early centuries of Islam. Some inventions of this “Islamic capitalism” were later borrowed by Europeans. (That is why, for example, the English word “check” comes from the Arabic word saqq, which means “written document.”)
In his remarkable book Early Islam and the Birth of Capitalism, economist Benedikt Koehler documents all these economic achievements of Islam. “The roots of Chicago economics,” he even argues, “lie in seventh century Medina.”
The decline of this medieval Islamic capitalism — due to many factors, including wars, invasions, and the change in trade routes — led to the overall decline of Muslim civilization. The Muslim world stagnated, lagged behind, and ultimately panicked in the face of a much more advanced West. It is a trauma that is still alive and kicking. And the solution lies in revitalizing the capitalist creativity of Islam’s golden age.
None of this means that classical liberalism is a popular idea among Muslims today. Quite the contrary — there are very powerful illiberal, statist, autocratic trends among Muslims, not to mention the violent extremists that threaten us all.
But a defense of classical liberalism on Islamic grounds is possible — and is not unheard of. Many Muslims, especially those living in the West, accept classical liberal ideas intuitively. Moreover, there are initiatives dedicated to this cause, such the Minaret of Freedom and Muslims for Liberty in the United States, the Islamic Renaissance Front in Malaysia, and the Liberal Islam Network in Indonesia. They are led by Muslims who are serious about their faith and who are genuine in their commitment to liberty.
Such pious Muslims can usher a reform in Islam toward “no compulsion in religion” and freedom for all. This concept of freedom is not something that will be poised against God. Quite the contrary: it is a freedom that is bestowed by God.
Comments Off on What Classical Liberals Get Wrong About Political Science
Can there be a classical liberal political science?
To answer that question, it is instructive to examine how classical liberal ideas have developed and what disciplines have shaped the classical liberal tradition most.
And to begin, we must acknowledge that contemporary scholarly classical liberalism has developed in an imbalanced way.
By far the greatest intellectual investment has been in economics.
There are good reasons for this, of course: the understanding of market processes and market ordering that liberal economists have given us is central to an appreciation of the counterintuitive idea that unplanned and decentralized voluntary action can yield beneficial social results.
The insight that the market economy is a spontaneous order has been a crucial one for the development of modern classical liberalism as a whole. And economists, those who study market processes and orders, have a disproportionate tendency to be sympathetic to open and liberal markets. Most of the founders of the Mont Pelerin Society—the organization that shaped the intellectual agenda of postwar classical liberalism—were economists (of one methodological stripe or another).
Somewhere behind economics, in an order I wouldn’t know how to rank, come law and philosophy.
Classical liberal legal scholarship has encompassed both US constitutional law, recovering a sense of the commitment to liberty found in the US Constitution’s protection of rights as well as its structure of federalism and separated powers; and private law, especially in the law-and-economics tradition.
Classical liberal philosophy has taught us a great deal about the meaning and intellectual structure of rights, liberty, and justice, and about the vision of human well-being and flourishing that animates a concern with freedom. And, in a broad way, these streams of research and scholarship in economics, law, and philosophy have complemented and enriched each other, contributing to the emergence of a distinctive kind of classical liberal social theory—the humane studies highlighted in the name of the organization that hosts this website.
In contrast, political science, including the kind of political theory that is done within political science, has been relatively neglected in this ongoing scholarly program. (So has sociology; another topic for another time.)
This is not, as some readers will be tempted to think, because political scientists are sympathetic to “the state” as economists are sympathetic to the market. Political scientists are in routinely in the business of studying things we don’t find attractive: wars, coups, revolutions, genocides, civil wars, authoritarianism, populism, voter ignorance, and institutional dysfunction of all kinds.
Yet the study of those topics through the lens of political science ought to be a key part of a classical liberal social theory.
We don’t have to agree with those who think that markets and civil society are constituted by the state to see that they may be either facilitated or jeopardized by political outcomes. War, civil war, institutional collapse, the rise of authoritarian or totalitarian governments—understanding where these come from and how to inhibit them is a cornerstone of a fully developed account of social orders compatible with human liberty.
And we don’t have to conceptually identify democracy or majoritarianism with liberty in order to think that, as a matter of fact, constitutional democratic governments are a crucial feature of free societies. It follows that we ought to care about how they work, and where they come from.
But the current classical liberal interpretation of political science is lacking.
All too often, classical liberal social theorists (who, in other domains, are well aware that social outcomes can be the product of human action without being the product of human design) treat political outcomes as being a matter of other people’s bad will and bad decisions. But political orders are complex emergent phenomena, as much as other orders in human society. Building a stable government that protects and facilitates individual liberty, involves more than a group of people with the correct beliefs about rights theory agreeing to do good things rather than bad things.
In other words, too many classical liberals who understand complexity in other social arenas become decisionists when they think about politics: all we need from governing institutions, they assert, is for people to make good decisions rather than bad ones.
They fall into this fallacy partly because they identify good government from a classical liberal perspective with mere inaction: all our rulers need to do is to stay their hand. Whatever the truth (and it’s a partial truth, as Hayek knew) of laissez faire as a description of good policy, it is no truth as an answer to the underlying organization of violence, coercion, and rule. A political order that can engage in and commit to the right kind of inaction, in the right ways and at the right times, is a rare accomplishment, and we still know too little about how to get it and how to keep it.
Over the course of these posts in coming weeks and months, I will identify some obstacles that have prevented the development of a classical liberal political science and political theory that can fit within the broad development of the humane studies. (Spoiler alert: Lockean social contract theory and public choice theory, while they’ve both taught us valuable things, have become in important ways intellectual obstacles to overcome.) And I’ll try to draw on what political scientists and theorists have learned, offering some thoughts about what needs to be incorporated within the developing liberal social theory of the humane studies.
Comments Off on The Harmony and Balance of Virtue and Liberty
Virtue and liberty are both good things, and when the world is well-ordered, they are in harmony with one another. Today we often find them at odds. The friends of virtue see liberty abused in the pursuit of vices which prove self-destructive to the individual and harmful to others, while friends of liberty think the friends of virtue want to force them to live a certain way, confining their personal freedom, and for that matter, differing vastly among themselves about what virtue is. Consider, for example, the practices permitted by modern sexual freedom, on the one hand, and the debates over whether society can establish a normative definition of marriage on the other.
Let me suggest a way of thinking about this question that can allow harmony between liberty and virtue. Define virtue as human excellence, as the ancient Greeks defined it, including moral excellence but not limited to it. Define liberty as the individual’s faculty of governing himself — and include political liberty, the capacity of people to govern themselves as a whole.
Virtue, then, depends upon freedom; no virtuous act can be fully virtuous unless it is freely chosen by the person acting.
And while our virtues often owe their formation and their exercise to others — to our parents or others who taught us right from wrong and instilled in us good habits, to our friends who counsel us in making hard decisions and help to guide us on the right path — in the end action is only truly human when it is chosen thoughtfully and conscientiously.
We can improve ourselves by repeated good choices and in fact probably have to continuously aim at self-improvement to keep from growing inattentive and corrupt.
Besides, there are many forms of human excellence and many virtues, and no one can cultivate all of these, even if there are some, like justice, that all of us need to possess to a certain extent. Part of what makes us social and political beings is that we rely upon and even take pleasure in one another’s excellences, enjoying an outstanding musical or athletic performance by another even if it is far beyond our own capacities, or appreciating a great act of statesmanship or a courageous stand for justice even if it is something we didn’t have the opportunity or perhaps the courage and ability to do ourselves.
In a free society, we choose what excellences to cultivate, whether technical or artistic or political or commercial or intellectual. Some basic moral virtues might be expected of everyone, but even these are developed and perfected in different ways according to the life we choose.
Virtue Is A Necessity
But a free society also depends upon virtue. Partly this is a matter of individuals’ making good use of their own freedom, which is rarely done without some measure of self-discipline and prudence. Partly it is a matter of learning the basic justice and civility that is needed for living together with others in civil society.
Partly it is a matter of developing the political virtues needed for republican government: a willingness to get involved and speak up; to step back, take turns, and try to understand political opponents who are nevertheless fellow citizens; to obey just laws and use prudence to correct those one finds unjust; to contribute according to one’s capacity for the common defense when necessary; to learn how self-government operates and encourage others to do the same.
A free society probably cannot thrive if every citizen is absorbed in politics all the time — that’s one reason we have a representative system, not direct democracy — but it surely cannot thrive if most citizens are ignorant or indifferent about politics, that is, if they lack the basic virtues that make political freedom work.
Harmony between virtue and freedom is the ideal, but usually in political life one has to settle for a balance between them. Some people think — looking at our epidemics of drug addiction and family breakdown in recent decades — that the balance has shifted too much in the direction of individual license, neglecting both the virtues of private life and the virtues of political life. Many have thought the decline of the virtues of political life was on ample display in our recent elections — on the part of the voters, the parties, and many of the candidates. I am a little more optimistic, because the election seems to have energized citizens of every partisan description to recognize the importance of political choice and the need to be politically engaged.
Such awareness is not by itself evidence of political virtue, but it is the necessary condition for people to make the effort to learn about our form of government, to listen to their friends and their opponents, to deliberate and act and thereby gain political experience in the process, and finally to appreciate the value of our liberties. Gratitude, too, is a political virtue, at least in a republic like our own which has been shaped both by freedom and by virtue. Indeed, I think gratitude ought to be widely shared, for ours is a democratic republic, where the rights, if not always the opportunities, for the exercise of political liberty are equal, and the opportunities themselves can be created with a little effort and ingenuity, that is, with a little virtue.
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Does history repeat itself? Dan Carlin, the “political Martian,” says history can’t teach us what to do next, but it can teach us who we are. Watch the full interview here.