In a world dominated by numbers and equations, one economist dared to challenge the status quo and unveil the true power of persuasive language. Meet Deirdre McCloskey, a visionary economist, historian, and writer whose groundbreaking ideas have reshaped the way we understand economic progress.
From dissecting the history of economic thought to unraveling the intricate relationship between culture and prosperity, McCloskey’s intellectual journey has left an indelible mark on the field. But her contributions extend far beyond academia, as she fearlessly confronts social and political issues.
Join us as we delve into McCloskey’s extraordinary career, where she demonstrates that economics is not just a science — it’s a captivating form of communication that has the power to shape our world.
Who is Deirdre McCloskey
Deirdre McCloskey is a prominent economist, historian, and writer whose work has focused on a diverse range of topics, including the history of economic thought, economic growth and development, and the role of culture and institutions in shaping economic progress.
Born on September 11, 1942, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Deirdre McCloskey attended Harvard University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1964 and a Ph.D. in economics in 1970. After completing her Ph.D., McCloskey began her academic career as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago before becoming an associate professor, teaching Chicago Price Theory.
She later served as the John Murray Professor of Economics and History at the University of Iowa from 1980 to 1999 and has written numerous books and articles on her various fields.
McCloskey has subsequently been affiliated with several research centers and organizations, such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, and served as a visiting professor at various prestigious institutions, including Stanford University and Erasmus University Rotterdam.
She currently holds the position of Distinguished Professor Emerita of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Career and contributions
Deirdre McCloskey’s early work centered on the history of economic thought, with a particular focus on the Scottish Enlightenment and the development of classical liberal ideas. She argued that economics was not simply a scientific enterprise but also a form of persuasive communication that relied heavily on language and rhetoric. In other words, economic ideas and theories are not neutral or detached from the influence of language and rhetoric.
She later shifted her focus to the study of economic growth and development, arguing that cultural and institutional factors were critical to understanding why some societies had experienced significant economic progress while others had not. McCloskey emphasized the role of values and attitudes toward commerce and entrepreneurship, arguing that the rise of capitalism in the West was not simply due to technological or economic innovations but also a shift in values and attitudes.
Moreover, McCloskey has also been a prominent voice on a range of social and political issues, including feminism, gender identity, and the ethics of capitalism. She has challenged traditional views on these topics, arguing for a more inclusive and tolerant approach that recognizes the diversity and complexity of human experience. In her book, Crossing: A Memoir, published following her transition in the 1990s, Deirdre McCloskey stated:
“It’s strange to have been a man and now to be a woman. But it’s no stranger perhaps than having been a West African and now being an American, or once a priest and now a businessman. Free people keep deciding to make strange crossings, from storekeeper to monk or from civilian to soldier or from man to woman. Crossing boundaries is a minority interest, but human.”
She has been recognized for her contributions with numerous awards and accolades, including the prestigious Hayek Prize from the Manhattan Institute and the Distinguished Fellow Award from the History of Economics Society.
Key books by Deirdre McCloskey
McCloskey’s most significant contribution to economics is arguably her work on the importance of rhetoric in shaping economic discourse. In her book, The Rhetoric of Economics (1985), she argues that how economists communicate their ideas and arguments significantly impacts how these ideas are received and accepted.
She emphasizes the importance of using persuasive language to communicate economic ideas effectively and to persuade others to accept them. Deirdre McCloskey challenges the traditional view of economics as a purely scientific discipline by emphasizing the role of rhetoric, narrative, and cultural factors in shaping economic ideas and outcomes.
She recognizes the persuasive power of storytelling and the influence of societal values on economic behavior. McCloskey also highlights the significance of considering the social and political contexts in which economic ideas are developed and disseminated, rejecting the notion of economics as an isolated science.
Moreover, she advocates for an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates insights from various fields, enriching economic analysis with a broader understanding of human behavior and societal influences.
One of McCloskey’s most significant contributions to the field of economics is her work on the “Great Enrichment.” In 2010, she published Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, in which she argues that the rhetoric shifted from a predominantly negative view of commerce and trade to a more positive and appreciative perception.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, there was a prevailing belief that wealth was finite and that one person’s gain came at the expense of others. Business and entrepreneurial pursuits were often seen as exploitative or morally inferior compared to traditional activities such as agriculture or land ownership.
However, during the 17th and 18th centuries, a new narrative emerged that celebrated the role of business, innovation, and entrepreneurship in driving economic progress and societal well-being. The rhetoric began to emphasize the positive contributions of the bourgeoisie and their economic activities. Instead of viewing business as a zero-sum game, it started being seen as a positive-sum endeavor, where entrepreneurial success could benefit not only individuals but also society as a whole.
This shift in rhetoric involved a change in cultural attitudes and perceptions. Business and trade came to be seen as honorable and productive endeavors that could lead to economic growth, improved living standards, and societal advancement. The values associated with business, such as innovation, risk-taking, and creative destruction, became increasingly praised and recognized as essential drivers of progress.
McCloskey argues that this change in rhetoric and the newfound appreciation for business, innovation, and entrepreneurship played a pivotal role in unleashing the forces of economic growth and the subsequent rise of the modern world.
She elaborates further on these ideas in her later book, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (2016), wherein she argues that the unprecedented growth in wealth and living standards that occurred in Western Europe and North America after 1800 was not primarily the result of technological or institutional factors, but rather the result of a change in the way people thought about the world and their place in it.
McCloskey contends that the Great Enrichment resulted from a shift in attitudes toward commerce and innovation, which allowed people to see the pursuit of wealth as a positive and socially beneficial activity. She further argues that this change in attitudes was the outcome of a broader shift in culture and values, which emphasized individualism, innovation, and the pursuit of excellence.
McCloskey has also made significant contributions to the economics of innovation. In her book, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006), she argues that ethical values, such as honesty, trust, and cooperation, are crucial for fostering innovation and entrepreneurship.
She emphasizes the importance of creating a culture that values these virtues and encourages individuals to take risks and pursue innovative ideas. Her work has challenged traditional economic theories that view innovation as primarily driven by monetary incentives and has highlighted the importance of social and cultural factors in fostering innovation.
Crossing: a memoir
Her 1999 book, Crossing: a memoir, offers a candid and introspective account of her experience with gender dysphoria and the journey of self-discovery that led to her decision to live as a woman.
McCloskey courageously shares her emotional and psychological struggles as she grapples with her gender identity and challenges navigating societal norms and expectations. She reflects on the personal and professional implications of her transition, including the impact on her family, relationships, and academic career.
While the book encompasses more than just McCloskey’s transition, it serves as a poignant exploration of identity and self-acceptance. By sharing her personal story, McCloskey contributes to a broader understanding of gender diversity and challenges prevailing societal attitudes toward transgender individuals.
The memoir stands as a testament to McCloskey’s resilience and determination to live authentically, and it offers readers a unique perspective on her personal journey alongside her intellectual and professional contributions.
Manifesto for a New American Liberalism
Manifesto for a New American Liberalism is a collection of essays by Deirdre McCloskey that outlines her vision for a reinvigorated liberalism in the American context.
In her manifesto, McCloskey challenges traditional notions of liberalism and argues for a broader understanding of the term. She advocates for a liberalism that goes beyond economic policies and encompasses a range of social and cultural issues. McCloskey emphasizes the importance of a free and open society that values individual liberty and social progress.
McCloskey argues for the need to restore trust in liberal institutions and promote a narrative that highlights the positive impact of liberalism on human flourishing. She also emphasizes the significance of engaging in civil discourse and finding common ground to address societal challenges.
Overall, Deirdre McCloskey presents a compelling case for reimagining and revitalizing liberalism in contemporary America, offering a thought-provoking perspective on how classical liberal principles can contribute to a more inclusive and prosperous society.
Recent books by Deirdre McCloskey
In her most recent books, Deirdre McCloskey continues her exploration of the importance of ideas, rhetoric, and culture in shaping economic outcomes.
In Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All, published in 2019, Deirdre McCloskey presents a robust defense of the classical liberal principles, arguing that a commitment to individual liberty, free markets, and limited government has led to remarkable improvements in human well-being. She examines historical and contemporary examples to demonstrate how classical liberalism has produced greater freedom, equality, and prosperity — challenging prevailing critiques of liberal ideas.
In 2020, McCloskey published, along with co-author Prof. Art Carden, Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World, wherein she explores the historical and economic factors behind the unprecedented prosperity that emerged in the last few centuries.
McCloskey argues that the key driver of economic progress and human betterment has been the “bourgeois deal.” This deal refers to the societal agreement that allows individuals to pursue their own self-interest through innovation, entrepreneurship, and voluntary exchange, while respecting the rights and property of others.
Also in 2020, McCloskey co-authored The Myth of the Entrepreneurial State with Alberto Mingardi. The book confronts the false narrative that the state plays an essential role in directing investment and stimulating innovation. This idea was particularly popular after World War II and, more recently, in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
In response, McCloskey and Mingardi demonstrate how the prosperous modern economy did not emerge through state compulsion but rather resulted from a shift in political and social discourse in northwestern Europe between 1517 and 1789. The Great Enrichment, in essence, originated from the liberated ingenuity of individuals rather than being directed by centralized authority.
Deirdre McCloskey’s work has profoundly impacted the field of economics and the social sciences more broadly. Her emphasis on the importance of rhetoric in shaping economic discourse has helped to make economics more accessible and relevant to the wider public, while her work on the Great Enrichment has helped to shift the focus of economic analysis toward the importance of culture, values, and ideas.
McCloskey’s unique approach, which combines economics, philosophy, and literature, has made her one of the most influential and respected voices in the field of economics, and her work will continue to shape economic discourse and scholarship for years to come.
10 quotes from Deirdre McCloskey
1. “That businesspeople buy low and sell high in a particularly alert and advantageous way does not make them bad unless all trading is bad, unless when you yourself shop prudently you are bad, unless any tall poppy needs to be cut down, unless we wish to run our ethical lives on the sin of envy.”
2. “The way to help the poor, in short, is to let the Great Enrichment proceed by commercially tested betterment, as it has widely since 1800 and especially in the past forty years.”
3. “[T]he poor have been the chief beneficiaries of modern capitalism. It is an irrefutable historical finding, obscured by the logical truth that the profits from innovation go in the first act mostly to the bourgeois rich.”
4. “Markets are not perfect, but they are the best mechanism we have for coordinating the complex interactions of individuals and allocating resources efficiently.”
5. “The success of capitalism is not measured by how much wealth is accumulated by a few, but by how many people are lifted out of poverty and have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”
6. “Economic progress has never been achieved by command from some single, wise, and powerful ruler. It has always been an unintended consequence of the voluntary actions of millions of individuals, each pursuing their own interests.”
7. “The modern world was made by a slow-motion revolution in ethical convictions about commercial virtues and vices.”
8. “The market is not a faceless, impersonal force. It is made up of individuals who engage in mutually beneficial exchanges, guided by their own knowledge, preferences, and values.”
9. “The case for the commercial society is not just a case about wealth. It’s a case about human dignity and freedom and growth.”
10. “Wealth creation is not a zero-sum game. It is not about taking from one person to give to another. It is about expanding the economic pie so that everyone can have a larger slice.”
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