I just watched this entire interview hosted by James Pethokoukis at AEI of Deirdre McCloskey (formerly Donald McCloskey) about his new book Why Liberalism Works. It will suffice to say that I wasn’t persuaded by Deirdre’s case. I doubt anyone in the Dissident Right will have second thoughts about liberalism either after watching this interview.
Where to start?
Deirdre McCloskey is asked at the outset of the interview by James Pethokoukis to define liberalism. His response to this question is that the essence of liberalism is “no masters” or opposition to social hierarchies. He proceeded to cite patriarchy (the authority of husbands over their wives and children) and masters over slaves and politicians over citizens as examples of the sort of tyrannies to which classical liberalism is opposed. As a project, McCloskey defines liberalism as being opposed to any type of authority or social order.
This is precisely the charge that is leveled against classical liberalism aka True Conservatism by the Dissident Right. Liberalism is accused of being a solvent that undermines and destroys the social fabric. It is an intellectual disease that has the effect of dissolving organic cultures. It is a disruptive force that weakens the social order and the atomization, alienation and exploitation it generates leads to utopian leftwing social revolutions. The unhappiness it creates leads to a permanent state of social revolution. Conservative liberalism is incapable of stopping much less reversing the tide of progressive liberalism as it destroys its own foundations.
In traditional European cultures (those before the 18th century), Deirdre McCloskey says that everyone had a master and was immersed in an overarching narrative and a web of relationships with everyone else in society. The monarch answered to God. The merchant was regulated by the state. Wives obeyed the authority of their husbands. Children obeyed the authority of their fathers. Slaves obeyed their masters. Servants obeyed their lords or their employers. Liberalism is the idea that everyone in society should be free and equal as an individual and that no one should be in any position of authority. It is a critique of the traditional Christian social order. It is the idea that there should be no common story to organize society and foster social cohesion.
Deirdre McCloskey cites Thomas Carlyle as an example of how liberalism was under attack from the Right for the first two centuries of its existence. What did Thomas Carlyle say about liberalism that was so devastating in his Latter-Day Pamphlets?
“To rectify the relation that exists between two men, is there no method, then, but that of ending it? The old relation has become unsuitable, obsolete, perhaps unjust; and the remedy is, abolish it; let there henceforth be no relation at all. From the ‘sacrament of marriage’ downwards, human beings used to be manifoldly related one to another, and each to all; and there was no relation among human beings, just or unjust, that had not its grievances and its difficulties, its necessities on both sides to bear and forbear. But henceforth, be it known, we have changed all that by favor of Heaven; the ‘voluntary principle’ has come up, which will itself do the business for us; and now let a new sacrament, that of Divorce, which we call emancipation, and spout of on our platforms, be universally the order of the day! Have men considered whither all this is tending, and what it certainly enough betokens? Cut every human relation that has any where grown uneasy sheer asunder; reduce whatsoever was compulsory to voluntary, whatsoever was permanent among us to the condition of the nomadic; in other words, LOOSEN BY ASSIDUOUS WEDGES, in every joint, the whole fabrice of social existence, stone from stone, till at last, all lie now quite loose enough, it can, as we already see in most countries, be overset by sudden outburst of revolutionary rage; and lying as mere mountains of anarchic rubbish, solicit you to sing Fraternity, &c. over it, and rejoice in the now remarkable era of human progress we have arrived at.”
Give the liberal order enough time to work itself out and it will disrupt, pervert and chew through every type of “tyranny” in the name of expanding freedom and equality, tolerance and individual rights to the point where it is now assaulting puberty, masculinity and femininity and the division between citizens and foreigners. The beast is never satisfied.
The comeback to this criticism is the economy.
In the eyes of liberals like Deirdre McCloskey, the purpose of life is economic growth and material consumption. We live in an economy that happens to have a culture, not a culture that happens to have an economy. Both our economy and culture should be completely deregulated. Morality is a matter of private sentiment. McCloskey makes the sign of the cross as he mentions Adam Smith. He also notes that dog is god spelled backward. This is the perspective which he is coming from. Philosophically speaking, it is the exact opposite of conservatism.
Later in the discussion, McCloskey justifies Jeff Bezos being worth $100 billion dollars and dismisses the mounting concerns on both the Right and the Left that any individual who is able to amass that much wealth under the liberal order will inevitably have too much power over his fellow citizens. Amazon is a monopoly. What happens when Amazon decides to ban your books like Roosh V? What happens when you are deplatformed by VISA and Mastercard over your cultural and political views? What if AT&T and Verizon were able to ban you from telephone service? The free-market leads to corporate monopolies and a social order dominated by unaccountable oligarchs that wield vastly more power than any premodern prince. So much for liberalism eliminating masters and their hierarchies!
The chart of the last two centuries that McCloskey and Pethokoukis refer to which shows the rising standard of living in the West is highly misleading. How has Christianity fared in the West over the course of the last two centuries? How about marriage and the family? How about communities? Has our culture similarly improved? Has the West been soaring to new heights in art, literature, architecture and music under liberalism as opposed to collectivism?
It is true that the First Industrial Revolution and Second Industrial Revolution created enormous wealth and new jobs that replaced the old jobs that were destroyed by the disruption of modern capitalism. If free-market capitalism is still producing so many new jobs though, why has there been a revival of protectionism? Why is there a swelling chorus of criticism of neoliberalism? Is it because the Third Industrial Revolution and Fourth Industrial Revolution are different and haven’t provided a substitute for the employment of working class people in factories?
McCloskey takes comfort in the assumption that the future will be like the past. Populism has risen and faded before. Liberalism has been challenged before and defeated its rivals in the 20th century. The last crisis of liberalism was resolved by the Great Depression and World War II. The America which emerged from that tragedy was one in which classical liberalism had been discredited for a generation. This is a fundamentally different situation because this time Americans and Western Europeans have been deracinated by liberalism. There is an unending tidal wave of immigrants pouring into the West which is the primary force driving the rise of populism. This time our secularized culture is dominated by multiculturalism and political correctness. This time sex and gender have been deregulated by liberalism for the first time since the Late Roman Empire. This time robots and automation are simply destroying jobs for low-skilled workers.
It is a myth that the sheer force of compelling liberal ideas was responsible for the last two centuries of the West’s economic development. The true cause was imperialism and dominating world trade which got started under very different circumstances. It was British power that imposed the liberal order on the world. It was American power which inherited it and which sustains it to this day. Underneath the liberal order, it was a combination of innovation, technological change and especially the exploitation of non-renewable resources – coal, oil and natural gas – that set off the explosion in wealth. From Germany through China, rising non-liberal powers have figured this out and grown wealthy while discarding liberalism. It is doubtful that America can sustain the liberal order while suffering such a tremendous loss of cohesion. It is more probable that homogeneous China will surpass the United States in the 21st century.
McCloskey contradicts himself in the interview by saying that only individuals are capable of innovation while simultaneously noting that actually the government funds a huge amount of R&D. Most of the multinational corporations which are “innovating” are organized on such a colossal scale that they have a GDP larger than most of the countries in the world. Much of our technology whether it was the atom bomb or computers or most recently the drone are spinoffs of military technology. The technology that put the first satellite in space and a man on a moon was developed by the state, not by free enterprise.
I disagree with Deirdre McCloskey on the good society being individualist, not collectivist. He says that the family is an authoritarian institution and the model of socialism. He says that parents are like bosses. Imagine a world in which children are not corrected by their parents and allowed to indulge in every fanciful idea that strikes their imagination like wanting to be a transsexual or gay when they grow up. Such is the world that has been given to us by conservative liberalism. It is a world that makes sense to AEI and perpetual rebels like Deirdre McCloskey.
I won’t judge him too harshly on the basis of this single interview. I will have more to say about this after reading his book. I’m sure conservative liberals will love it.