May 22

Ideas DO Matter …

Professor Deirdre McCloskey is at it again. In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal she laid out the reason wealth and progress took off at the end of the 18th Century and hasn’t looked back. (Despite significant and ongoing effort to strangle the baby.) In summary:

The answer, in a word, is “liberty.” Liberated people, it turns out, are ingenious. Slaves, serfs, subordinated women, people frozen in a hierarchy of lords or bureaucrats are not. By certain accidents of European politics, having nothing to do with deep European virtue, more and more Europeans were liberated. From Luther’s reformation through the Dutch revolt against Spain after 1568 and England’s turmoil in the Civil War of the 1640s, down to the American and French revolutions, Europeans came to believe that common people should be liberated to have a go. You might call it: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

To use another big concept, what came—slowly, imperfectly—was equality. It was not an equality of outcome, which might be labeled “French” in honor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Piketty. It was, so to speak, “Scottish,” in honor of David Hume and Adam Smith: equality before the law and equality of social dignity. It made people bold to pursue betterments on their own account. It was, as Smith put it, “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.”

A full read is absolutely worth the time. The essay is a set up for McCloskey’s new book. But it builds on themes she has laid out before.

When the answer is so straightforward you have to wonder why so many politicians, academics, elites, and even “business leaders”, seem so desperate to put the genie back in the bottle?

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