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McCloskey on Liberalism and Democracy

Summary:
I am reading Deirdre McCloskey’s Why Liberalism Works, which I shall confess I’ve started with some ambivalence. “Aunt Deirdre”‘s last book is a collection of essays and most of the time this genre is ill suited even for the most talented of writers. Occasional essays were meant for the occasion, indeed, and they do not always survive it brilliantly. Yet Deirdre has obviously worked a great deal on these essays, and they form a consistent and cogent whole. The title at first appears vague enough, and can leave you wondering what the subject may be. Yet it is faithful to the contents. McCloskey wants to show that a small-government liberalism is the best item in the menu of political ideologies so far, by pointing to its successes and its virtues. There is, in the

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I am reading Deirdre McCloskey’s Why Liberalism Works, which I shall confess I’ve started with some ambivalence. “Aunt Deirdre”‘s last book is a collection of essays and most of the time this genre is ill suited even for the most talented of writers. Occasional essays were meant for the occasion, indeed, and they do not always survive it brilliantly. Yet Deirdre has obviously worked a great deal on these essays, and they form a consistent and cogent whole.

The title at first appears vague enough, and can leave you wondering what the subject may be. Yet it is faithful to the contents. McCloskey wants to show that a small-government liberalism is the best item in the menu of political ideologies so far, by pointing to its successes and its virtues.

There is, in the book, quite a lot about democracy and classical liberalism’s ambivalence towards it. McCloskey maintains that “Liberals Are Democrats” (a little play with tautology, in the title of chapter 4) but she has her own perplexities about recent elections and the rise of populism.

Yet she doesn’t buy into epistocracy, which she considers in tension with her own message. McCloskey’s main message is that ordinary people can be entrusted with having a go at their own lives and their own projects: “the essence of humane true liberalism… is a small government, honest and effective in its modest realm, with a hand up for the poor. Mainly leave people alone to pursue their non-violent projects voluntarily”. Yet we know (and McCloskey knows) that choosing for oneself is one thing, voting in an election for a party whose platform and policies are largely unknown, in their minute details, even to its members, is quite another.

McCloskey writes:

For collective decisions, I say again, a liberal democrat often results in poor choices. Such is life. In reaction, Jason Brennan puts forward a bizarre suggestion for a rule exclusively by the well-informed, with college degrees, and Hayek a bizarre suggestion for age retractions on voting. But even such undemocratic policies would probably not result in much better choosing – besides stripping away the equal human dignity for everyone that is the core belief in the liberalism both men advocate.

In a sense, McCloskey, fully knowing how powerless an individual vote is, sees it as being part of that dignity that a liberal society accords to each individual. Yet another key message of her book is that bigger and bigger government, by bossing people around, jeopardizes that very dignity.

So, what do we do if it is the people’s will as expressed in their free votes that produces a bigger government, which in turns cuts into their dignity and freedom?

McCloskey’s answer relies on culture and persuasion (sweet talk). The only way to improve decision making is for the government to decide on less. The only way people will accept that the government should decide on _less_ is that they got convinced.

This is, if you wish, the standard libertarian answer, the one that propelled the many efforts to spread these ideas in the last fifty years or so. Given the paucity of results, and the apparently unstoppable  growth of governments everywhere, you could find it unsatisfactory – hence the need to imagine some institutional solutions helping in the way (but how make the electoral public swallowing them?). With all its limits, McCloskey’s answer still looks attractive to me – and, indeed, more consistent with a system of ideas that, different than its competitors, doesn’t think its values can be imposed at gunpoint on people.

Alberto Mingardi
Mingardi, one of the rising stars of European libertarianism, is the founder and Director General of the Italian free-market think tank, Instituto Bruno Leoni. His areas of interest include the history of economic thought and antitrust and healthcare systems. He is particularly well known for popularizing the work of past scholars under-appreciated by today’s libertarians. Currently an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, Mingardi has also worked with the Heritage Foundation, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Acton Institute, and the Centre for a New Europe.

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