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Deirdre McCloskey’s case for ‘humane libertarianism’

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In Deirdre McCloskey’s latest book, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, she adds a hearty layer to her ongoing thesis about the sources of our newfound prosperity. In an age where Left and Right seem intent on focusing merely on the material means and ends, McCloskey reminds us of the underlying forces at play, arguing that such prosperity is not due to systems, tools, or materials, but to the ideas, virtues, and rhetoric behind them.

“The bettering ideas arose in northwestern Europe from a novel liberty and dignity that was slowly extended to all commoners…among them the bourgeoisie,” she writes. “The new liberty and dignity resulted in a startling revaluation by the society as a whole of the trading and betterment in which the bourgeoisie specialized.”

In a new manifesto for what she calls a “new American liberalism” (or a “humane libertarianism”), McCloskey recently channeled those same ideas into a more focused challenge to classical liberals, reminding us that defending the poor and downtrodden requires the same intentional balance in imagination: focusing less on the surface-level, material dynamics and instead remembering Adam Smith’s “liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.” “Such a humane liberalism has for two centuries worked on the whole astonishingly well,” she writes. “…In the eighteenth century kings had rights and women had none. Now it’s the other way around.”

After an extensive re-iteration of those basic foundations and their fruits, McCloskey gets deeper into the actual application, pointing to a somewhat predictable list of libertarian and conservative policy priorities, ranging from reversals in taxation and corporatism to the privatization of different areas and industries to expansions in immigration to widespread localization (driven by “the notion of Catholic social teaching of ‘subsidiarity’”). “The practical proposals are legion,” she says, “because illiberal policies are by now legion, as they also were during the feudalism that the early liberals overturned.” For McCloskey, the “essence of real, humane liberalism, in short, is a small government, honest and effective in its modest realm,” leaving people to “pursue their non-violent projects voluntarily, laissez faire, laissez passer.”

Yet McCloskey routinely qualifies these ideas with pointed reminders to a certain strain of “misled libertarians.” For many in the classical-liberal camp, McCloskey observes, those philosophical, non-material priorities are often used as a mere excuse to shrug at whatever “external” moral or material obligations may, in fact, exist. For this sort of “non-political” libertarianism (or as some might say, libertinism), McCloskey has little patience. “But do not ignore other people, or disdain them, or refuse to help them, issuing a country-club declaration of ‘I’ve got mine,’” she writes. “Humane liberalism is not atomistic and selfish, contrary to what the High Liberals [i.e. progressives] believe about it—and as some misled libertarians in fact talk in their boyish ways as if they believed about it, too. It is on the contrary an economy and polity and society of equal dignity.”

Indeed, amidst her profound elaborations on the foundations of human liberty, McCloskey is attentive to remind us of the why behind the what and the how, stretching us beyond the garden varieties of narrow, selfish individualism that increasingly dominate all sides of our cultural and political debates.

This manifests most clearly in McCloskey’s assessment of a humane liberal’s approach to government. McCloskey is not an anarchist, and uses a specific example to demonstrate how her stated approach of “humane liberalism” might practically intersect with the goals of good governance, blurry and imperfect though it may turn out to be:

Helping people in a crisis, surely, or raising them up from some grave disadvantage, such as social or physical or mental handicap, by giving help in the form of money to be spent in unprotected markets, is a just role for the government, and is still more justly admirable for individuals doing it voluntarily. Give the poor in Orleans parish the vouchers for private schools. Give money to the very poor of Chicago to rent a home privately. Turn over your book royalties from Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century to an effective charity.

Yet do not, ever, supply schooling or housing directly from the government, because governmental ownership of the means of production, a literal socialism, is regularly a bad way to produce anything but national defense (and that’s pretty bad itself), and anyway makes the poor into serfs of the government, or of its good friends the teachers’ union in the public schools and the bureaucrats in the public housing authority. The Swedes, whom Americans think are socialists, gave up their state monopoly of local pharmacies, which any Swede can tell you were maddeningly arrogant and inefficient.

For the humane liberal, government has a role, but a significant part of that role is recognizing and respecting the fruits of human liberty, maintaining the right amount of room for human initiative and community institutions to flourish as they will. Once again, such an approach has less to do with the actual dollar amounts of government transactions or the material equilibrium of the day than it does with a particular policy’s prospects for relational, institutional, and moral chaos.

For libertarians and conservatives alike, the essay offers much to consider, and for Christians, the opportunities for reflection are more than a bit pressing. In Bourgeois Equality, McCloskey proclaims with confidence that “enrichment leads to enrichment, not loss of one’s own soul,” and that “one would hope that the Great Enrichment would be used for higher purposes.” Those “higher purposes,” are part of the same fabric she points to in this latest essay, absorbing the space between individual and state, and however optimistic we may be toward their achievement, they are not automatic.

No matter the foundations and fruits of particular varieties of political and social and religious liberty, that task falls to us. This new frontier of prosperity – of abundant time and resources and energetic collaboration – can certainly be abused, if neglected. And that’s where we find our entrance, taking those “humane” ideas and mechanisms, always with our neighbor in mind, and always for the higher purposes of a higher liberty.

Image: Public Domain

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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