Wednesday, December 29, 2010

McCloskey Wrapup: Big Fact vs. Big Mistake

The great theme that runs through Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Cycle thus far--in The Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity--is the Great Fact. In the past two centuries the prosperity of the average human has risen from a life at $1-$3 per day to the present $30-$137 per day in constant dollars. For the average human, the difference is at least an order of magnitude. If you isolate on the fortunate United States and you account for improvement in products and services, e.g., airplane travel, the difference is two orders of magnitude, meaning that the average person swings 100 times the products and services that his ancestor enjoyed two centuries ago. This has never happened before in history. Never.

Now you would think that everyone would be sitting back gob-smacked, as the Limeys say, but in fact they are not. In fact just about everyone is pretty peeved about the whole thing, from conservatives that mourn the corruption of manners to Marxians--McCloskey prefers "marxoid"--insisting that the whole thing has been achieved on the backs of the workers. But for me the most telling objection to the Great Fact is the responsible prediction that McCloskey extracts in Bourgeois Dignity from John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy. Call it the Big Mistake.

Mill again: "It is only in the backward countries of the world that increased production is still an important object: in those most advanced, what is economically needed is a better distribution, of which one indispensable means is a stricter restraint on population."(p.384)

Here we see the foundation of the 20th century and its centralized administrative state, supervised by a wise and disinterested educated elite. Here we see a forthright manifesto of force--benevolent, sensible, avuncular force, of course, but force nonetheless. Mill was saying that the only way to extend the benefits of the industrial revolution to the poor was by force, and the only way to prevent a population explosion was by force.

And Mill was wrong. Dead wrong. At the moment he was writing a nobody of the name John D. Rockefeller was just starting to reduce the cost of illuminating oil from 80 cents per gallon to 8 cents, and a nobody of the name of Andrew Carnegie was about to reduce the price of steel by two-thirds. Not to mention that in 1871 a chap called Orville Wright was born in Ohio. Not to mention that in 1870-71 about four people in four different countries reinvented economics with the marginal revolution.

On the population front, of course, we now know that middle-class people possessed of fantastic prosperity don't fill the world with an excess population. If anything, they need to be firmly walloped with a wet noodle and told to get a life and get some kids on the ground.

What we know today is that all that political force of the last century was unnecessary. The modern economy, driven by a bourgeoisie dignified and free, would have covered the poor in riches without all the government programs because, indeed, the staggering rising tide of the modern free lunch, the free lunch of cheap energy, cheap steel, cheap travel, cheap food, cheap everything, created a world in which the poor are fat and the rich are thin. And all the while nobody noticed. Or if they did, they complained because it wasn't good enough.

Let's say it again. Governments in the United States, as faithfully recorded and broadcast by, spends the following each year.

Government Pensions$1.0 trillion
Government Health Care$1.1 trillion
Government Education$1.0 trillion
Government Welfare$0.8 trillion

If the poor get rich along with everyone else, what's the point of four trillion dollars of compulsion every year?

Yes, you say, but what about government education? Surely that is worthwhile. Not really. Not according to Deirdre McCloskey. Once a family gets literacy, she argues, it never loses it.

Then male literacy in England rose to perhaps 30 percent in 1580 and to 60 percent by... the 1750s... My father was the first in his family to graduate from university... All of his three children did likewise... [B]oth of my two did, and doubtless my two grandchildren will, too.

McCloskey's Norwegian ancestors "were reading by the late sixteenth century, and never stopped." And all of this without compulsory government education.

But McCloskey is perhaps too optimistic. Perhaps there is a way to extinguish literacy. It is called the welfare state. Here is the testimony of police Inspector Gadget in Britain:

I once saw a bloke in custody, who was in my year at Ruraltown Comp. The Sergeant asked him if he could read and write before offering him the custody record to sign. He said he couldn’t. I interjected. ‘I was at school with you buddy, you can read and write for God’s sake’ he said ‘I used to be able to but I forgot how’. He hadn’t had to read or write anything for 20 years, so he simply forgot how. An ‘agency’ for everything, all on a plate. A filthy mean little plate, but a plate none the less.

The reason that most people acquired literacy over the past millennium is that it was useful to them, very useful. It kept them out of the mine and the stone pit. It qualified them for good jobs indoors. But when the government will give you money for nothing, what's the point?

The point is: when you find you are doing something wrong, something stupid, stop doing it.

Three hundred years ago slavery was ubiquitous; 150 years later it had become a scandal. Two hundred years ago, absolute government and its centralized administrative bureaucracy was a scandal. Today it is ubiquitous.

But big government doesn't have to stay ubiquitous. We can change it. We can make it a scandal again.

If we believe in the "bourgeois virtues" and if we believe in "bourgeois dignity" that people should have the dignity and the freedom to innovate for the benefit of each other, then there is only one thing to say about the vast centralized administrative state inspired by the Great Mistake of good old buffers like John Stuart Mill and what we might call the Great Lie of the not-so-good folks like the post-1848 clerisy of intellectuals and activists. The saying has a familiar ring to it:

"This Shall Not Stand."


  1. Dear Mr. Chantrill,

    Your amazing web site doesn't yield an email for you, so I'll have to speak through a comment. I wish to say merely that you and your projects are astonishing, as in "very fine." I can see that you and I are on the same side on libertarian issues, if a lot less so on strictly conservative ones. But you have read my book with great penetration, which is beyond what an author can expect! Thank you, and carry on with your projects!


    Deirdre McCloskey

  2. Excellent analysis, Mr. Chantrill. We, the readers, and forgive me that I dare speaking for more persons than myself, we all hope that at least some obscure government official gets to read it too. For no other reason but Media Fairness and Neutrality. :))
    Happy New Year!