An interview with Deirdre McCloskey

Deirdre N. McCloskey (born Donald McCloskey; September 11, 1942, Ann Arbor, Michigan) is a Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). McCloskey has authored 16 books and some 360 articles in her many fields where she calls into question some of the solidly entrenched economic ideas. In 2012, professor McCloskey gave a memorable talk at the 4th Adam Smith Forum in Moscow called ‘The 7 Virtues of Liberal Economy’. After the Forum, Professor McCloskey gave an exclusive interview to the Libertarian Party of Russia Atlant monthly.

How did you find Moscow, Russians and what are your impressions of the Adam Smith forum?

Moscow was overwhelming! It seemed prosperous in a free-wheeling way, reminding me of Boston or New York in the 1940s. I went on Sunday to an Orthodox church service close to my hotel (I am an Anglican myself) and was impressed by the ikons and the candles and the singing and praying. I was intending to go to what will always from now on be called the "Pussy-Riot Church," but decided that honoring such a place would be inconsistent with my liberal values! My main impression of the Forum is that its participants were young, which is a very good thing. It gives hope for the future of a great nation---that a non-nationalistic ideology can prosper among the under-30s.

What are your favorite Russian books? (Well, I know about Tolstoy, but our readers don't :-)

A month before coming to Russia, and partly because I was going to Russia, I had finished reading War and Peace for the first time. Every English reader has tried to read it, but most have been stopped by the blizzard of patronymics and affectionate nicknames. I had tried at least three times before. (My mentor in graduate school, Alexander Gerschenkron, from OIdessa, born 1905, told me that he read it six times, and four of the times were repeats: he came to the last page and could not bear to leave the Tolstoyan world, and so went back to page 1 and reread the book!) But this time I persisted, and was rewarded. What a book, the best novel ever written! Tolstoy was so intelligent and observant, even about the narrow range of society he examined. My heroine Jane Austen is the same way: a narrow range of people in social-class terms, but she and he give a whole way of experiencing our common life---an ethical way.

Also the readers are bound to be interested by any comment on 'The Master & Margarita', that is, in case you've had enough time to start reading that: the book is unbelievably popular among Russian readers, its cult comparable to Harry Potter etc.)

I read half of Master and Margarita on the airplane coming back, and kept being drawn into the insane world it speaks of. Even in translation it is compelling. I will finish it soon.

But the Russian book I want to read next is one mentioned by Tvetan Todorov, the Bulgarian-French literary critic. I speak of it in my book The Bourgeois Virtues (2006).

Work in capitalism is not always alienating. Tzvetan Todorov quotes the protagonist of Forever Flowing, the posthumously published novel of Vasily Grossman (1905-1964), whom he says was the sole example of a successful Stalinist writer who converted wholly to anti-Communism ("The slave in him died, and a free man arose").

I used to think freedom was freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience. Here is what it amounts to: you have to have the right to sow what you wish to, to make shoes or coats, to bake into bread the flour ground from the grain you have sown, and to sell it or not sell it as you wish; for the lathe-operator, the steelworker, and the artist it's a matter of being able to live as you wish and work as you wish and not as they order you.

If you are sure this is wrong, that workers are slaves under capitalism, as I tell you they are under socialism—"Under capitalism, man exploits man; under socialism, it's the other way around"—consider where you got the idea. If from your own actual experience at your life’s employment, or even from a blue- or pink-collar summer job, or a few months as a journalist getting nickel and dimed in minimum wage jobs, you have at least the scientific spirit. You, I, and Barbara Ehrenreich can sit down and think through the balance of the evidence together. But if by any chance you got it unsullied from Marx, or from the numerous people influenced by Marx, I ask you to consider that Marx, like many of us aristocratic priests, had never worked at anything but philosophy and journalism, never picked up a shovel for pay, never so much as set foot in a factory or farm. Marx—Engels was different—had not troubled to look at manual work, much less try it out for himself. He preferred his angry theorizing in the Reading Room of the British Museum.

How do you view the prospects of libertarian and free-market movements in Russia?

It's a long, long trip. The trouble is that anti-market feeling is very easy to have, and very easy for politicians to exploit, as you can tell from its long, long history, especially in Russia. I was shocked by the figures that Vadim Novikov gave at the conference on prosecutions under the so-called anti-trust office in Russia---over 3000, as against a handful in any other country. The prosecutions are used by big companies in Russia to attack small ones, exactly the opposite of what the law is supposed to do. It is easy, I say, to get ordinary people to believe that helping one competitor to survive is good for the countrry. It is what protectionism does. Ordinary people are suspicious of any market deal---except their own good bargain! We need to keep trying to pursuade them that "creative destruction" is a good idea, not "chaos" or "unfair."

What do you think about Pussy Riot case and the whole anti-Putin protest movement?

I was so outraged, as many people worldwide are, that I offered to pay my own way to the Forum! The State and, alas, the Church are willing to use violence to make people silent. The trouble is that people like their leaders to be tough guys. I think it must be deep within human genes. Violence and the threat of violence---as against sweet persuasion and honest voting---are popular. I heard of a Russian nostalgic for soviet times who said that "At least then everyone was afraid of us!"

Who would you like to see and what would you like to hear at the next Adam Smith forum?

I'd like to see some dramatization. Invite the Pussy Riot women, say, to come and make a song about Smith! Seriously, some serious engagement with popular arts would be very good. There's a wonderful, disruptive play about Adam Smith and David Hume by my friend the British playwright Jo Clifford called "The Tree of Knowledge." You ought to get Jan to mount a production of the play in Moscow. It's brilliant---though aimed of course at British audiences on the other side of Smith's revolution.

How did you become a free-market supporter? Do you call yourself 'libertarian'?

When I was young in the 1950s "libertarianism" was a swear-word, thought to be a silly idea. My father was a professor of political science, and I remember vividly him using it with me as a term of contempt, well before I had adopted such views. My first political formation, age 14, was anarchistic, and I loved the writings of that great Russian rince Kropotkin. I became at age 17 or so as a Marxist, as so many young people do in the West. In the East you know that Marxism is nonsense, because it was put into practice with disastrous results. Then I started studying economics, and gradually realized that markets work better than central planning. I taught for 12 years at the University of Chicago, and heard there all the arguments from Milton Friedman and Ronald Coase and the rest. In 1975 I read Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia (which I hope has been translated into Russian), which made me philosophically secure in calling myself a libertarian.

In what ways can economic landscape affects the political agenda?

If the economy is very successful in a free market way, people get the point. There will always be people who complain that, say, economic enrichment since 1800 is "unfair" because we were more equal in 1800: equally poor! The danger is that when economic growth is not fast, the politics turns towards an obsession with dividing up the pie. Benjamin Friedman, an economist at Harvard, has written well on this theme.

What do you think the future of the Euro and the USA national debt may be?

The debt crisis is overblown. We don't owe the money to people from Mars. We owe it to each other. The talk of the "burden" of the debt is a good example of cloudy economic thinking.

What are your ideas about homeschooling?

I'm in favor of it. I wish I had done it for my own two children. 

What can you say about the place of science in politics?

I use the word "science" the way you use it in Russian, and in every other language except English since the middle of the 1800s, that is, "systematic study" (not only "physics and biology"). So systematic study of and in politics is a good idea. The trouble is that the people who study it start to believe that society is like a machine that can be governed. We need to be humble about our knowledge!

What do you think about ideas of theonomical state?

If you mean "theocracy" like Geneva in the 1500s or in Saudi Arabia at present, I think it's terrible.

What do you think about disestablishment of churches? Do you think that capitalism is in atheistical society?

Can morale exist without God? Churches should not be mixed up with the state---as Adam Smith said. You need competition in faith. My book The Bourgeois Virtues says that a market-tested innovative society needs ethics. If the ethics comes from religion, fine. But it doesn't need to be from religion,

Anna Schwartz passed away last June. Could you comment on her legacy and the Chicago school in general?

I wish she had gotten the Nobel Prize. Her work with Rostow and Gayer on British economic growth was one of the pioneering works in quantitative economic history.

And the 2nd part of the interview.

Reflection or action? Pierre Bezukhov or Andrey Bolkonsky?

I don’t get it? But I always ask students trying to decide whether to become academics just that question!

Foreigners often complain about Russians’ dour, never-smiling faces. What were your impressions?

Not so. There’s no less smiling than in Moscow than in, say, London or Chicago---that is, not much!

The Russian government is desperately trying to promote a positive image of itself in the West-oriented Russian media. Have you ever watched the Russia Today channel especially geared towards the U. S. viewer?

Yes, I have. It’s a professional job, and sometimes it’s even worth getting a different view, so long as you realize that it’s propaganda. But I wonder where the older newscasters come from? People who fled the USA for the Worker’s Paradise?

Another thing the government in Russia is very much keen on is ‘national pride’. One of the officially promoted slogans says that Russians are ‘the most well-read nation in the world’. Is Russian literature a recognizable brand outside Russia?

Oh, yes. A “Russian novel” means “long, long, long, with very many confusing patronyms and nicknames, but Great.” From the few I’ve read, and most lately War and Peace, I have to agree.

There is a prevailing tendency among scholars and philosophers to disparage imaginative fiction, writing it off (pun intended) as a very crude and unsatisfactory ‘representation of reality’, something not to be taken seriously into account by a thinker. Still, is there anything you could you tell our readers about how imaginative writing has influenced your own books and your scholarly activity?

Yes, and it is a foolish tendency. Various of my friends have cured me of it, from the political scientist John Nelson at the University of Iowa to the late Richard Rorty, the American philosopher. We think partly in stories, even in (say) mathematics. When I read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath at age 16 or so it made me a socialist. I know it was a popular American work under Communism, for just that reason—though when the movie came out, with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, the Russian audiences were stunned at the richness of the USA, in which people fled from famines in automobiles! When in the early 1990s I turned my mind to the defense of “capitalism” (a poor name: “market-tested innovation” would be, I have decided, a better name, though not so snappy) I was much influenced by Thomas Mann’s first successful novel (1901), Buddenbrooks, about his North German merchant family. I assigned it in economics courses. (I also assign The Grapes of Wrath, which has mainly mistaken economics but raises the issues.) The English novelist David Lodge’s Nice Work is another brilliant evocation of what a business life is actually like. It’s amazing that Mann and Lodge could get it right—but getting it right is what novelists do in their stories. My favorite novelist is Jane Austen, and I would argue that she is deeply bourgeois, though her characters are all from the minor landed class of England. Literature (and painting and drama and even music, which became a bourgeois medium in the 19th century) do not give us scientific findings about the economy, of course. But they help us reflect on our attitudes, even when we think they are wrong. Charles Dickens became anti-capitalist in Dombey and Sons, and Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt is an attack on business life, but we learn even from their errors what to think, or feel. The American poet Robert Frost is very thoughtful about work and the market. Are there Russian poets who are?

If you ask a (supposedly educated) Russian what he or she knows about libertarianism, Ayn Rand will be the first name you’ll hear. What do you make of Ayn Rand as both a fiction writer and a philosopher?

Let me be a professor: as a fiction writers she gets a C (she was a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, but that does not mean she was a good novelist: I find her novels unreadable; you have to be 18 years old to be impressed by them); as a philosopher, C-/D+

Another important development that took place in Moscow last summer was the so-called ‘Occupy Obay’ movement (Obay being an innocent Kazakh poet whose statue on a Moscow boulevard just happened to become the focal point of an opposition street camp) where people were trying to run a kind of Hyde park in downtown Moscow. There was room for public lectures, room for civilized debate, not necessarily political. Not a specifically leftist affair, it was rather the outcome of cooperation between various political movements, before a couple of weeks later it was dispersed in the small hours of morning by a SWAT team. Do you think that, after so much opposition from the government, there still remains any chance to counteract the state oppression and turn Russia into a free society through non-violent means like civil disobedience?

You know the tactical probabilities better than I do. But in the longer run of history non-violence has worked very, very well. Look at Burma, as an amazing recent example. Look at South Africa moving from apartheid. The chief ingredient is a government that cares about its standing in the world, and you say that the Russian government does care. The main problem in your case, it seems to this ignorant outsider, is that liberal Russians are not very numerous. (An old Russian problem, yes?) I am a Christian and so I went to an Orthodox ceremony on Sunday near my hotel (not to the Pussy Riot church, which I hope it will always be known as). It was impressive and moving. But not liberal. Successful non-violent movements require large masses of people to be indignant their condition (violent movements don’t work, or work only to get violent power, not liberal reform: look at the Russian Nihilists who assassinated the Tsar)

You introduced yourself at the Adam Smith Forum as a Chicago economist. How did your academic vision evolve? What’s your attitude towards the Austrian School?

I have an essay on my website,, on Israel Kirzner. The essay describes my evolution from a Prince-Kroptkin anarchist at age 14 to a mild Trotskyist at age 17 to a Keynesian economist and social engineer at age 21 to a Chicago-School economist age 30 to an Austrian economist age 70. Notice that the evolution is at least slowing down!

If this is not too personal a question, did you vote in the latest U. S. presidential election? Who would you prefer as the next U. S. president?

I would have preferred, and voted for, Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, former governor of the state of New Mexico. I found Romney, the Republican, unacceptable. I am a motherly or Christian libertarian, and his harsh measures did not seem sensible to me---or sincere, since he appears to have no principles, and was once much more leftish. A friend described him as having the “CEO mentality,” that is, willing to do anything short of murder to raise the profits of the firm. The firm in this case is rich people. I was glad when Obama won, in part because it is important with our dismal racial history that the radical Republican fail in their vow to make him a one-term president, and to “take back the country” (implied, “from the blacks and Hispanics and other poor people”).

What is your impression of the U. S. Libertarian Party? Is it a force to be reckoned with?

It is a force for education, and I contribute money to it. But in our system only two parties can survive, as long as people think voting for a little party is “throwing away their vote.” If the Republican Party collapses in civil war, maybe a new party with libertarian policies would emerge from the flames. Some Republicans are talking about adopting more libertarian policies on immigration and drugs.

(This question was obviously inspired by your comment on the role science can play in matters of politics) Do you, too, get a feeling that government funding is to blame for those cases where some findings of the political and economic science, on the very pretense that they are ‘scientific’, were used as an excuse for severe interference or, sometimes, inhuman experiments in social engineering? Governments as clients tend to pay for preconceived results that would suit them. Dominick Armentano wrote in Antitrust and Monopoly about how a whole theory of monopoly was cooked up after the enactment of the first piece of anti-trust legislation, the Sherman Antitrust Act.

There’s not that much government funding for economic science in the USA, and certainly not enough to corrupt people directly. But I think Armentano (whose work I do not know) is right if he’s saying that ex post facto justifications are pretty common.

In America, intellectuals often tend to favour state control and intervention in the free market. How and when did this leftist re-orientation of the academic milieu come about? In Russia the so-called intelligentsia has for the last 200 years been in the front line of the struggle for freedom? What’s so special about the Russian intelligentsia that the West had to borrow the word? What might be the difference between the ‘pink’ scholars of the West and the Russian intelligentsia?

It happened in what we call in American history the Progressive Era, dating from 1890 or so to 1920, with continuations in the New Deal of the 1930s. The American “clerisy” (as I call them: intelligentsia + artists) came then to doubt capitalism (newly named). I am not enough of a student of such matters to know exactly why, but there was after 1848 a world-wide shift of the clerisy against capitalism, in England and France and indeed Russia. I mentioned the gentle Kropotkin, who was right that the State was a monster, but wrong that private property was the deeper wrong.

One of the most prominent documents in the history of liberal thought is John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration. What’s your personal view of the document and its role in history?

It was conventional talk in the Netherlands, which Locke lived in while he wrote it, so in a sense Locke was merely joining the massive import of Dutch ideas (and institutions and even a king) that England decided to have in the 1680s and 1690s, against the terrifying intolerance of France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Europeans, and especially English people, were by then weary of religious strife. The Netherlands had been comparatively tolerant for a century already (remarkably, Poland had been the most tolerant country in the 16th century, two centuries before: Erasmus said, Polonia est mea.

Do you think the Nobel Prize, and, in particular, the Nobel Prize in economics has degenerated over the years? Then there’s the Nobel Peace Prize: Arafat, Obama, the EU – what is the whole idea coming to? :)

The Norwegians give the Peace Prize, so the Swedes can’t be blamed for that silliness. The economics prize is not actually a Nobel prize (Alfred Nobel hated economics). It is given by the Bank of Sweden in memory of Nobel, and at the same time, in the same hall, as the others. The Swedes have set a B+ level for the prize. It has the unhappy consequence that there are perhaps 150 senior male economists (the women are more sensiible!) who think they deserve the prize. Only about 40 of them will actually get it before they die, which leaves 110 very unhappy old men have miserable Octobers every year.

Suppose you could translate just one of your books and one of your articles into Russian. Which ones would those be?

My essay “The Rhetoric of Economics” has already been translated into Russian. I reckon that’s the right one. As to books, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006), because Russians need to hear the news that a life in commerce can be ethical.

Philosophers are generally believed to think about things ‘in the abstract’. What would you say to a person holding this kind of belief about the role and function of philosophy in the modern world?

I realize that there is a movement to applied philosophy. Look up my articles this last summer on the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog to see how I view applied political philosophy. I love philosophy, and am amazed at the toleration for abstraction that philosophers have. I guess I wish they would pay more attention to the facts of humans---which is a criticism I make for example of Kant.

The influential Russian libertarian thinker Yury Kuznetsov labels himself ‘theonomist’ in the sense that the function and capacities of the government need to conform to the requirements spelled out in the Bible, otherwise you won’t be able to tell bad actions of the government from right ones, in other words, governments will be unable to lay an ethical foundation underneath their political philosophy. There are at least two propositions here, first that governments need an ethical underpinning and second that the Bible can provide one, - could you please comment on both?

It doesn’t persuade me—I’m a Christian, not an advocate of theocracy. I believe in the separation of church and state, and worry about the soul of the Russian church as it gets into bed with Putin. I agree there needs to be an ethical foundation beneath political philosophy. I said exactly that in an essay about Martha Nussbaum and James Buchanan which I have published in various forms. But I don’t think the Bible is a good ethical guide. . . . that is, unless one wants to be an Orthodox Jew or a fundamentalist Christian.

One for the road, so to speak. What advice would you give to the supporters of free society in Russia?

I am not much of a political tactician—I am just a professor! But since you ask . . . get the artists in your camp, and you’ll win. Get the film-makers and rock musicians (Pussy Riot) and the novelists and poets praising a free society, and in the long run you’ll get one. Art is much more powerful than professorial theories.

October, 2012