A Cool Thing You Probably Missed: Deirdre McCloskey’s Odyssey Lecture

Though we may like to forget it sometimes, Brown University is, above all else, an educational institution and part of its role is to invite scores of intelligent people to campus for meaningful debates and lectures in every field. Unfortunately, many Brown University courses pile on coursework like its their job — because it is —and, as a result, the average student lacks the time to take advantage of all the opportunities for unadulterated academic enrichment outside of class. A Cool Thing You Probably Missed… seeks to highlight obscure, esoteric and often fascinating people and ideas that tend to get lost in the “school vs. everything else” manner of time management.

Last Wednesday afternoon, Deirdre McCloskey gave the Political Theory Project’s Odyssey Lecture on her book Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World in MacMillan 117. But, while the giant lecture hall overflows with Out of Bounds enthusiasts for their regular sketch shows, the audience was a mere handful of professors and students for the equally entertaining Professor McCloskey.

If you’re already wondering what could possibly be notable about another seemingly standard political theory talk, look no further than McCloskey’s characteristically extravagant self-description: “postmodern free-market quantitative rhetorical Episcopalian feminist Aristotelian woman who was once a man.” Yep. That just happened. Trying to unpack all the contradictions and ironies of that bunch of descriptors might make your head spin, and the spinning will only get worse once you try to wrap your head around her thesis: in terms of wealth, world average income was almost perfectly consistent (roughly $3) until a drastic upshot in the 1800s, when free market ideology gained wide acceptance amongst everyone who conducted business. In this way, McCloskey basically claims that free market ideology, rather than higher investment in capital (the conventional economic explanation), explains how the world got so rich. More on why McCloskey, and her ideas, were a cool thing you probably missed after the jump.

One could easily describe Deirdre McCloskey as the Liberace or Lady GaGa of social science intellectuals, as calling her style flamboyant and heavy on the bravado would be an understatement. And much like the pop superstars she brings to mind, Deirdre McCloskey is an entertainer. Despite a major speech impediment, McCloskey lectures with wit, confidence and a sense of humor about her stutter. In doing so, she converts what could be a speaker’s biggest weakness into one of her greatest strengths. With the utmost (read: too much) intellectual resplendence, she presents ideas with a confidence lacking in many speakers who don’t have a stutter—and in this regard, even when her ideas branch off into the seemingly silly or dogmatic (which they ultimately do, see below), she’s still a spectacle to behold as a vibrant, charismatic intellectual.

Beyond the bravado that is her trademark, McCloskey presented a truly provocative argument. In her book, she takes rigorous historical analytical method (applied by every child of Hofstadter and Zinn to everything from the role of the New Deal to trends in adolescent boys in the seventies) and uses it to examine ideological history on a world scale from pre-Alexandrian society to the present day. The mere time horizon for such analysis is ambitious (and many would say silly), but then she also ventures to make a claim: free market thinking, not investment or any other quantitative explanation, is the only idea that truly mattered for wealth creation. Once entrepreneurs had the ‘freedom’ to take risks and society understood the value of ‘freedom’ in markets, GDPs started soaring into the stratosphere. McCloskey’s argument doesn’t fully diverge from current economics, it just stresses its ideological underpinnings. In a way, it’s as simultaneously radical and absurd as Richard Dawkins’s early theory that humans are just gene machines without free will.

Her lecture, which boiled this argument into talking points, a few drawings and an imaginary, ‘air-drawn’ graph, still played out with a devotion to detail many standard historians would envy (in a florid rhetorical style many would flat out reject) to reach a final, and perhaps understandable, conclusion that free market ideology is the best. And that’s ultimately where her uncannily engaging lecture lacked punch. It seemed as if she knowingly derailed a beautifully forward-thinking intellectual argument with a relatively conservative ideological claim.* When all is said and done, after plenty of progressive (or at least provocative) rejection of Samuelsonian economics and overly-detailed historical reasoning, she goes back to the ideas that many would argue caused our financial crisis, even if she’s considered them in a much more thoughtful and comprehensive way than most adherents to free market ideas.**

So what’s the bottom line here? What’s the cool thing in an easily digestible sentence or two?

The transgender Elton John of economic history visited campus and put on an argumentative show worthy of the academic equivalent of Madison Square Garden. The takeaway is that thinking critically about ‘scientific’ disciplines such as economics can produce interesting, if not always convincing, results. If McCloskey couldn’t authoritatively close the conversation about why America is so wealthy, at least she expanded it in her forty-five minute talk. Y’all missed it because it was Halloweek, but Blog’s got your back.

Stay tuned for more cool things you probably missed in the coming weeks.

*This is merely an intellectual judgment of her argument, not a political assessment.
**This is a snarky but so Daily Show-esque-it’s-almost-universally-acceptable liberal critique.

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6 Comments

  1. Kyle Albert

    Nice post overall!

    Just a few quick things though: most people prefer the term “transgender” rather than “transgendered”, as being transgender is a trait, not something that happens to you, so using the more adjective form makes sense and is preferred by most in the queer community.

    Another thing is that towards the end of your second paragraph you present being trans as an impediment or obstacle to speaking and equate it with stuttering — this is problematic. It’d be like writing this same article and saying that she gave a good speech, for a woman.

    I hope you’ll take these critiques into account!

  2. Sam Levison (Author)

    thanks a bunch for the feedback! i definitely take both points and apologize for the (unintentional) political incorrectness.

  3. Naoko Shibusawa

    I’m sorry I missed her talk! Had no idea she was here, but I’m glad you wrote this up for us. She used to be an outlier with her type of economic history–looking seriously at ideologies as causal factors in economic development–but Joel Mokyr has also recently written a book in a similar vein.

    But I wondered after reading this, Sam: Didn’t anybody in the audience ask about the role of free trade ideology in the current crisis? If so, what was her answer?

  4. Sam Levison (Author)

    I couldn’t stay for the whole Q&A (transparency…), but I actually posed that question in a much more historical way. I related Spencer or Sumner’s fallacies in projecting natural selection (understood in relation to free market ideologies) to society with Social Darwinism to a similar fallacy of applying natural spontaneous order to markets and economies (such as F.A. Hayek’s ‘children’ do today).

    Professor McCloskey gave a very thoughtful, but kind of bogus answer: the difficulties lie in the assertion of the idea. She thinks that thoughtful critiques of free market ideology are generally valid (she admitted to disliking of Fox News and popular libertarianism), but that the idea itself isn’t bad. Obviously an odd response and definitely avoiding the question, but still shows some sort of critique of the ideology as its applied in society.

  5. Orlando

    “*This is merely an intellectual judgment of her argument, not a political assessment.”
    No it’s not. It’s your political bias, parading as some intellectual judgement, preventing you from properly absorbing the fullness of her argument.

  6. Gnar

    Dismissing free-market advocacy as some sort of “conservatism” betrays a misunderstanding of what markets (and even conservatism) are. Free markets are an inherently liberal idea; the idea that the common man doesn’t need his betters to dictate economic terms to him and that we are collectively better off by removing politically motivated constraints on trade is historically a liberal & libertarian idea. McCloskey, like all thoughtful libertarians, is one of the only real liberals left on the American political scene, with everyone else being cronies whose chief difference consists of which special interests they favor with legislation, subsidies, or regulatory capture.

    The idea that free-market advocacy caused a crash that was the consequence of decades of central banking inflation and awful bureaucratic manipulation of the housing market is inane and just the sort of brainless, reflexive rhetoric you’d expect from a left that, faced with a systemic collapse in all sectors–a weird circumstance that would tend to highlight the importance of monetary manipulation for most people who give the matter a few minutes’ thought–wanted to occupy Wall Street rather than the Eccles Building.

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