Deirdre Nansen McCloskey is a one-woman university, a polymath’s polymath in an age of ever-increasing academic specialization. She has done ground-breaking work across several fields, and her academic appointments show it. Upon retirement from the University of Illinois at Chicago she held appointments in the departments of Economics, History, English, and Communication.
Over a five-decade career, Professor McCloskey has written sixteen books, edited seven more, and written hundreds of articles for academic journals and the popular press. Today, she celebrates her 77th birthday, but she shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. Yale University Press will release her new book Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All on October 15, and she and I have a book titled Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World that should be published next year by the University of Chicago Press (if you’re impatient, check out this paper). Among other projects, she is working on a revised version of her excellent book on microeconomic theory, The Applied Theory of Price. Again, if you’re impatient, you can download the 1985 edition for $0 from her website.
I have been fortunate to get to know Professor McCloskey as a friend and mentor and co-author. We crossed paths at a few Economic History Association meetings when I was a graduate student, but we really started getting to know one another when I said yes to my advisor’s request that I pick her up from and take her to the airport when she visited Washington University in Saint Louis in 2005, a few days before my dissertation proposal. She was visiting to present her book The Bourgeois Virtues, which would be published the following year.
My dissertation proposal notwithstanding, I read her entire manuscript in the days leading up to her visit. The book was (and is) simply spectacular, and it planted some seeds that sprouted quickly and others that took longer to germinate. Ultimately, The Bourgeois Virtues and its follow-up volumes, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (2010) and Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (2016) have become in many ways the center of my intellectual universe – and no small wonder, I would think, given that the project she and I have been working on has been a condensation of this much larger trilogy. I have said before that one of my goals in life is to someday publish a book titled The Possibility of Civilization, with the title taken from a toast John Maynard Keynes once offered “to the economists, who are the trustees, not of civilization, but of the possibility of civilization.”
In a sense, McCloskey has already done it with a stout trilogy synthesizing and integrating decades of scholarship in economics, history, economic history, literature, sociology, ethics, philosophy, and indeed the broad sweep of the humanities and social sciences. I consider myself honored to be along for the ride on the project on which we’re working.
McCloskey was originally trained as an economic historian. She was a student of Alexander Gerschenkron — simply known by many as “the great Gerschenkron” — at Harvard University in the 1960s, and in 1968 she took a job in the economics department at the University of Chicago. At Chicago, she joined a department that would produce a series of Nobel laureates like Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, George Stigler, Robert Lucas, Robert A. Mundell, and James J. Heckman.
McCloskey’s Chicago colleague Robert Fogel would share the Nobel in 1993 with Douglass North for their work in economic history. Fogel and North were leading lights in what has been called the “Cliometric Revolution” — the application of neoclassical economic theory and modern statistical techniques to big questions in economic history — and McCloskey was an enthusiastic and active participant. Her papers “Does the Past Have Useful Economics?” (Journal of Economic Literature, 1976) and “The Achievements of the Cliometric School” (Journal of Economic History, 1978) are staples of graduate reading lists in economic history, and her specific contributions to the economic study of the past are many and important. Victorian Britain, it turns out, was not an economic “failure.”
Peasant agriculture wherein people owned scattered strips of land in the fields was actually a prudent risk-reduction strategy and not evidence of peasant irrationality. Most of the One Big Cause arguments for the Industrial Revolution explain small fractions of the twelve- to sixteen- to thirty-fold increases in standards of living that first happened in Europe and its overseas extensions and that are now happening around the world.
Over the years, Professor McCloskey has changed her mind about a lot of things. She began as what she called a “Joan Baez socialist” who picked up her socialism reading Prince Kropotkin during her misspent youth at the local Carnegie library and describes herself now as a “postmodern free-market quantitative Episcopalian feminist Aristotelian.” She was for a long time a self-described agnostic before embracing Christianity. She was also, for a long time, a man — and she made the male-to-female transition beginning in 1995 at the age of 53. She details the emotional roller-coaster ride in her 1999 memoir, Crossing, which has recently been released in a twentieth anniversary edition. There’s something in her oeuvre and in her intellectual self-description to infuriate everyone — which, I think, is just as it should be if we’re doing the academic project right.
Most importantly, perhaps, she has changed her mind about the long-run causes of economic growth and the sufficiency of price theory as the explanatory hammer that drives all nails. In the 1980s, she turned her attention to the theory and method of economics and statistics per se.
Her classic The Rhetoric of Economics, originally published in 1985 and then republished in a new edition in 1998, has as of this writing 4,249 citations according to Google Scholar. In 2008, she published with Stephen T. Ziliak The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives, a book which summarized and synthesized a series of papers they had written on the use and abuse of statistical significance tests in empirical economics. It too has been influential, with 1,214 Google Scholar citations.
Where she used to think that the economists’ tools of rational utility maximization, changing relative prices, and so on were sufficient, she now believes that what she calls The Great Enrichment happened because of a change in people’s ideas. Our standards of living, in other words, have intellectual rather than material causes — and those causes, specifically, a Great Revaluation of the bourgeoisie and its buying, selling, and innovating, led to a flood of new ideas and a “wave of gadgets” that made even the least of these among us far wealthier than our ancestors. By embracing liberal, bourgeois values of tolerance, equality, and esteem for innovation, we can see over into an even greater enrichment than what we have enjoyed so far.
Happy birthday, Professor McCloskey. And dear reader, should you find yourself at a loss for something to read today, I modestly suggest that this is a good place to start looking.
Special note: Professor McCloskey will be giving a speech and seminar at AIER on October 1, 2019.