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Deirdre McCloskey on liberty and human flourishing

The real ability of the poorest to buy goods and services rose, 1800 to the present, by 3,000 percent. Literally.

A factor of thirty.

… I take it you value human liberty and human flourishing. (If you do not, we have nothing to discuss, and can go straight to fighting it out in the streets.)

You will know that the original idea of liberalism was that people should be free from human tyranny. But you will perhaps not know that the result—immense, world-making, startling, entirely unanticipated—was to liberate people from poverty to an astonishing degree.

It has yielded by now for the poorest among us a vastly better chance at human flourishing. The liberalism of Smith and Wollstonecraft and Benjamin Constant, when embodied in actual policy such as the liberation of slaves, inspirited millions of people to have a go at innovating, such as Joseph Monier in 1867 inventing reinforced concrete or Malcolm McLean in 1956 inventing containerization. The result was that real income per head exploded. Railroads. Stethoscopes. Sewing machines. Pencil sharpeners. Photography. Braille. Pasteurization. Batteries. Electric lights. Bicycles. The aqua lung. The pill, and a million other mutinies against routine. It was not the state in the service of either nationalism or socialism that did such things. It was people, liberated from human tyranny.

The real ability of the poorest to buy goods and services rose 1800 to the present by 3,000 percent. Literally. A factor of thirty.

The figure is shocking, hard to believe if one is not accustomed to the result of compound interest (something by the way that we have been instructed in by the rate of spread of the novel coronavirus). No competent authority would dispute its rough accuracy. The poor benefited the most in real comforts. Liliane Betancourt got another yacht. The poor got enough to eat. It is called the Great Enrichment, well beyond the more routine Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850, which left most people still very, very poor.

In 1844 a French official reported of the vineyard men of Burgundy that over the winter “these vigorous men will now spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food.” In 1879 Hippolyte Taine wrote “The people are like a man walking through a pond with water up to his chin. . . . Old-fashioned charity and newfangled humanity try to help him out, but the water is too high. Until the level falls and the pond finds an outlet, the wretched man can only snatch an occasional gulp of air and at every instant he runs the risk of drowning.”

The pond found an outlet, called modern economic growth. By now it has been a factor of 20 or 30 or 100 of improvement, depending on how one adjusts for improved quality of, say, medicine or housing or transport. It arose not from capital accumulation or the spoils of empire, but from innovation by free people.

Nationalism and socialism, meanwhile, reinvented tyrannies, one to the Nation, the other to the General Will. Ordinary people were to be re-enslaved to the ideas of intellectuals in the line of Rousseau and Hegel.

Let’s not.

Deirdre McCloskeyThe Immoral Equivalent of War

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