©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Economical Humanism - Soundbite
Chatting with author Deirdre McCloskey

By Nick Gillespie, REASON editor-in-chief
Reason, May, 2001

Nick Gillespie

Deirdre McCloskey is best known as the author of a series of books--including Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics, If You're So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise, and The Rhetoric of Economics (Rhetoric of the Human Sciences) -- that analyze the language economists use to explain their dismal science. Her approach allowed her to bridge a gap between economics and literary studies, and she found herself in the rare position of being a free-market enthusiast who was admired by many left-leaning English professors. Her new book, a collection of previously published essays (many from her long stint as a columnist for the Eastern Economic Journal), is How to Be Human, Though an Economist (University of Michigan). This latest volume is, as one representative reviewer put it, "by turns wise, generous, and deep--and always beautifully written."

McCloskey is a long-time REASON contributing editor; an excerpt from Crossing, her memoir of her gender change, appeared in the December 1999 issue and is available online at reason.com/9912/fe.dm.from.html. She taught for many years at the University of Chicago and the University of lowa, and is currently Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. REASON Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie recently spoke with her by phone.

Q: Why is it so hard for economists to be human?

A: Since the days of Jeremy Bentham and David Ricardo, the central argument of economics has been that prudence--the idea that everything is about maximizing utility --is the preeminent virtue. It's certainly a virtue--it's what we try to teach our children. But the trouble is, as Adam Smith pointed out long ago, that prudence alone is not a complete account of human beings. So if we are going to be complete, we need to recognize other virtues, too. From left to right, so to speak, these include faith, love, justice, temperance, courage, and hope.

Q: You've written that too few economists appreciate literature, and too few lit professors appreciate economics. Why is that a problem?

A: The first is a problem because economists feel very comfortable thinking of humans as maximizing machines of a particularly simple sort, and that narrows their understanding. They ignore the social side of the economy, of how things like love and language affect people. The second is a problem because the literary people, often coming out of a Marxist or socialist background, are terribly interested in the economy. But they don't know anything about it. They forget prudence.

Q: How to Be Human speaks not of immutable truths, but of "relatively absolute absolutes." What's an example?

A: We should believe in modern economic growth and the power of capitalism to make it happen. I recently spoke to my colleagues at UIC--to faculty from the college of liberal arts, the business school, and the medical college. My main point was to emphasize that, between 1820 and 1994, real income per head in the United States increased by a factor of 17. This really set the anticapitalists back on their heels.