My only real engagement with Paul McCartney’s birthday celebrations this week has been to re-read the classic Charles Shaar Murray interview from 1975, reprinted in his Shots from the Hip. It took place after the release of Wings’ Venus and Mars, which CSM regarded as a truly terrible album, and a symptom of artistic decadence. “It’s the whole lilies-that-fester syndrome: basically, nobody gives a shit if someone they’ve never heard of unloads a turkey because it’s just another bad album. For someone of McCartney’s level/status/importance to deliberately trivialize his talent is something of a blow.” The entire interview then becomes a nightmarish exercise in trying to cope with this problem: “What can a person such as myself say to a… to a… to an ex-Beatle who’s just made a crappy album?”
Where am I going with this? Well, over on the political philosophy blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians there’s a contribution to a symposium on John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness by Deirdre McCloskey, that focuses not on Tomasi’s own arguments but on the critiques of others, specifically those that argue for the need for the state to play a role in policing the workings of capitalism. McCloskey’s approach is fascinating: she introduces herself as “a mere fact woman” who comes from the real world of history and economics to enlighten the excessively abstract political philosophers with a dose of common sense: “the modern cleverness after Hobbes and then Kant and Bentham and now with the fierce modernists of freakonomics and hedonic measurement seems less relevant to human experience”. She characterises ‘High Liberalism’ as the belief that “modern life is complicated, and so we need government to regulate”, and proceeds to offer the entire twentieth century (or a very selective account of it) in opposition.
Externalities do not imply that a government can do better. Publicity does better than inspectors in restraining the alleged desire of businesspeople to poison their customers. Efficiency is not the chief merit of a market economy: innovation is. .. It seems to me that a political philosophy based on fairy tales about what happened in history or what humans are like is going to be less than useless. It is going to be mischievous. How do I know that my narrative is better than yours? The experiments of the 20th century told me so.
That’s neat; an acknowledgement that different narratives can always be told about the same historical events – but it doesn’t matter because her narrative of the twentieth century is based on what really happened, ‘cos she’s a social scientist rather than a philosopher… We’re then offered an astonishing litany of apparently randomly-selected assertions about the past, of which the following is just a sample.
Germany’s economic Lebensraum was obtained in the end by the private arts of peace, not by the public arts of war. The lasting East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere was built by Japanese men in business suits, not in dive bombers. Europe recovered after its two 20th-century civil wars mainly through its own efforts of labor and investment, not mainly through government-to-government charity such as Herbert Hoover’s Commission or George Marshall’s Plan. Government-to-government foreign aid to the Third World has enriched tyrants, not helped the poor. The importation of socialism into the Third World, even in the relatively non-violent form of Congress-Party Fabian-Gandhism, unintentionally stifled growth, enriched large industrialists, and kept the people poor. Malthusian theories hatched in the West were put into practice by India and especially China, resulting in millions of missing girls.
Most if not all of these assertions are arguable at best, which is presumably why we’re given so many, so rapidly; some of this mud is going to stick, and thus make it clear that state intervention is not the magic bullet that will always, in every circumstance, solve every problem and make everyone’s life better. Thing is, has anyone ever actually believed that, as opposed to believing that in some circumstances state intervention may be the best means of addressing certain problems, and a better option than trusting solely in the market? But the rhetorical effect of this litany of examples is to imply that state intervention, of any kind, is always a bad thing – without ever actually committing to that view explicitly. Anything bad that any state has ever done is chalked up against all states (“Governments have outlawed needle exchanges and condom advertising, and denied the existence of AIDS” – which thus of course discounts the efforts that other governments have made to promote safe sex). Even apparent state successes like the Marshall plan were actually quite trivial and their good effects probably accidental (multiplier effect? what multiplier effect?)
Now, this sort of crude historical account is entirely familiar from the less subtle outreaches of libertarianism and Randism: state = Stalin and slavery, unions = Commie conspiracy against the decent working man and so forth. But this is Deirdre McCloskey, author of The Rhetoric of Economics, after 25 years still one of the finest and most astute accounts of the rhetorical techniques of the social sciences. It surely can’t be that she is unaware of what’s she’s doing and how she’s trying to manipulate the reader in support of a wholly ideological position?
How can a person such as myself tell Deirdre McCloskey that her rhetoric is embarrassing?