Why this ‘gender-crossing’ economist prefers ‘motherly libertarianism’ to government paternalism

BY Deirdre McCloskey  April 24, 2014 at 12:37 PM EST
Economist Deirdre McCloskey, a "motherly libertarian," thinks the government should treat people like adults and give them a minimum income. Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images.

Economist Deirdre McCloskey, a “motherly libertarian,” wants to be taxed to provide a minimum income (not a minimum wage), which would treat adults like adults. Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images.

A Note from Paul Solman: Deirdre McCloskey is a freshwater economist with a twist. A career that began on the banks of Lake Michigan at that bastion of free market economics, the University of Chicago — as opposed to those saltwater havens of bi-coastal Keynesianism, Harvard, MIT and Berkeley — continued at the University of Iowa, where McCloskey became one of the country’s foremost economic historians and a prolific and esteemed writer on the rhetoric of economics. The byline for all this work was not Deirdre McCloskey, however, but Donald.

In 1995, at age 53, with a wife and two grown children, all of whom he loved, Don changed his gender identification and name. She says now that leaving Chicago for Iowa may have been impulsive, but she has never doubted the wisdom of acting on a lifelong drive. Some family and friends were freaked out. But as Deirdre (“Dee”) tells it in her 1999 memoir, “Crossing,” the response of the first administrator she came out to, the dean of Iowa’s business school, Gary Fethke, was not untypical of the reaction within economics.

One day, as McCloskey had begun the process of what she calls “gender-crossing,” Fethke “noticed McCloskey’s ear studs, small, but both ears. McCloskey and Fethke had known each other since 1980 and were on man-to-man terms. Fethke thought he knew that McCloskey was straight, even macho.” I met McCloskey earlier that same year and thought the same.

Fethke “smiled and said jocularly, ‘What’s this, Don? The earrings! Have you turned gay?’”

‘You want to know, Gary?’

‘Uh…yes. Come into my office.’ He shut the door.

Dee spoke with his ironic, tough-guy demeanor, the last defenses of masculinity. He admitted to being terrified at how the university community might react.

Gary sat stunned for a moment. They were both economists, conservative by academic standards, free-market enthusiasts. Then:

‘Thank god….I thought for a moment you were going to confess to converting to socialism!

Dee laughed, relieved. The dean was going to act like a friend.

‘And this is great for our affirmative action program — one more woman, one less man.’ More laughter. More relief.

‘And wait a minute — it’s even better: as a woman, I can cut your salary to seventy cents on the dollar!’

In the late ’90s, then, McCloskey became prominent not just as an economic historian or maven of rhetoric, but as a 6-foot-plus crossover woman. And ever since, she has had the unique opportunity to look at economics from a changed perspective. She’s written about it — and from it — ever since, as was clear when I interviewed her on the NewsHour recently about her longtime support for a minimum income.

PAUL SOLMAN: You went through a major life transformation almost 20 years ago.

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: I did.

PAUL SOLMAN: Has it changed your point of view with regard to any of this?

DEIRDRE MCCLOSKEY: Well, I sometimes say that I’m a motherly libertarian, and that wouldn’t work too well if I was still a guy.

For most of the past decade, McCloskey has been working on a project of grand ambition. So far, two substantial volumes of huge scope have appeared: “The Bourgeois Virtues” and “Bourgeois Dignity” (she’s working on a third, at least). The argument that runs through them all: modern economic growth doesn’t come from the technology of the Industrial Revolution, or the institutions of the modern state, but more nearly from a change in attitudes that come from a middle-class (bourgeois) way of life: “the bourgeois virtues.”

We’ll save that for another post or more. First, a bit more of McCloskey when we talked to her a few weeks ago about her support for the guaranteed income.


So what’s the argument for a minimum income?

Well, the argument is that there are poor people who can’t make it and that if you are a Christian libertarian or a bleeding heart libertarian like I am, you want to help them.

It’s that simple?

It’s that simple. I’m not a social Darwinist. I’m not trying to exterminate the working class, or, more particularly, the non-working class. I want to help them.

So as Milton Friedman said a long time ago, I should be taxed to provide a minimum income, not a minimum wage.

Does your position depend on getting rid of all the social welfare programs that are currently in place?

It would be nice, since they are impositions by the middle class on the working class. So you’re a worker — you make a deal with a clothing manufacturer to have a job you want, at a wage that you’re prepared to accept, and the state and the middle class come in and say, oh no, no, you’re not permitted. You’ve got to have a higher minimum wage. This means that you’re unemployed and you’re worse off than you were before.

And that’s what the Congressional Budget Office has just said will happen if the minimum wage is hiked substantially.

Yes.

But would you accept a minimum income with some of the social welfare programs that are already in place continuing to be in place?

Yes, because I think the other ones then would atrophy. I think they would go away and we would get a situation, as they had, for example, in France, when they had a minimum income, not a minimum wage. Then the argument for more public housing, or more food stamps, or more intervention in the lives of poor people would be less powerful.

And what happened to the France experiment?

Well, I was on a subway in Paris a long time ago, and this guy came into the car, and the first thing he said was: I’m 24 years old. Because he couldn’t beg if he was 27 years old — that’s when the minimum income came in. That is, if you were 27 in France, you got a minimum income. So he couldn’t persuasively beg. I’d like people who can’t make enough income to be helped out this way.

And that’s a transformation that you think would happen, and that you would like to see?

It’s treating people like adults instead of like 14-year-olds, whose consumption needs to be monitored and intervened in all the time. Just give them the money.

Do you give money to beggars on the street?

Yes. But I have a deal with the two main beggars on my street that once a month I’ll give them $20 if they don’t bother me the rest of the time. So it’s a commercial transaction.

Well, you’re saving your conscience and buying…

Buying their silence.

And buying their silence. But do you not sympathize with people who say: Don’t give money to beggars because we think they’re going to do something self-destructive with the money?

Well, in general, I don’t give to beggars because it’s through my church mainly that I want my charity to go because my church does very responsible things with the money. We help support a home for homeless people, but it’s not bossing them around. It is treating them like adults. They have their own rooms. There’s psychological counselling if they want it. There’s spiritual counselling and so forth available, but we don’t intervene in their lives.

People give money through charities because they figure that an intermediary will be able to monitor the people and they’ll be better able to judge whether the money will do the people they’re giving it to any good.

There are some of them that are that way, but I really don’t favor this paternalism of saying: I want to intervene in your drug consumption. If you want to have drugs, you should have drugs, and if you want to spend your income on that, that’s okay. What I do then want to do is make sure that the children of such a household are saved.

But doesn’t that necessitate a government intervention?

Well, yeah, I’m afraid it does. Treating adults like adults is my kind of bottom line principle… But then treating children like children — then I’m interested in the state, or the church, or the neighbors, or the grandparents intervening.


McCloskey appeared in our segment about Switzerland’s debate over the guaranteed income and its appeal in the United States, which you can watch below.