Deirdre McCloskey is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Economics and of History, University of Illinois at Chicago. She has written 17 books and around 400 scholarly pieces on topics ranging from statistical theory to transgender advocacy and the ethics of bourgeois virtues. In recent years, she has won a number of awards, including the Hayek Lifetime Achievement Award (2014), the Adam Smith Prize (2015), and the Hayek Book Prize (2017). Her book, Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All is forthcoming from the Yale University Press in 2020.
The Yale Politic: According to Bourgeois Equality, the average U.S. resident’s real income per head increased from $3/day in 1800 to $132/day in 2010– an increase of 44x. You attribute this ‘betterment’ to the ideas of dignity and liberty. What do you mean more concretely?
Deirdre McCloskey: It’s not exactly “according to [that excellent volume of 2016] Bourgeois Equality.” It’s rather “according to the solid scientific consensus of economic historians.” Concretely I mean that the bizarre 18th-century idea of liberalism—which is the theory of a society composed entirely of free people, liberi, and no slaves—gave ordinary people the notion that they could have a go. And go they did. In the earliest if hesitatingly liberal societies such as Britain and France, and among the liberi in societies still fully dominated by traditional hierarchies such as Russia and much of Italy, or the slave states of the United States, the turn of the 19th century saw a sharp rise of innovation. “Innovation” means new ideas in technology and organization and location, ranging from the electric motor to shipping containers to opening a new hairdressing salon in town, or to moving to Chicago away from Jim Crow and sharecropping. Since 1800, with no believable signs of letting up, it has improved the material lives of the poorest among us by startling percentages—4,300 percent in some places (that factor of 44), or 10,000 percent including improvements in quality, or at worst 1,000 percent worldwide by conventional measures including stagnant places, in a world in which rises of 100 percent had been rare and on Malthusian grounds temporary.
I recently read that the term ‘liberalism’ only acquired political significance in 1769 (when Scottish historian William Robertson published The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V). What exactly do you take to be the essential features of ‘liberalism?’
The idea is earlier than 1769, if not the very word. Yet as you say in the 1770s it springs to political life. The ur-liberals were Locke and Voltaire and Turgot, and behind them earlier, executed radicals such as Spartacus in 71 BCE or the Lollard Priest John Ball in 1381 (“When Adam delved and Eve span / Who then was the gentleman?”) or the Leveller Richard Rumbold in 1685 (“I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him”). No slaves, whether private or public.
Besides possible misjudgment as to liberalism’s prudence–as a political philosophy/guide to public policy–do you think there are any common misconceptions about what liberalism actually is and what its followers believe?
The central misconception is to think that one can claim the honorable title of “liberal” if one approves of one form of liberty, such as mutual consent in sexual partners or the ability to drill for oil where you wish, but excludes the other form. Liberty is liberty, and is meaningless by parts. You are still a slave if only on odd days of the month.
In Latin America, for example, the word “liberal,” once meaningful there, has long been appropriated by conservatives who like to drill for oil where they wish, but hate gays. In the United States, it has been appropriated by sweet, or not so sweet, slow socialists, who celebrate diversity, but regard economic liberty as not worthy of much consideration.
The Bulgarian-French critic Tzvetan Todorov quotes the protagonist of Forever Flowing, the posthumously published novel of Vasily Grossman (1905-1964), whom he says was the sole example of a successful Stalinist writer who converted wholly to anti-Communism (“The slave in him died, and a free man arose”):
I used to think freedom was freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience. Here is what it amounts to: you have to have the right to sow what you wish to, to make shoes or coats, to bake into bread the flour ground from the grain you have sown, and to sell it or not sell it as you wish; for the lathe-operator, the steelworker, and the artist it’s a matter of being able to live as you wish and work as you wish and not as they order you.
The economist Joseph Schumpeter remarked long ago that “As a supreme, if unintended, compliment, the enemies of the system of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label,” namely, “economic liberalism.” He could have broadened the enemies to cover anyone who wishes that some people remain slaves to others, even if only on odd days. Northern Europeans (not the wise Latins in Italy, France, Spain, and offshoots) wished for a century after the 1870s that gays be imprisoned. The political majority after the 1870s wished that rich people be expropriated. Don’t tax him, / Don’t tax me. / Tax that queer / Behind the tree. It’s not liberal.
The British Liberal Party passed the Liberal welfare reforms in 1906, greatly expanding the welfare state and representing a departure from classical liberalism in favor of modern liberalism. If my history is correct, what do you view as the fundamental differences between these two philosophies? Do you still consider the latter philosophy ‘liberal?’
Yes, the so-called New Liberalism was slow socialism, as was an American Progressivism recommending the sterilization of defectives to improve the Aryan race and a minimum wage to drive non-Aryan immigrants out of the labor force, not to speak of carrying a big stick and joining a war to end all wars. The slow socialism took longer to implement than the fast versions in Bolshevism and Nazism. It was pushed along by the taking of powers by governments in the 20th-century wars, hot and cold. Calling it “modern liberalism” has always been an abuse of language. And it was an abuse of people to implement it.
It still is. Statism, being the partial enslavement of people to others by way of the government, may or may not be a good idea. But it is anyway not liberal, whether exercised by kings or by Congress. As Tom Paine wrote in the liberal birth year of 1776, “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” Better keep the power to coerce modest. By 1849, at the first maturation of liberalism 1.0, Henry David Thoreau declared, “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.” In the same year in far Torino the liberal Italian economist Francesco Ferrara wrote that “taxation is the great source of everything a corrupt government can devise to the detriment of the people. Taxation supports the spy, encourages the faction, dictates the content of newspapers.” (In 1792 even in a quasi-liberal Britain the government owned secretly over half the newspapers.) The Swedes were more candid, calling what they proposed by the cognate of “socialism”: Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti, literally the Swedish Social Democratic Workers’ Party.
In Bourgeois Equality, you caution: “But in any event the safety net, with or without holes, is not the main lifter of the poor in the United States, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden, or the others. The way to lift is the Great Enrichment.” To what extent is the social safety net instrumentally valuable for ‘betterment?’ What might the U.S. look like with no safety net whatsoever, and what might it look like with a perfect safety net?
It’s unwise to turn the issue of helping the poor into an on/off, none/perfect, exist/not question. We need to be seriously quantitative about such matters. On/off doesn’t answer the important question, which is always more/less. People think they are making a clever remark against liberalism by saying, “Well, we need some government.” Yes, certainly. But how much? (Will Rogers in the 1920s used to say, “Just be glad you don’t get the government you pay for.”) And the liberals think they are making a clever remark in reply when they say, “But look at such-and-such an example of governmental failure.” Neither makes a lot of sense. We need to know How Much, how much the market fails, how much the government fails, what number between zero and 100 percent should be run by experts in Washington as against you in your neighborhood and business and home. I have an essay a few years ago making the point in technical economics, “The Two Movements in Economic Thought, 1700-2000: Empty Economic Boxes Revisited.”
But from the non-technical point of view one can assemble the ethical justification for liberalism by honoring both versions of the Golden Rules (and not Trump’s version: “Those who have the gold, rule”). The late first-century BCE Jewish sage Hillel of Babylon put it negatively yet reflexively: “Do not do unto other what you would not want done unto yourself.” It’s masculine, a guy-liberalism, a gospel of justice, roughly the so-called Non-Aggression Axiom as articulated by libertarians 1.0 since the word “libertarian” was coined in the 1950s. Matt Kibbe puts it well in the title of his 2014 best seller, Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto. At an elevated level it is the philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s “negative” liberty.
On the other hand, the early first-century CE Jewish sage Jesus of Nazareth put it positively: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s gal-liberalism, a gospel of love, placing upon us an ethical responsibility to do more than pass by on the other side. Be a good Samaritan. Be nice. It is “positive” liberty, which Berlin and I think is a misuse of “liberty,” yet agree that some amount of it is anyway an ethical responsibility. No woman is an island, entire of herself.
In treating others, a humane libertarianism 2.0 attends to both Golden Rules. The one corrects a busybody pushing around. The other corrects an inhumane selfishness
So here’s what a Liberalism 2.0 favors. It favors a social safety net, which is to say a clean transfer of money from you and me to the very poor in distress, a hand up so they can take care of their families. It favors financing pre- and post-natal care and nursery schools for poor kids, which would do more to raise health and educational standards than almost anything we can do later. It favors compulsory measles vaccination, to prevent the big spillover of contagion that is happening now in Clark County, Washington. It favors compulsory school attendance, financed by you and me, though not the socialized provision of public schools. The Swedes have since the 1990s had a national voucher system, liberal-style. It favors a small army/coast-guard to protect as against the imminent threat of invasion by Canada and Mexico, and a pile of nuclear weapons and delivery systems to prevent the Russians or Chinese or North Koreans from extorting us. All this is good, and would result in the government at all levels taking and regulating perhaps 10 percent of the nation’s production. Put me down for 10 percent slavery to government. Not the 30 to 55 percent at present that rich countries enslave.
As of 2005, the U.S. government spent 20.7% of its GDP on welfare, namely health (7.8%), education (5.3%), and social protection (7.6). On the other hand, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden spent–on average–36.5% of their collective GDP on welfare, namely health (6.9%), education (7.1%), and social protection (22.5%). As an economic historian, what accounts for the magnitude of that difference in social protection? Practically speaking, is the difference as significant as it looks?
You’re right to compare, though I’m not clear what “social protection” means. If it means income subsidies, I’m for it, as many liberals 1.0 or 2.0 or 1.5 are. Yet observe: the Nordics, like many countries, even poor ones, give enormous subsidies to the rich, for example by paying for university (“education”). Not, as at Yale College you may have observed, in the U.S. So we’ll need to sit down and look what the practical effect of each item is. And notice that on your accounting the whole among “socialist” Nordics is 36% against 21% in the U.S. The differenced is not enormous, and depends exactly on how one accounts for medical care and education. That is, the U.S. has a pretty big safety net, too. The really big change in both was from perhaps 3 percent of GDP in governmental aid to the poor in 1900, at most, in Denmark as in the U.S., rising to modern levels of a safety net five or ten times higher in all such rich countries.
The Nordics have kept pace with the U.S. in terms of PPP-adjusted GDP over the last 25-30 years, outpacing most of the EU15 countries. What do you infer from that– is there relevant detail overlooked by only going back 25-30 years? Would it be misleading to say that implementing Nordic-style policies in the U.S. is compatible with maintaining our growth rate?
Sure, pretty much, though Nordics don’t agree with you, and have trimmed the welfare state considerably since the 1990s. Americans of good will have long been persuaded, on the basis of breathless articles in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, that the Nordics are thoroughly “socialist,” as indeed the very title of Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti would seem to imply. No, they are not thoroughly socialist, and in fact they are reasonably close to the U.S., and in some ways more anti-socialist. They are in fact highly liberal in their economies (and their fastest rates of growth since 1850 were in fact when they were even more liberal). Almost all prices in Sweden and the rest, for example, are determined by supply and demand, and are nothing like the disastrous socialist interventions by way of price controls in, say, Venezuela. Setting up a business is not hard. Inherited wealth in Scandinavia and Finland is not honored. Innovation is (for example Svenska Kullagerfabriken, SKF, a pioneer in ball bearings, out of which in the 1920s rolled Volvo [Latin for “I roll”]).
And government ownership of the means of production is trivial in all the Nordic countries. When Saab Motors went bankrupt, it came to the Swedish government hat in hand, and the government said, “Get lost.” When Volvo recently became a Chinese company, the government said, “So what?” You don’t have to exercise much imagination about what the American government would do if General Motors was so threatened: “Here are billions of tax dollars, and so the Federal Government owns part of you.” The American government in 2008 of course did precisely that. Which country is more socialist, the U.S. or Sweden? A generous safety net (with I repeat those grotesque subsidies to rich people to send their kids to the Nordic equivalent of Yale College, and other such redistributions from poor to rich) is (1.) also characteristic of much of the U.S. and other rich countries, and (2.) not anything like full socialism, and not to be recommended à la Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Jeremy Corbyn on the grounds that Cuba is lovely, Israel evil, and “we should try socialism.” No, we should not.
According to the World Bank, 35.2% of global real GDP growth from 2017-2019 will come from China and 17.9% will come from the United States. Given your view about the potential effects of implementing Nordic-style policies on the U.S. growth rate, what might that mean in turn for the world economy?
Oh, nothing much bad, if we and the world could do it. Nordic-style policies, especially the actual ones as against the hazy imaginings of progressive Americans persuaded that “Sweden is socialist,” would bump up some subsidies to poor people, at the cost of more nice jobs for the middle class administering the charity. But we can’t do it, except in Massachusetts (see Romneycare = Obamacare) or Iowa (see how to run a state government). People who dote on the Nordic Model need to realize that such folk are, well, Nordic, with astonishingly high standards of integrity in public administration by world standards. It’s not genetic, but may be Lutheran, and is certainly historical. I have a professor friend in Gothenburg who served on an ad hoc committee to look into a terrible case of corruption in the city. The corruption? A company had bought a city councilor a luncheon.
Transparency International in Berlin ranks annually the 190 or so countries in the world in perceived integrity from the top (New Zealand, Denmark) to the bottom (North Korea, Zimbabwe). Suppose we take the top 30 of the 190 in 2016 as capable of running an efficient safety net without horrible malfeasance, in the net and elsewhere. Portugal is on the margin. Italy, sadly, is ranked 79th. The U.S. makes it into the top 30, but many individual states—my own Illinois, for example—would rank lower. All right, what is the percentage of the world’s population wretchedly governed in what everyone agrees is a horribly incompetent and corrupt fashion? Ninety percent. Such are the governments to which you wish to give more money and power. Gothenburg, sure. Des Moines, OK. Chicago, not. Palermo and Moscow–are you nuts?
I read that average growth of real GDP per capita–from 1994-2019–doesn’t seem to correlate simply with inequality in household disposable income (Gini). Do you find that to be accurate? Would inequality only be important insofar as it could theoretically affect growth?
I don’t know what correlation you are referring to. Why growth would or would not “correlate” with such a hard-to-measure and dubiously relevant measure as the Gini is unclear anyway. Inequality has nothing to do with growth, except that the makers of growth earn a lot until entry spoils their profits. I have another essay, a 50-page “Measured, Unmeasured, Mismeasured, and Unjustified Pessimism: A Review Essay of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century” that rehearses such issues.
Yes, I know, we do lament inequality, by confusing it with poverty, which poverty all should in liberal justice lament. The Liberal Lady Glencora Palliser (charmingly, née M’Cluskie) in Anthony Trollope’s political novel Phineas Finn (1867–1868) declares, “Making men and women all equal. That I take to be the gist of our political theory,” as against the Conservative delight in rank and privilege. But Joshua Monk, one of the novel’s radicals in the Cobden-Bright-Mill mold, sees the ethical point more clearly, and replies to her: “Equality is an ugly word, and frightens,” as indeed it had long frightened the political class in Britain, traumatized by wild French declarations for égalité, and by the example of American egalitarianism (well . . . egalitarianism for male, straight, white, Anglo, middle-aged, educated, high-income, nonimmigrant, Republican, New-England mainline Protestants). The motive of the true liberal, Monk continues, should not be equality but “the wish of every honest man . . . to assist in lifting up those below him.” (“Honest” at the time also meant “honorable.”) That’s right. Lifting up the poor, following the philosopher John Rawls, is what we should focus on, and that is achieved chiefly by 4,300% increases in average income, out of innovation, which might well earn a Steve Jobs a bundle, too. That we pay to see Wilt Chamberlain make jump shots, as the philosopher Robert Nozick pointed out, and Wilt therefore ends up richer than we are, is not an ethical problem.
Much of the research on the economics of inequality stumbles on this simple ethical point, focusing on measures of relative inequality such as the Gini coefficient or the share of the top 1 percent rather than on measures of the absolute welfare of the poor. It focuses fashionably on an inequality that’s very hard to measure properly or to alter rather than on a poverty that is very easy to measure properly and alter. They elide the two. Speaking of the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s egalitarianism, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt observed that Dworkin in fact, and ethically, “cares principally about the [absolute] value of people’s lives, but he mistakenly represents himself as caring principally about the relative magnitudes of their economic assets.” We should care about lifting up the poor, not how many diamond-incrusted Rolex or Cartier watches the rich have.
If inequality isn’t important, how do you convince people to accept that fact, rhetorically-speaking, when it feels so salient and unfair to so many people?
It “feels salient and unfair” because politicians and journalists talk about it incessantly, instead of talking about the real source of help for the poor, economic growth. Notice that Piketty focuses on how terrible the rich are, or could be, instead of talking about how to help the poor. He mentions the poor once, in the very last paragraph of the book.
It feels salient and unfair because most people can’t get further in ethical thinking than a schoolyard cry of “That’s unfair.”
It feels salient and unfair because people slip into an irritated envy about Rolex and Cartier watches without realizing that envy is self-corrosive and insatiable: “Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, / Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, / Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope, / With what I most enjoy contented least.”
Above all it feels salient and unfair because people imagine that poverty can be easily eliminated by redistributing the world’s wealth. Catholic Social teaching, for example, recurs to this theme, and in Latin America the myth that mineral or agricultural wealth would suffice to eliminate poverty if it were redistributed (“The land is rich but we are poor”) has haunted politics for a century. The British charity Oxfam (notorious, by the way, for its officers taking favors from low-income females as charity) claimed that the assets of the wealthiest 85 persons (holding half the world’s wealth, said Oxfam) were in 2014 in total $1.7 trillion. (There is in fact something dramatically wrong with the claim, because interest-earning assets in the world are on the order of $100 trillion, not $1.7 trillion; but let’s go with Oxfam’s calculation.) If a fund of the $1.7 trillion size earned a robust 7 percent annual return, it would yield $119 billion a year, which is $326 million a day, to distribute among the half of the world’s population, 3.6 billion people, which Oxfam takes to be poor. It is 9 cents per person.
Andrew Carnegie’s $300 million when he sold out to J. P. Morgan and his consortium in 1901 made him the richest man in the world, a Croesus, a very Bill Gates. But it was only one-and-a-half one thousandths of the rise in production he helped deliver. To put it another way, this richest man in the world of voluntary enterprise (as against monarchs such a Leopold II o Belgium) possessed about $1 out of every $20,800 of American human and physical capital, taking annual personal income as a return of 5 percent on human or physical capital. Some Croesus.
Carnegie himself is said to have made the same point in another way. A socialist came to his office and argued to him that the wealthy should redistribute their wealth to the poor of the earth. Carnegie asked an assistant to go get him a rough estimate of his current wealth and of the population of the earth. The assistant returned shortly with the figures, and according to the anecdote Carnegie performed a calculation, then turned to the assistant and said, “Give this gentleman sixteen cents. That’s his share of the wealth.” And then he gave every dime of his wealth away, in accord with his Gospel of Wealth. Another businesslike Scot, Adam Smith, by the way, also gave away his considerable fortune, though, unlike Carnegie, he did not sound a trumpet before him when he did his alms.
There’s a renewed debate in the U.S., led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex, about top marginal tax rates. In Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, the top marginal tax rates apply to all incomes over multiples of 1.2x, 1.6x, and 1.5x their average incomes respectively. In the U.S., those tax rates only apply to incomes that are 8.5x the country’s average. What’s your take on that? More broadly–perhaps too broadly–what do you think this shows about the different cross-cultural conceptions of dignity and liberty?
I realize that from the left and from the young it seems plausible that a 29-year old first-term congresswoman, a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America, with an undergraduate degree that included a bit of economics, is capable of leading a serious debate on tax policy. Permit a 76-year old economist to demur.
Marginal rates are meaningless in a polity such as ours. The rich have ample resources to throw at additional tax lawyers and accountants to escape legally the rates you imagine. How do I know? Because they did it when the U.S. and Britain had such rates. The rich do still, even at the lesser incentives of lower rates.
A friend on the left thinks that the liberal argument for low marginal tax rates is that Bill Gates values the next dollar the same way his secretary does. That’s not the argument. The argument is that undistorted profits, which appear as income to innovators, guide investment to the right projects for the benefit of national GDP per person. Ocasio-Cortez would like instead that Washington be the guide. Which do you expect gives the best results for us all, a capitalist like Warren Buffett guiding investments or a socialist like Ocasio-Cortez writing tax law? Does it seem plausible that she can outguess people who actually run businesses? True, the core assumption of socialism is that yes, investment should be socialized and then put under the direction of an arts graduate from a good college. But really? It has not worked out when it has been tried, as in 1917.
From 1961 to 2016, consumption-based poverty fell from 30% to 3%– a 90% decline (and a 77% decline since 1980). Accordingly, in July 2018, the Council of Economic Advisers declared that “our War on Poverty is largely over and a success.” Is that a fair statement? What lessons can we take away from the War on Poverty?
The War on Poverty was fine, and anyway politically necessary. A New Yorker cartoon at the time showed a bank truck pulled up, the guards handing out money from sacks, with an observer saying, “Well, finally the War on Poverty has gotten under way!” But even since the 1960s the main improvement of the poor has come through innovation, itself mostly private and profitable. Better medicine. Better cars. Better housing. And the notion that massive government is justified by its support of the poor runs up against the so-called “median voter theorem.” The 51st percentile decides elections. Such a voter is from the middle class. She votes herself farm subsidies, tax relief, and jobs bossing the poor.
Here’s a statistical experiment I ran in 2006 on the point. More recent figures would come out the same. If the one third and more of national income that the American governments then collected actually went to the poor, would there remain any American poor? No.
Imagine that as much as a quarter of the one third went to the poor—below the fraction I suppose people have in mind when defending governments of our times as “helping the poor.” That’s 1/3 x ¼ = 1/12 of gross domestic product, earmarked in such a hypothetical world for transfers to the poor. It was in 2006 about $1,000 billion. According to the official definitions of numbers living in poverty at the time, 34 million Americans did, well over 10 percent of the population. The poverty figure fell dramatically since Presidents Kennedy and Johnson drew sharp attention to it in the 1960s. But the 2006 figure still appalls me as much as it appalls you.
Yet governmental doesn’t seem to be the solution. If it were, then each poor person would be getting, according to the ¼ of 1/3 hypothesis, goods and services from the government equal to the $1,000 billion divided by 34 million. That’s about $30,000 for every man, woman, and child in poverty. $30,000 was still below the average gross domestic product per capita, which was then about $40,000. Yet no one would call a family with two adults and two children getting goods and services in the amount of $120,000 a year in 2006 “poor.” With such an income, obviously, the poor would not be poor. But they are poor, namely, poor in those appalling 34 millions of souls. So it must not be true that the government’s taxes go mainly, or even much at all, to the poor.
You can reason the other way, too, asking what low fraction of government programs would constitute transfers to the poor under the (true) condition that the existing poor are nonetheless left in poverty. Even if poor people earned nothing in the market the implied fraction is very low indeed—not a quarter or an eighth but more like one sixteenth of what government collects and disburses. One sixteenth. Is that the figure you have in mind when on Tax Day you comfort yourself that “After all, my tax dollar is going to help the poor?” Fifteen sixteenth of the dollar is not. One wonders where it is going. Consider the median-voter theorem.
It seems like your view of economics demands that we evaluate historical trends from a very long time-horizon and highly contextually. Voters often care most about the economy when selecting a president, and one thing I often struggle with is determining how much credit or failure I should assign to a particular president for economic gains or losses. What’s your view on that– should I vote for a president based on what I believe he’ll do for the economy?
Presidents have little to do with it. It’s the job of serious intellectuals, such as your admirable former editor of The Politic Fareed Zakaria, to remind us of the long run. But don’t now vote for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, who have learned nothing about economics or economic history since they read Marx as undergraduates. Both, if elected, would at least give damaging the ideology of liberalism that gave us the Great Enrichment the old college try.
Back in 1999, Uncommon Knowledge’s Peter Robinson gave Milton Friedman a list of the 14 cabinet departments and asked him, one-by-one, which departments he would keep and which ones he would abolish. Now, I believe there are 15 cabinet departments with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (2002). Which ones are you keeping?
I’d keep Treasury, Justice, Defense (more properly, and formerly, called War), and State. A story about that last. The Department of State gave me in 1996 a passport under my new female name, as against “Donald,” without much fuss. They had seen it before. (By the way, liberal countries like the U.K., the U.S., and France did not have passports until the First World War.) A year or so later I called up a dean at Harvard and asked him if I could change my Harvard College degree class of ’64, to Radcliffe instead. (Radcliffe still existed; in 199 9the first female president of Harvard killed it.). He said no, he didn’t think it could happen. I whined in response, “But the Department of State had no problem giving me a female passport!” He paused, and then replied with a smile in his voice, “But Harvard [Yale, too] is older than the Department of State.” Some things never change.