• True Liberalism Wants to Slay Thomas Hobbes’s Monster

    Deirdre Nansen McCloskey and Art Carden on the 17th-Century Origins of the Free World

    In 2005 a coalition of groups organized a campaign to “Make Poverty History.” The very idea—making poverty history—startles, considering the grind that was once the life of virtually everyone on the planet, a few nobles and priests excepted. To be quantitative about it, the beginning of scientific wisdom about economic history is to realize that in the year 1800 worldwide, the miserable average of production and consumption per person was about $3 day.

    Article continues below

    Even in the newly prosperous United States, Holland, and Britain, it was a mere $6. Gak. Those are the figures in terms of roughly present-day prices, understand: no tricks with money involved. Try living in your neighborhood on $3 or $6 a day. And realize by contrast that in the United States it’s now about $130 a day, and $33 as a world average, doubling in every long generation.

    The poorest have been the biggest beneficiaries. Contrary to what you hear, further, since the mid-20th century, inequality in the world has fallen dramatically. The wretched of the earth are coming to a dignified level of income, and more. Wow.

    Our task is to convey the gak and to explain the wow—and to show that the change from gak to wow came from liberty.

    The view in 1651 of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was that without an all-powerful king there must have been once upon a time a “war of all against all.” We doubt he was correct about the king or about the once upon a time, in light of modern scholarship in history and anthropology. But his famous vision of the poverty of a society without some sort of discipline, whether a coercive visible hand or a voluntary invisible hand, can serve to characterize the world that the campaign to Make Poverty History wants to escape:

    Article continues below

    In such condition [as he imagined, “the state of nature,” with no discipline] there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain [think: no incentive if the fruit will anyway be stolen]: and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation [think: no caravels of Prince Henry the Navigator exploring the coast of Africa], nor use of commodities that may be imported by sea [think: no pepper from the East]; no commodious building [think: no Amsterdam city hall on the Dam]; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force [think: no coaches on the king’s highway]; no knowledge of the face of the earth [think: “Don’t know much about geography”]; no account of time [no clocks, no history: “Don’t know much about the Middle Ages”]; no arts; no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

    Double gak. Not nice. People on their own, Hobbes supposed, are cruel and selfish and above all unable to organize themselves voluntarily. To tame them, they need a “leviathan,” as he called it in the title of his 1651 work—that is, a great beast of a government.

    Only a top-down king, like his beloved if recently beheaded master, Charles I of England, or Charles’s son hiding out in France, the future Charles II, would protect peace and civilization. (His is rather similar, we note, to the argument on the left nowadays that a leviathan government, much more powerful than anything Charles I could have imagined, is necessary to protect peace and civilization and the poor.) The choice, he said, was between utter misery without a masterful king or a moderated misery (even) with him.

    Welcome . . . to a society held together by sweet talk among free adults, rather than by the leviathan’s coercion applied to slaves and children.

    Many people nowadays, whether on the left or the right of politics, still credit Hobbes’s argument for top-down government. They believe, writes the liberal economist Donald Boudreaux, “that we human beings left undirected by a sovereign power are either inert blobs, capable of achieving nothing (thus say the Dems and Labour, and old John Dewey), or unintelligent and brutal barbarians destined only to rob, rape, plunder, and kill each other (thus say the GOP and the Tories, and old Thomas Hobbes) until and unless a sovereign power restrains us and directs economic energies onto more productive avenues.

    The people who believe such things are properly called statists, such as in recent politics Elizabeth Warren on the left of the conventional spectrum and Donald Trump on the right. The left or right, or middle, wants very much to coerce the blockheads and the barbarians to get organized. Both the progressives and the conservatives, in other words, view ordinary people as children, ignorant or unruly, unable to take care of themselves, and dangerous to others, to be tightly governed. Terrible twos.

    Article continues below

    We modern liberals don’t. We want to persuade you to join us in liberalism in the old and honorable sense—or, if you insist on the word, to join us in a generous version of libertarianism (a 1950s coinage we would like to retire). You don’t really favor pushing people around with a prison-industrial complex, or with regulations preventing people from braiding hair for a living, or with collateral damage from drone strikes, or with a separation of toddlers from their mothers at the southern US border, do you?

    We bet not. As one version of the Golden Rule puts it, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. With an open mind and a generous heart, dear reader, we believe you will tilt toward a humane true liberalism. Welcome, then, to a society held together by sweet talk among free adults, rather than by the leviathan’s coercion applied to slaves and children.


    Yet in olden days the Hobbesian, statist, antiliberal case had some plausibility—enough in the minds of its advocates, for example, to justify slavery as getting the enslaved to do something useful, or to hold Indonesians in Dutch apprenticeship for another century, or to keep women properly under the control of their king-like husbands.

    When the Irish were illiterate and the Italians superstitious and the women confined, a masterful state seemed to make sense. We don’t actually think so, but you can at least see why the masters could point to evidence for blobbish or brutal children, whom the masters would so wisely discipline by rod and knout.

    Article continues below

    But the case looks a lot less plausible in an age in which the Irish and the Irish Americans have among the highest educational attainments in the world, in which women are independent and venturing, and in which the Italians, despite some strange voting recently, are far from barbaric and superstitious. In other words, what fits the modern world is modern liberalism—as we define it here, and not, we repeat for the last time, the way it’s been defined for a century in the United States (namely, as the wide subordination of voluntary arrangements to governmental coercion).

    The vision in our modern liberalism is of educated and venturing adults, able to take pretty good care of themselves and their families and to provision their neighbors in voluntary exchange. We think the liberal vision is better for humans than either the old leftish vision of disorganized proletarians properly led by the Communist Party or the old rightish vision of dim-witted peasants properly led by the aristocracy.

    Even in the time of Hobbes, a gathering flood of liberal writings began to challenge the statist assumption.

    In other words, if ever there was a time to let adult and dignified people have a go, to accept the Bourgeois Deal, it’s now. To be more precise and to paraphrase an African proverb, the best time to let adult and dignified people have a go, to accept the Bourgeois Deal, is actually twenty or two hundred or two thousand or two hundred thousand years ago.

    The second best time is now. People are ready for liberal autonomy. Permitting them to have it has permitted them to grow up. The time for nudging and judging by big governments, or overmastering by lords and husbands and experts, was yesterday, if ever (we say, “never”).

    Now is the time for what is sometimes called an obsolete-sounding “classical liberalism.” It’s not obsolete, and we want to drop the “classical.” The leviathan state, we suggest, is what’s obsolete, whether run by former kings or present tyrants, Charles I or Tayyip Erdoğan.

    Article continues below

    Our point, and the point of the Bourgeois Deal, is that the world can—and after 1800 emphatically did—escape the poverty, nastiness, brutishness, and brevity of life as it was in 1651, without a danger of falling into a war of all against all. We make the case here that Hobbes was correct in his description of the actual and potential miseries of 1651 but that modern times have belied his belief in the necessity of overmastering governmental power.

    And the $130 a day, or even the $33 a day, steadily rising, and its spiritual results have belied our friends the moderate statists of the left and of the right. Even more so, the facts have belied our enemies the revolutionaries. The dictatorship of the proletariat or the Thousand Year Reich didn’t work for human betterment. The Bourgeois Deal did.


    Until the 1800s, understand, Hobbes’s argument seemed wholly natural, in societies of chiefs or kings, Genghis Khan or King Solomon. Tyranny fitted reasonably well an economy of herders, and it fitted very well indeed a society of farmers. The chiefs and kings were happy to take personal advantage of their monopoly of coercion over farmers unable to run away. English history up to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689, and world history up to the American and French Revolutions, gave little room for anything but Big Daddy or Big Brother in charge, anywhere.

    It had always been so, since humans stopped being hunter-gatherers—which for literally millions of years was an especially liberated if extremely poor condition of humanity. It placed in your genes a taste for liberty. But people are complicated. They imagine at the same time that they dearly want a king, a father of the nation.

    A knee-slapping passage in the Hebrew Bible recounts how the ancient Israelites, like Argentinians today, and Italians and in truth most every electorate in some moods, wanted more of that top-down statism, Bonapartism, the man on the white horse. To be safe and great. In the story, the Israelites appeal to Samuel to give them a king, “like all the nations.” Samuel consults with God, who tells him to warn them about getting what they want. “So Samuel spoke all the words of the Lord to the people” (1 Samuel 8:11–18):

    is will be the procedure of the king. . . . He will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots . . . and some to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of  war. . . . He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers.

    He will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves. . . . He will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards and give to his officers and to his servants. . . .Th en you will cry out . . . but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

    “Nevertheless, the people refused to listen.” Ha, ha.

    Yet quite unexpectedly, even in the time of Hobbes, a gathering flood of liberal writings began to challenge the statist assumption. It was such liberal ideas, we argue, that made the modern world, inspiring ordinary people to be free and to venture as adults, and not serve as plowmen and perfumers enslaved like all the nations to kings.

    From the middle of the 17th century the list lengthens of liberal wielders of the pen, from the Levellers in England during the 1640s and the de la Court brothers in Holland during the 1660s. The Englishman John Locke, much influenced by the Dutch during the 1680s while hiding in Holland from King James II, gave liberalism a form that would become influential in the American Revolution a century later.

    In 1733 the Frenchman Voltaire, who admired the beginnings of liberalism and bourgeois dignity in the Britain of his time—as against the king-worshipping snobbery of rank in his own country—agreed with Locke in praising a free commerce. He wrote sarcastically, “I don’t know which is the more useful to the state, a well-powdered lord who knows precisely when the king gets up in the morning . . . or a great merchant who enriches his country, sends orders from his office to Surat or to Cairo, and contributes to the well-being of the world.”

    About 40 years later, the conflicted slaveholder Thomas Jefferson wrote famously that all men are created equal and should be permitted to pursue happiness in commerce. In the same year of 1776, our own special hero of liberalism, Adam Smith of Scotland (1723–1790, who shares a birthday, you will be pleased to know, with Carden’s daughter), penned into being an ideology of the “obvious and simple system of natural liberty.”

    He published, four months before the Continental Congress approved the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, his Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. It said what we say: liberty makes for prosperity and does not corrupt the soul.

    The liberal idea of course had causes. Smith came from two-and-a-half centuries of accidental preparation, in a northwestern Europe formerly very far from liberal. Think of Henry VIII, no liberal, ruling England with a hard hand from 1509 to 1547. Contra present-day white nationalism and lesser lunacies, Europe was not born exceptional.

    The result of the new liberal idea was that after 1800 or so, a tsunami of betterment rolled over the West and eventually over much of the rest.

    It was, as late as 1492, a poor, nasty, brutish, and short-lived corner of the world. Then, slowly, slowly, the ideology of leaving people alone, the Bourgeois Deal, came there to be honored. The long Dutch revolt of 1568–1648 against the Habsburg kings, for example, left the middle class, “the middling sort,” the “bourgeoisie” (pronounced boor-zwah-ZEE), to step into the void in Holland left by a battle-thinned aristocracy.

    The cities of the Lowlands had anyway long come to be run by the upper bourgeoisie, the great merchants and guildsmen called regents. It was a tough governing of the lower classes, who did not have political rights. But it was a little bit liberal, especially in the economy.

    Then, starting late in the 17th century, inspired by the amazing Dutch economic success, the idea that ordinary people might be left alone without detailed regulation by their masters would gradually emerge in England and Scotland and their colonial offshoots. England first and a little later Scotland came to esteem what they had previously despised—that is, buying low and selling high, by a merchant who enriches his country and contributes to the well-being of the world.

    Leaving people alone economically came slowly into favor. The great economic historian Eric Jones speaks for example of the decline of guild restrictions in England: “The joker in the pack was the national shift in elite opinion, which the courts partly shared. The judges often declined to support the restrictiveness that the guilds sought to impose. . . . A key case concerned Newbury and Ipswich in 1616 . . . to the effect that ‘foreigners,’ men from outside a borough, could not be compelled to enroll”—that is, to join the guild and be subject to its restrictions.

    The British, who were once violent and illiberal worshippers of kings, slowly became, in a phrase of the time, “a polite and commercial people.” Indeed, declared the literary man Samuel Johnson of London in 1775, “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.”

    His interlocutor at the time, his publisher William Strahan, who also lived by commerce, and was a friend of bourgeois Benjamin Franklin, remarked, “the more one thinks of this, the juster it will appear.”Looking at Britain from France, Voltaire, who himself made a fortune in speculation with his money earned as a playwright, had written in 1733 that a British nobleman’s “brother does not think traffic is beneath him. . . . At the time that the Earl of Orford [that is, the prime minister Robert Walpole] governed Great Britain, his younger brother was no more than a factor [that is, a merchant’s representative] in Aleppo.”

    A Swiss traveler in 1727 wrote that “in England commerce is not looked down upon, . . . as it is in France and Germany. [In Britain after 1707] men of good family and even of [aristocratic] rank may become merchants without losing caste.”

    What was previously dishonorable and contemptible—the pursuit of filthy lucre—was celebrated, or at the least not vigorously obstructed by guilds and governments. (We worry, and so should you: Is an illiberal and medieval obstructionism by regulation being reimposed?)

    The result of the new liberal idea was that after 1800 or so, a tsunami of betterment rolled over the West and eventually over much of the rest. The betterment is properly called the Great Enrichment. Railways. Mass schooling. Skyscrapers. Electricity. Sewage treatment. Universities. Antibiotics. Containerization. Computers.

    In the places that have experienced it fully, the average Jack or Jill, whose great-great-grandparents were starkly impoverished, lives a life that is connected, wealthy, far from nasty, peaceful, and by historical standards amazingly long. Not Hobbesian. Wow.


    Reprinted with permission from Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World by Deirdre Nansen McCloskey and Art Carden, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2020 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

    Deirdre McCloskey and Art Carden
    Deirdre McCloskey and Art Carden
    Deirdre Nansen McCloskey is distinguished professor emerita of economics and of history, and professor emerita of English and of communication, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her two dozen books include The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce; Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World; Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World; Economical Writing: Thirty-Five Rules for Clear and Persuasive Prose; The Secret Sins of Economics; and Crossing: A Transgender Memoir, all also published by the University of Chicago Press.

    Art Carden is professor of economics at the Brock School of Business at Samford University and a frequent contributor to Forbes.com among other popular magazines and scholarly journals.

    More Story
    Maggie Haberman is writing the definitive book on Trump. We hope it's good. Today, Penguin Press announced plans to publish New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman’s book about Donald Trump. The currently...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.