Deirdre N. McCloskey

McCloskey’s Early Life and Education

Deirdre N. McCloskey (b. 1942) was born as Donald N. McCloskey in Ann Arbor, Michigan. McCloskey’s father, Robert G. McCloskey, was a Harvard-trained professor of government and history. Her mother, Helen S. McCloskey, was a published poet.

McCloskey received her bachelor’s degree in economics in 1964 from Harvard University and her PhD in economics in 1970 from Harvard, where Alexander Gerschenkron served as her dissertation advisor.

McCloskey’s Career

In 1968, McCloskey was appointed an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago. She was promoted to associate professor in 1973 and received tenure in 1975. She continued teaching at Chicago through 1980.

In 1980, McCloskey was hired by the University of Iowa as a full professor. In 1984, she was appointed Chair of the Iowa Economics Department, a post she retained until leaving Iowa in 1999.

In 1996, McCloskey also served as a visiting professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

Since 2000, McCloskey has taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where, since 2015, she has been Distinguished Professor of Economics and History and Professor of English and Communication, Emerita.

In 1995—at the age of 53, after 30 years of marriage, and after fathering two children—Donald N. McCloskey transitioned to being a woman and took the name Deirdre N. McCloskey.

McCloskey’s Ideas

McCloskey calls herself a “classical liberal”—as did Friedrich A. Hayek. This means that she subscribes to the principles first articulated by Adam Smith and his followers, and later by Carl Menger and the Austrian school of economics: namely, freedom of economic activity and entrepreneurship, free trade, free markets, low taxes, laissez-faire, and limited government.

McCloskey’s scholarly output is divided between her work on economic theory and her work on the history of political economy. She maintains that the history of economic activity is not only important for its own sake, but also as an empirical control on theoretical economic analysis.

McCloskey is probably best known for her “Bourgeois” trilogy: Bourgeois Virtues (2006), Bourgeois Dignity (2010), and Bourgeois Equality (2016) (see McCloskey’s Major Works below). In these volumes, she traces the history of the ideas associated with the rise of the merchant class (“bourgeoisie”), which she maintains was the most important factor in the success of the industrial revolution, which in turn led directly to the extraordinary enrichment, or “mass flourishing,” of England and then Western civilization as a whole.

McCloskey’s main thesis in the trilogy is that ideas are more important than social institutions, as the latter in fact depend upon the former. The three books focus on the following topics:

  • Bourgeois Virtues – the growth of the individual virtues of honesty, reliability, punctuality, etc.
  • Bourgeois Dignity – the growth of a sense of social worth ascribed to market participation and shop-keeping
  • Bourgeois Equality – the growth of a sense of the moral and legal equality of all individuals and so of their right to rise through the ranks of society through their own efforts

McCloskey’s claim is that these three factors best explain the meteoric historical rise of the West to its unprecedented position of wealth and influence on the world stage.

The Bourgeois trilogy has been met with much acclaim, but also with not a little controversy. Economists as a group tend to elevate material explanatory factors above ideological ones. For this reason, most of the profession has remained respectful of McCloskey’s enormous synthetic labors in the trilogy, but skeptical of her explanatory emphasis on ideas.

McCloskey’s publishing career spans 50 years and she is the first to admit that she has changed her mind on many matters over that long period of time. She has sketched an outline of the history of her economic thinking in the following paper: “Apologia Pro Vita Sua: A History of My Economic Opinions.”

McCloskey is hugely prolific. She has published some 120 peer-reviewed scholarly articles, as well as some 250 reviews, popular essays, op-eds, and other short pieces. Still more impressively, she has published more than 20 single-authored or co-authored books and has edited or co-edited another nine scholarly volumes.

McCloskey has also participated in nearly 90 interviews and 50 podcasts, all of which may be accessed through her personal website. She also maintains a blog titled “Prudentia” on her website.

McCloskey’s Major Works

1. as Donald N. McCloskey

Essays on a Mature Economy: Britain After 1840 (1971).

Enterprise and Trade in Victorian Britain: Essays in Historical Economics (1981).

The Rhetoric of Economics (1985).

The Applied Theory of Price, second edition (1985).

Econometric History (1987).

The Writing of Economics (1987); third edition: Economical Writing: Thirty-Five Rules for Clear and Persuasive Prose (2019).

If You’re So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise (1990).

Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics (1994).

2. as Deirdre N. McCloskey

The Vices of Economists, the Virtues of the Bourgeoisie (1997).

Crossing: A Memoir (1999).

How to Be Human*   *Though an Economist (2000).

Measurement and Meaning in Economics: The Essential Deirdre McCloskey, edited by Stephen T. Ziliak (2001).

The Secret Sins of Economics (2002).

The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006).

The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives,with Stephen T. Ziliak (2008).

Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (2010).

Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World(2016).

Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All (2019).

The Myth of the Entrepreneurial State (2020).

Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World, with Art Carden (2020).

Historical Impromptus: Notes, Reviews, and Responses on the British Experience and the Great Enrichment (2020).

Bettering Humanomics: A New, and Old, Approach to Economic Science (2021).

Beyond Positivism, Behaviorism, and Neoinstitutionalism in Economics (2022).

Volumes Edited by McCloskey

1. as Donald N. McCloskey

The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences: Language and Argument in Scholarship and Public Affairs, with John S. Nelson and Allan Megill (1987).

The Consequences of Economic Rhetoric,with Arjo Klamer and Robert M. Solow (1989).

A Bibliography of Historical Economics to 1980, with George K. Hersh (1991).

Second Thoughts: Myths and Morals of U.S. Economic History (1993).

The Economic History of Britain from 1700 (three volumes), with Roderick Floud (1994).

2. as Deirdre N. McCloskey

The Oxford Handbook of Professional Economic Ethics, with George F. DeMartino (2016).