A new book on liberalism by David Wootton misses the pointby Deirdre McCloskey / March 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
In England between 1658 and 1832 the theory about what motivated people changed. Was this a good thing? The intellectual historian David Wootton shows that the theory did change. But he very much doubts it was a good thing.
Historically speaking, “Pleasure and profit were often coupled together,” Wootton notes in his astonishingly learned book, but never until 1658 and the publication of William Percey’s The Compleat Swimmer “were they claimed to be the only motivations, to the exclusion of all others, such as honour, virtue, and piety. [It was] a new account of what it is to be a human being.”
Wootton’s main subjects, among hundreds of minor ones marshalled over three centuries by this most brilliant and pugnacious of historians, are Machiavelli for power, Hobbes for pleasure and Adam Smith for profit. Then for “utility” Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the deviser of a crude version of pleasure and profit, sans honour. The principal target of Wootton’s story is Bentham the Bad, who declared that the only way he could distinguish poetry from prose was by noting that poetry did not fill the line to the right margin, and that justice was “nonsense on stilts,” and many other declarations shocking to an age that took honour, virtue and piety, not to speak of poetry and justice, most seriously indeed.
Bentham’s heirs among modern economists and calculators leap with gusto into such voluntary idiocy. I am one of the economist tribe, yet agree with Wootton that the maximising of utility under constraints, as the so-called Samuelsonian economists put it, does not in fact yield a plan of life. “The presumption that we are all, as it were, in business as individuals,” Wootton writes in an essay in History Today summarising the book, supposes “that the ties which bind us to family, friends, community, nation are purely instrumental arrangements of convenience.” His lament sounds Toryish in a person who sometimes calls himself a liberal. He is a Burkean, it would seem, lamenting that the glory of Europe has been extinguished forever.
The more extreme of the economists in Bentham’s train, such as the late Nobel laureate of Chicago, Gary Becker, justify the lament. In 1973, Becker wrote a pioneering paper on the economics of marriage in…