Past and Future of Humanomics

A Conversation with Deirdre Nansen McCloskey


  • Deirdre Nansen McCloskey University of Illinois at Chicago, United States
  • Paolo Silvestri University of Turin, Italy



Paolo Silvestri interviews Deirdre Nansen McCloskey on the occasion of her latest book, Bettering Humanomics: A New, and Old, Approach to Economic Science (2021). The interview covers her personal and intellectual life, the main turning points of her journey and her contributions. More specifically, the conversation focuses on McCloskey’s writings on the methodology and rhetoric of economics, her interdisciplinary ventures into the humanities, the Bourgeois Era trilogy with its history of the ‘Great Enrichment’, her liberal political commitments, and the value and meaning of liberty, equality, and solidarity. Finally, the conversation returns to McCloskey’s ‘humanomics’ approach: an economics with the humans left in.

Author Biographies

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago, United States

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey (Michigan, 1942) is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Economics and of History, and Professor Emerita of English and of Communication, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Trained at Harvard in the 1960s as an economist, she has written twenty-five books and some four hundred academic articles on economic theory, political theory, economic history, philosophy, rhetoric, statistical theory, feminism, ethics, and law.

She taught for twelve years at the University of Chicago in the Economics Department in its glory days, but now describes herself as a “literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, ex-Marxist, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. Not ‘conservative’! I’m a Christian classical liberal”.

Her most recent popular books, for example, are Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All (2019); with Art Carden, Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World (2020); and, with Alberto Mingardi, The Myth of the Entrepreneurial State (2020). Also, in 2019, the University of Chicago Press published a third edition of her classic manual on style, Economical Writing, and a twentieth-anniversary re-issue of Crossing: A Transgender Memoir, with a new Afterword. She’s technical and quantitative, too. For example, with Stephen Ziliak, in 2008, she wrote The Cult of Statistical Significance, widely praised, which shows that null hypothesis tests of ‘significance’ are, in the absence of a substantive loss function, meaningless. The point, made long before McCloskey by a few statisticians, is becoming widely accepted, for example, in the American Statistical Association, though not yet in economics and medicine.

Her latest scholarly book, again from the University of Chicago Press, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (2016), was the final volume of the Bourgeois Era trilogy. It argues for an ‘ideational’ explanation of the Great Enrichment of 3,000 percent per person from 1800 to the present in places like Britain, and Japan, and Finland. The accidents of Reformation and Revolt in northwestern Europe, during 1517–1789, led to a new liberty and dignity for commoners—ideas called ‘liberalism’ in the proper sense—which led in turn to an explosion of commercially tested betterment, ‘having a go’. The second book in the trilogy, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (2010), had shown that materialist explanations such as saving or exploitation, don’t have enough economic oomph or historical relevance to explain the Enrichment. The alleged explanations that do not focus on the new ideology of innovism—her name for the ill-named ‘capitalism’—are mistaken. And the Enrichment did not corrupt our immortal souls. The inaugural book in the trilogy, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006), had established that, contrary to the clamor since 1848 by the clerisy left and right, the bourgeoisie is pretty good, and that commercially tested betterment is not the worst of ethical schools. In short, the trilogy looks forward, if populism does not spoil the prospect, to a world of universal dignity and prosperity created by liberal innovism.

Paolo Silvestri, University of Turin, Italy

Paolo Silvestri is a Contract Professor of Economics and Humanomics (Ethics and Economics, Philosophy and Economics) at the University of Turin (Italy), of State and Institutions at the Lumière University Lyon 2 (France), and of Philosophy of Law at the Luiss Guido Carli University (Italy). He has held visiting positions at Cornell University (as a Luigi Einaudi Chair holder), the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, the London School of Economics, and CNRS/École Normale Supérieure de Lyon. Among his honours and prizes are a Marie Curie Fellowship and an honorary ‘Fair Inheritance’ Fellowship (Chaire Hoover d’Éthique Économique et Sociale, UCL Louvain). He has published three monographic books and edited eight books and journal special issues. Among his latest publications are “An Institutional Economics of Gift?” (with Stefan Kesting, forthcoming at the Journal of Economic Issues) and “Percentage Tax Designation Institutions. On Sugden’s Contractarian Account” (published in 2021 in the International Review of Economics).




How to Cite

McCloskey, D. N., & Silvestri, P. (2021). Past and Future of Humanomics: A Conversation with Deirdre Nansen McCloskey. Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, 14(1), 182–209.