… is from page 303 of the final (2016) volume – Bourgeois Equality – of Deirdre McCloskey’s soaring trilogy on the essence of bourgeois values, on their transmission, and on their essential role in modern life:
The sneer by the aristocrat, the damning by the priest, the envy by the peasant, all directed against trade and profit and the bourgeoisie, conventional in every literature since ancient times (though there is some doubt concerning Mesopotamia), have long sufficed to kill economic growth. Only in recent centuries has the clerisy’s prejudice been offset and partially disabled by economists and pragmatists and the writers of books on how to win friends and influence people.
But ideas are not, as the economists believe, merely cheap talk with no impact on social equilibria.
The way we talk and write – the words we use – what we say and what we don’t say – matter. Of course, the process of articulating thoughts helps each of us who articulates (and that is every human being) to better form thoughts that are otherwise fuzzy and amorphous. More importantly, what we express to others not only informs others of facts, instructions, and perspectives that they would not learn were we not to express our thoughts to them, our talking also expresses and, in doing so, reinforces specific ethical values.
Each and every time you say with a smile “thank you” to the supermarket cashier who tallies your order you add a little more dignity to that person’s life and occupation – and to the social estimation of that and related occupations. Each and every time you tell a homophobic or anti-immigrant joke, you detract from the social valuation of homosexuals or of immigrants. Through our talk we humans are constantly raising the social valuation of some peoples and things and lowering the social valuation of other peoples and things. Your words, individually, might have no detectable impact, but by signaling to your hearers or readers what you regard to be acceptable and unacceptable – honorable and dishonorable – important and insignificant – productive and unproductive – polite and crude – true and false – good and bad – you influence their perceptions and evaluations, if only ever so slightly. If, for example, you express admiration for a hard-working entrepreneur and do so with no trace of envy of that entrepreneur’s monetary success, your audience (be it one person or a million people) becomes a bit more inclined to regard entrepreneurs favorably and to not suppose that successful entrepreneurs’ profits are to be envied.
Obviously, the relation of the speaker to the audience matters. The effect of a mother’s words on the attitudes of her young child is greater than the effect of those same words, spoken by the same woman, to some other-woman’s child. The effect of words about widgets spoken by someone publicly regarded to be an expert in widgetry is greater than is the effect of words about widgets spoken by someone who is not regarded as having expertise in widgetry.
Ideas and attitudes matter. They matter greatly. And ideas and attitudes are transmitted chiefly by words. It is this reality above all that causes me distress when I hear or read someone with a degree in economics (or who is otherwise regarded to be expert in economics) get fundamental economics wrong. When some economist asserts that a country’s growing trade deficit destroys jobs, that’s simply wrong – but the expression of that false notion, especially by an “economist,” contributes to the public’s fear of international trade. When some other economist says that “[t]here’s just no evidence that raising the minimum wage costs jobs,” that, in this case, is not only indisputably wrong but is almost certainly an outright lie – but this economist’s lie contributes to the public’s false belief that hikes in minimum wages are all gain with no risk of loss for low-skilled workers. When economists talk and write, as they too often do, as if government officials possess superhuman capacities to care about strangers and to know enough to intervene productively into those strangers’ affairs, that’s wrong – but such talking and writing gives more phoolish credence to the false notion that state power is an especially trustworthy cure for life’s ailments, large and small.