Between the Great Lisbon Earthquake and the revolutionary year of 1848 the European chattering classes had three big ideas. One was very, very good. The other two were very, very bad. We're still paying.
The good one, flowing from the pens of such members of the clerisy as Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and above all the Blessed Adam Smith, is what Smith described in 1776 as the shocking idea of "allowing every man [or woman, dear] to pursue his own interest in his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice."
Admittedly, true liberalism took a long time. "All men are created equal" was penned by a man who kept in slavery most of his own children by Sally Hemings, not to mention Sally herself. Even his co-author Ben Franklin once owned slaves. In 1775, the English literary man Samuel Johnson had ample reason to launch a sneer from London, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"
But those liberal yelps re-echoed, and had force, amplified by the repeated embarrassment over two centuries of denying slaves, apprentices, women, immigrants, anarchists, socialists, communists, Okies, Nisei, blacks, Chicanos, gays, Vietnam protesters, criminal suspects, handicapped people, gender crossers, ex-cons, drug users, smokers, and citizens of the District of Columbia their own equality, liberty, and justice.
The fruits of the new liberalism, when it could make its way against the two bad ideas (wait for it), were stunning. Liberalism, uniquely in history, made masses of ordinary people bold, bold to try out their ideas for how to improve the world by testing them in the marketplace. Look around at the hundreds of betterments that resulted: from stock markets to ball bearings, from penicillin to plate glass.
The two bad ideas of 1755–1848 were nationalism and socialism, writes Deirdre Nansen McCloskey.
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