McCloskey’s Brief Against Antiliberalism

"Here’s the thing. McCloskey’s central criticism of Polanyi is that, contrary to Polanyi’s historical claim, the rise of market society is NOT a Western novelty of the nineteenth century. Continuity reigns with earlier economies. But McCloskey’s central claim in Why Liberalism Works is that the rise of the market in the first half of the nineteenth century was a unique historical event: The development of the market during this period was fundamentally discontinuous from the economic life before this period, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Polanyi thinks the Great Transformation is a bad thing; McCloskey thinks “the great expansion” is a good thing. But contrary to McCloskey’s criticism of Polanyi, they both now seem to agree that this historical period was qualitatively unique and pivotal for markets and for society. The argument is not whether the great transformation occurred, the argument is over the consequences of that transformation.

Polanyi’s black and white line between the pre-market economy before 1800 and the market economy after 1800 is incorrect. But taking issue with Polanyi’s rhetorical excess is just a debater’s point if Polanyi’s central historical claim can be made substantially true with the addition of a few weasel words."