EconTalk |
Megan McArdle on Belonging, Home, and National Identity
Dec 27 2021

passports.jpg After being stranded with a bunch of Brits for eight hours at a German airport in 2016, journalist Megan McArdle felt that Brexit was going to happen. The giveaway? Not the concerns over economics or politics. Rather, it was about something far more elemental: in whom they could place their trust. Join the journalist and Washington Post columnist for a discussion with EconTalk host Russ Roberts of the late British philosopher Roger Scruton's poetic exploration of home and nation, Where We Are: The State of Britain Now, and a discussion of why, when it comes to loyalties, it's our mates that matter.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Shalom Freedman
Dec 28 2021 at 4:17am

This was an extremely interesting conversation that touched upon many questions related to various aspects of national identity and belonging. The distinction between ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’ is in itself one that could take up volumes. Those who need to be and feel they belong to one place are distinguished from those who feel they are at home ‘anywhere’. Of course, the distinction is not absolute and Roger Scruton himself as is mentioned in the podcast felt at home in places outside Great Britain. Here I think about how there are many who have more than one home, not just a second vacation home but a second home which they also feel they really belong to.  I have been outside America close to fifty years and still feel I belong in some deep way to it, and the world I grew up in. Of course, after even more time in Israel and with most of my close family here I somehow belong more to where I am now. But this is also because the home I live in now is more threatened and more a part not only of a national but of a religious identity. Here too I would simply mention a subject not discussed in the podcast, the conflict between identities, between the different worlds to which one belongs.

But there are also the conflicting narratives and meanings within the home itself, as was mentioned in relation to the positive way of seeing Great Britain in its giving so much to the world, and the condemnation of it as exploitative imperialist power. The conflict between the 1619 and 1620 narratives of US history is similar. Here I will admit to being both surprised and dismayed by how many Americans have turned against seeing it not only as not the ‘city upon a hill’ but as a largely negative force in history. This turn by many Americans against America itself raises questions about the future of what for many has been ‘mankind’s last best hope’.

One more point. There are many dimensions of being at home, and living in Israel. There is the dimension of returning to a home of one’s ancestors that had been lost and is being recreated. The connection with those who worked and sacrificed to bring this home to life again and who dreamed for generations to return to it gives it a special meaning.



John Wolfe
Dec 28 2021 at 12:50pm

A wonderful discussion! I had to wonder about two areas of the discussion: First, it seemed to me that there was a view that people want to hold those who govern them accountable and that British voters felt this was compromised by the EU. While I do not have experience with that, I do have experience with legislators, commissioners, and other officials not feeling a need to be accountable here in the US. This has increased, in my view, with the current high level of gerrymandering.

Here in Florida, over 64% of those voting approved an amendment to the state Constitution to allow felons to have their voting rights automatically restored upon completion of the sentence including probation. Yet the state legislators have implemented several barriers to the implementation of this amendment. Another example is the state Constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour which passed with over 60% of the votes cast. Again, the legislators are limiting its implementation. A final example is at the county level where a county (Lee County as it happens) recently completed its redistricting and after hearing many voices for commissioners being by district vote they continued the at-large model which many believe leads to less accountability to the minority community by diluting their vote.

One could argue majority rule and that the legislators can implement laws as they see fit, but in each of these amendments, there was quite a majority who voted in favor of the change only to have their wishes thwarted.

While I am using a state I am familiar with, I suspect many in a highly Democratic state, perhaps Illinois, might feel their legislators are not accountable to them.

It goes without saying that at the US level the US Representatives do not feel a need to be accountable to their entire constituency as it is their primary voters who will determine their future so any level of accountability is aimed at these highly active partisans.

So the parallel to the British and their displeasure to the EU and Brussels is different than the current situation in much of the US, there are issues of accountability that may be contributing to the political strife of the US.

Second, there was a comment to the effect of “increasingly” students are taught America is a horrible place. I have heard much talk and never seen any actual evidence that the preponderance of the history being taught is of a nature that casts America as a horrible place. Yes, there is a more complete and nuanced history taught and increasingly might apply in as much as very little of the troubled parts of our history has been taught in the past. However, I am open to the opportunity to examine a well-documented case that supports the horrible place assertion.

Again, great podcast, I learned a fair amount!

Justin Chang
Dec 28 2021 at 2:03pm

At 51:28, Megan said, “…if you don’t have unchosen obligations that you can’t shed you’re in some way not fully participating in the human condition.”

I completely disagree with this. If your parents are abusive, and you figure out a way to make money on your own and live by yourself without depending on them, then you should be proud of the fact that you cut off the “unchosen obligations” that come with maintaining relationships with parents and taking care of them when they get old. In fact, freeing yourself from your parents will allow you to more fully participate in the human condition.

I like Megan and agree with many of her points in this interview, but she was totally off base here.

Ben Riechers
Dec 29 2021 at 7:14pm

I enjoyed the podcast and thought that the challenge of belonging is something that should discussed when we are creating policy.
We need to be able to generalize to some degree in order to have discussions, but sometimes generalizations sound more like straw men that make strong conclusions possible.  Often the real answer is “it depends.”
Labels like the left and right are suitcase words. Conservative, liberal, progressive, tribal and many other supposed descriptors of society have become suitcase words.  Some additional clarifiers would be helpful.  Are you talking about key influencers of the Right and the Left?   Are you talking about the political leaders? Are you talking about political pundits? Hollywood?  Perhaps adding authoritarian to the label would help somewhat. Do you know anyone who fits the description of authoritarian left or authoritarian right?  Authoritarians, whether on the right or the left cannot be shamed, reasoned with, and facts are optional.


Rob Fuller
Dec 30 2021 at 4:54pm

This was an interesting discussion, but began from a very partial viewpoint about the EU and Brexit. One fundamental point that was missed, I think, is that the EU has been quite successful over the years at encouraging much of the European population to think of Europe itself as their “somewhere”. This has been achieved through things like large-scale student exchanges, and by making it easy to travel around Europe. (Despite Megan McArdle’s snobbery about easyJet, budget airlines have made a huge difference to mobility across the continent, thanks to the EU’s promotion of competition in the airline industry – something I’d have expected a libertarian to welcome.) This isn’t even particularly recent, and doesn’t only apply to young people: I am from the UK and in my mid-40s, but grew up thinking of myself as European. There was always a lot to criticise about the way the EU worked, but, like many British people, I see Brexit as a tragedy primarily because it has robbed me of an important part of my identity.

The whole discussion seemed to assume that everyone has a single, clear “somewhere” to which they should belong. But this doesn’t seem correct in the case of the UK: we are used to identifying both with the UK and with its constituent nations. Since I’m from England, should I not consider Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish people as my “mates”, in the sense you were talking about? I don’t understand why not. To me the concepts of nationality and identity feel much more complicated and nuanced than came through from this discussion.

On a smaller point, I was confused by Russ Roberts’s comment about democratic accountability in the European Union. The EU certainly isn’t perfect (what polity is?), but there are direct elections for the European Parliament, and major decisions are made by national heads of government.

chris m
Jan 2 2022 at 10:22am

When you have a large segment of the population that thinks the country is irredeemable–irredeemable; cannot be redeemed; it is hopelessly evil…

This framing is something we often hear from Prof. Roberts, but I’m curious what data he is using to support this claim. We all know he’s (justifiably) critical of surveys, which might provide some insight here, but I’m thrown off by the hyperbolic language and can’t really get a sense of what the actual argument is or if it is rooted in real data (as an aside: I would love to see PEW send out surveys that ask if participants think the U.S. is “irredeemable and hopelessly evil).

Good conversation though. While I don’t agree with everything it gave me a lot to think about.

Ben Riechers
Jan 2 2022 at 8:35pm

I thought it was a logical connection when you brought up David Foster Wallace’s quote about worshiping in a discussion about belonging. The need to belong seems as strong as the need/desire to worship. Belonging creates relationships and we can get meaning in our lives via the mission of the organization.

I do take issue with a generalization made at about the 55-minute mark. Megan McArdle generalized about conservatives who are “kind of desperately trying to reconstruct this national, this big national identity…” Never a fan of broad generalizations, lately they often seem like nothing more than straw men. Anyway, it didn’t resonate with me, and I doubt it resonates with conservatives outside of Washington D.C. If you created a list of the top 10 things conservatives are most concerned about, I can’t imagine that assertion making the list.

Yet there are a lot of different flavors of conservatives so maybe I just don’t know any conservatives like the ones Megan references. In fact, there are so many flavors of all our labels, e.g., conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive, right and left…perhaps they have all become suitcase words.

Todd D Mora
Jan 3 2022 at 11:40am

I thoroughly enjoyed today’s podcast. The sense of beloging and having a group of people who you share unique experiences with is something that I would very much like to have. As a child I moved around a lot because of my fathers job. I never really connected with anyone and ended up a nomad. I envy people who share experiences of living in a place they can go back to and everyone knows them. A place where they overcame some adversity as a group and succeeded. I believe the yearning to belong is inherent in all human beings, it’s how we foster and support it that makes a nation.

Thanks for another great thought provoking podcast!

Jan 6 2022 at 8:25pm

Thank you for the thought-provoking discussion, as always.  One difficulty I had with the direction of the chat was with the implication that tribalism was not just inherent but necessary and proper to the human condition.  It may be a broad generalization but much libertarian and individualist thinking assumes that tribalism inevitably leads to irrationality and violence.  To identify with a group is to defend it in contrast with other groups, whose ways cannot, by definition, be as salutary as one’s own.  How can we avoid making every “somewhere” of meaning a potential battleground?

Jan 28 2022 at 11:11am

Thanks for the great conversation as always.  I feel compelled to share a thought I had, because this topic really hit home for me.

I am definitely a “somewhere” and I occasionally struggle with it.  I’ve chosen to live in the locale where I grew up, primarily to give my kids the opportunity to interact daily with their grandparents, and to give my parents and in-laws the opportunity to interact daily with my kids.  This area is not the most economically prosperous and I do feel like I could be more individually successful elsewhere.  However, the personal wealth of constantly interacting with close family is something I’ve found to be worth the sacrifice.

The struggle is that the grass always looks greener.  The “anywheres” have great marketing value.  However, I typically realize that the destinations of the “anywheres” would not have much value at all if they were not founded, developed, and loved by many “somewheres”.

I do struggle with the opportunity cost, but I’m very proud to be a “somewhere”.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: December 13, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is December 13th, 2021. And, before introducing today's guest, I want to let listeners know there's a new version of the EconTalk episode with Nina Kraus about her book, Of Sound Mind. Some listeners detected annoying background noise, at least, with their quality of hearing. So, we've--ironically perhaps--put up a new edition of the episode. If you stopped listening because of the noise, feel free to download the new and improved file.

My guest today is Megan McArdle of the Washington Post. This is Megan's sixth appearance at EconTalk. She was last here in March of 2021 talking about catastrophes and the pandemic. Megan, welcome back to EconTalk.

Megan McArdle: Thanks for having me.


Russ Roberts: Our topic today is a little unusual. We're going to talk about the idea of home and the role of national identity in daily life and politics. And, to do that, we're going to use a book by the late Roger Scruton as the basis for our conversation. That book is, Where We Are. I found the book fascinating. It's his exploration of the Brexit vote, the nature of the British people, what it means to be British, English, UK-ish. And, what was your reaction to the book, Megan?

Megan McArdle: I found it both very thought-provoking and often enlightening and also frustrating, because, you know, as an American trained in a certain tradition, I kept trying to derive universal principles from what he was writing.

And he kind of relentlessly refuses to let you do that. He keeps it very specifically about Britain and about the character of the British people.

And, what I realized towards the end was that this is a kind of a meta-commentary on his subject, which is, that there is no such thing as the pure universal brotherhood of man. That, we are always in the end, kind of bound by extremely particular, as detachments to a particular place, a particular home, a particular people, and a particular kind of way of life.

And, I think the pandemic has illustrated that better than anything could, where all of the people who thought that they were--what one British writer called the 'Somewheres versus the Anywheres.' You know: the people who live in one place and stay there versus the people who are constantly mobile and can go anywhere. Well, the Anywheres found themselves trapped somewhere. And, it turned out that national borders mattered a lot more than anything else.

So, I think it was a good time to be reading this book. And, I feel like I--I'm not sure 'I learned a lot' is the right way to put it. I thought a lot.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I found it very provocative in many, many different dimensions because it ended up being about a lot of other things besides what you just nicely summarized. It is about that. I found it quite applicable--maybe you will disagree--but I found it quite applicable to the United States and possibly to other countries. And, we'll talk about that. But, I want to start with the point you just raised about the Somewheres versus the Anywheres, because Scruton also evokes that comparison.

And, it reminded me of Chris Arnade, EconTalk guest, who also is dealing with similar issues, somewhat in his book: the importance of place and people who want to stay where they are, even when economic opportunity has deserted that area.

He talks about the contrast between the front-row students and the back-row students. He describes himself as a front-row student, somebody who, eager to do well, went on to get advanced education, and planned to live where the opportunity was greatest, where his physics degree would lead him. Whether it was an academic life; it turned out it took him to Wall Street far away from his home in Florida. And, the Anywheres--of which I am certainly one and Scruton confesses in some dimension, even though he's as English as can be. He is also in an anywhere. He likes Germany and he likes Italy--

Megan McArdle: He lived in France for quite a long time.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, France. Yeah. Yeah. That's right. Not Italy, France. I think that's a really interesting way to think about differences.

Of course, we're all a mix of both. But, certainly the Brexit vote, which is part of what Scruton is writing about, was about the Somewheres--the people who were rooted to the land of England, were in disagreement with the Anywheres who felt--'Yeah, what's the big difference? So, we're ruled--so there's laws coming out of Brussels? I want to be free to use my passport to move freely in Europe, ideally around the world.' But the Somewheres felt differently. What's your take on that distinction and its importance?

Megan McArdle: Yeah. I have a lot of thoughts about this. So, I had a very interesting experience with Brexit, which is that, I went to a conference in Germany right before the Brexit vote. And, in order to--in a somewhat quixotic quest to save Bloomberg money, I flew this incredibly circuitous route so that I could fly business class at coach prices. And, as a result, I--

Russ Roberts: You're such a nice person, Megan.

Megan McArdle: It's actually funny because Bloomberg has so much money. And, I told my editor this very proudly, and he was like, 'I appreciate your effort, but why?'

Russ Roberts: Okay.

Megan McArdle: But, anyway, but it actually ended up being really good because what happened was, I flew through a British airport called Luton--it's a sort of third-tier airport. It's outside of London. I ended up staying overnight there in a really bad hotel. And, on the return trip I got trapped in a German airport. It's the former East German Airport, which is like the worst airport. It's flown by Easy Jet, which is an airline that I'm not sure we're supposed to endorse. I would never personally fly Easy Jet again. It was quite an experience. And, we ended up trapped in this airport by storms in London. And, all of the young people are hogging the very, very few electric outlets. I found one that like a bunch of middle class, sort of normal Brits of middle age had colonized. And, I sort of begged my way into the circle, so that I could recharge my phone.

And so, I ended up spending like eight hours with these people; we were sharing all the stuff we'd bought at the duty-free and passing around bottles of wine. It was a really interesting experience, because I came out of it thinking Brexit is going to happen. And, I almost wrote the column that--I was, like, 'I can't just, like, generalize from these people I met in airport.' Had I done that. I would've had the Thomas Friedman sort of taxi driver wisdom-of-the-year award, I think.

Anyway, but what they said was--they didn't actually express any hostility to immigrants. Now, maybe they were making it nice for the American, but they didn't really seem that concerned. They really--they were making fun of me about Trump quite a lot because it was, of course, the summer of 2016.

But, what they were saying was just that they wanted control and that they wanted to know who they could trust. And, after Brexit happened, I saw all of these people saying things like, 'Don't you understand that now I can't just leave Britain and go get an awesome job abroad? Now I can't just go like make all of my friends from other countries.' I was like, 'Yes, they totally understand that. That's why they didn't want you to do it.' People who have capital in a place--people who have capital in a very specific social milieu, they resent people who leave. Right? I mean, because those people are actually depleting their capital; and that is the inherent tension of what scrutiny is in favor of. That, it does require you to have specific loyalties and to have specific--

I think too, of a really striking contrast for me. I worked in a construction office. I worked at ground zero actually on the disaster recovery site and I was in a construction trailer and there I am with my MBA [Master of Business Administration]. And, I am, I think the only person in the construction trailer with an MBA. I mean, there's tons of people with like Masters in Civil Engineering and quite smart people. But, I am the only person who's participating in this particular weird kind of professional class, elite class that dominates journalism, for example.

And, a guy came in and he's talking about a fight he'd gotten into in Florida and how he was worried there might be charges because it had quite a big brawl with him and a bunch of his friends and some other guys and their friends. And he said, 'The thing I felt worst about--' because his friend had--he said, 'My friend started it and he was wrong.' And I very, sort of innocently, looked up and I said, 'Well, I don't understand. Then why did you dive in?' And, everyone else in the trailer just looks at me like I have just grown another head. And, they were like, 'Because they're your friends.'

Right? And, like that kind of morality seems very foreign and alien to the kind of educated mindset. I don't think it actually is. I think that what we nominally profess is not the same as how we act. So, if you see how people in fact act in, like, pile-ons about people who have maybe gotten something wrong or done something wrong in journalism, it looks actually very like this. But, that said, we don't say that part out loud. You're never supposed to say that part out loud. Right?

And, I think that at the end, though, the power of that is you know who has your back. You know who you can trust in a way that it is harder to know when people refuse to profess this incredibly particular [?], like, 'These are my mates.'

Mark Helprin, who dodged the draft, actually wrote a very a beautiful essay about this, where he says, 'I dodged the draft and I was wrong,'--about Vietnam. He found himself: he joined the merchant Marine afterwards.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Megan McArdle: He finds himself on the prow of a ship with a British merchant seaman. And, the guy says, 'Well, why aren't you in Vietnam?' And, he sort of starts explaining it's the wrong war, whatever. And, the guy just looks at him and says, 'But, those are your mates.' Right? It's that kind of very elemental--that is the elemental kind of logic of the Somewheres. And, I actually think it's profoundly, more powerful and actually more important and necessary to human flourishing than the Anywheres want to admit.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's a great point. Great story. Just a couple footnotes. I think it's pronounced Don Quixote ['kee-ho-tay'--Econlib Ed.], for sure. But, I always say 'quixotic' ['kwik-sah'-tik--Econlib Ed.]; but that's--

Megan McArdle: I could be wrong. It's one of those words that I've never heard pronounced. I only say it in my head.

Russ Roberts: Our purist listeners: Weigh in on this.

And Mark Helprin is the novelist, who has been a guest on EconTalk. He is my favorite living novelist. And I'm a huge fan of his short stories as well. And, just want to put that plug in.

But the example you give: Scruton has a really nice distinction between--he says, "In contrast with the tribal and religious"--

It is in contrast with the tribal and religious forms of membership that the nation should be understood. By a nation, I mean a people settled in a certain territory who share language, institutions, customs, and a sense of history, and who regard themselves as equally committed both to their place of residence and to the legal and political processes that govern it.

And, he's making a contrast. He says: The tribe, you have a family that you then share your tribal connection with. In a religion, you share things with the faithful. "The nation, you share things with your neighbors."

And, that's the level of intimacy--sometimes it's a near-stranger or an actual stranger, but they're your mates in a certain sense, that Mark Helprin's conversation was about.

So, I think it's a--I agree with you: it's not something that certain people like to talk about, but I think it's deep within us, all those connections. I think they're all important and not always consciously understood.


Russ Roberts: The other thing that he talks a lot about that I wanted to talk about with you is this idea of accountability. So, I don't think it's so much that you don't want people to leave and take their social capital with them. The way Scruton emphasizes in the book--and he says this many different ways, and I found it quite eloquent--is that, I mean, he really gives a beautiful defense of democracy--not really democracy but what's called representative government--that the people who have power over you are accountable to you at the ballot box. And what bothered him--and I think, I'm sure there are many reasons people voted to leave the European Union for Brexit--but what bothered many people was the idea that the people who can tell us what to do are not our neighbors. They're not accountable to me or my neighbors, and yet, they have sovereignty over us.

And so, this idea of sovereignty, I thought was quite eloquent. Even though listeners will know, I don't have a religious view of representative democracy. I think it's deeply flawed. Scruton kind of ignores many of the flaws, but he understands there's something precious about it. And, what is literally precious: It's not so much that, 'Oh, it leads to great decisions,' because it often doesn't. It's not so much that isn't prone to rent seeking, because it is. But rather, it creates a feeling among us--those of us who live within a border--that we are part of a shared enterprise, and the powers that be are limited to some extent at least by our work at the ballot box. And, I thought that's important. And, I don't know--yeah, he's romanticized it a little bit too much for my taste, but he says it very well.

Megan McArdle: No, I think that's right. There's a lot of political theorists who talk about this, about the fact that democratic representation always fails, but nonetheless, kind of democracy manufactures this really important thing called democratic legitimacy--right?--which is just this feeling that the stare is legitimate in what it does. And, that that's, in many ways, an easier thing to maintain than, say, the divine right of kings.

I think he is romantic on a bunch of levels.Right? As someone who descended from Northern Ireland, I sort of--when he got to his description of the famine and was like, 'Well, it was kind of mismanaged,' I was like, 'Well, that's one way to put it.' You know, there's like--half of the island died. You might pause a little bit longer there and meditate on the British Empire.

Russ Roberts: Let me interrupt, Megan. Let me quote from the book and you can tie in your point to that. Because I thought this was very relevant for the United States.

British Royal Coat of Arms, lion standing guard opposite a unicorn

This is what he said about England. He says:

We live with two rival conceptions of our past, standing to either side of the central icon, like warring heraldic beasts. On one side there is the proud people, who defended their 'sceptered isle' for a millennium, during the last centuries of which, in a burst of self-confidence, they carried trade, self-government and law around the world. On the other side, there is the race of grasping imperialists, who spread chaos abroad and conflict at home, in pursuit of world domination.

And I think the United States is going through a similar problem, challenge: that our conception of who we are as a nation is a half-full and half-empty--or at best half-full, half-empty--that there's this proud part of us. And, then there's this ashamed part. And, many people have decided to only choose one.

I don't know why it's so hard not to understand that it's a mixed bag and we're trying to do better. But that view is totally off the table for most people. So, your point about Northern Ireland, is like, 'Excuse me: What about that other beast on the other side?' And, you're right, of course. And, he admits it. He admits he's more directed to one side than the other. Sorry, go ahead.

Megan McArdle: I'm actually--well, so--I'm actually sympathetic in some ways to him, despite the fact that my own familial myth-making is on the other side of 'This is just rapacious bastards, the English.' Like, my mother is half-English in descent. I'm only really three-quarters Irish.

But, I think--I wonder--one of the big questions I have is whether, quite apart from the claims about morality and accuracy and all the rest of it, right? Is there something that is for a nation, fundamentally unhealthy about--I think it is unhealthy if a nation is unwilling to admit the bad things that it has done. Right? I think that that is a fundamentally unhealthy thing.

But, is there something really disturbing about the sight of a nation that has decided to only focus on the bad things it did? Where the historical--the professional historians are more and more interested in a narrative of America, that it seems to me--I'm going to be criticized, this is reductive; I'm aware this is reductive--but I think that there is a real truth. There is a truth thread here that I'm pulling on. Kind of where the only good thing America ever did was to suck slightly less than it had before. And, that you can sort of tell history as Americans just being really horrible, but then every so often, they're pushed into being slightly less horrible by the few good people dotted here and there. Right? Quite apart from whether that's accurate; and I would contest that it is.

You have to ask, can a nation survive with that as its core self-conception? Can a nation survive, if most of what you are teaching children is bad things about the country--or, becoming slightly less bad--and that's all you ever teach the kids. Because, I think nations do at some level need to have some self-esteem. And, if they don't, the nation doesn't hold together. Right or wrong, you have to have something that people admire. In the same way that a healthy individual has to have things that it admires about itself, which aren't just, 'Well, you used to be much worse and now you aren't quite so bad.'

I think a healthy nation, to hold itself together, to make claims on each other, has to have a fundamental idea of, 'Actually, overall, we're pretty good.'

And, I think that implicates a lot of things. A welfare state is a fundamentally nationalist project. We're not debating whether we should extend universal health care to people in Chad. Maybe we should, but we're not. We are debating the contours of what we owe to our American neighbors. And, within that context, if America itself is terrible, why would I owe anything to them? Why would I view myself as a participant in this exalted thing that can place claims on me up to and including my life?


Russ Roberts: Well, that's the best argument against national health care I've ever heard. Just kidding, but I know that's not what you meant. Actually what you said, all joking aside, is quite important and quite serious. I've been alluding to this now for a few years that I'm worried about a civil war in America. When you have a large segment of the population that thinks the country is irredeemable--irredeemable; cannot be redeemed;it is hopelessly evil--and you have another group that thinks it's done a lot of great things and maybe it could be better, but it has done a lot of great things. Those two sides tend not to get along. They are not going to get along in political compromise. They're not going to get along if there's ever a national threat that they need to pull together to fight, and if they do, it won't work quite as well.

So, I think it's an extremely important issue. And, I think it rips through education in an incredibly important way. Scruton complains in the book--I don't know, if it's fair--but he complains that the left, the pessimist, England as rapacious, a group of imperialists who sought world domination, has dominated education. And, certainly, in the United States, increasingly young people are taught that America is a horrible place. I would suggest that those are people who haven't been to other horrible places, for sure. Or haven't read enough history.

But, I think it's--putting that--as you also did--putting aside whether, how accurate or inaccurate any one version of this is, I think the question of what it bodes for the country is what's important.

Now, you could argue-- as many libertarians do, and we both have a libertarian streak and have lots of friends who have more than a streak--you could argue, 'Who cares? None of that matters.' If America had to go do some big national project--which it shouldn't, say the libertarians--then it would come into play. But, what's the big deal? What's the difference, if you and your neighbor have different conceptions of American history, say? One of you thinks it's about 1619. The other thinks it's about 1620. Who cares? All that is just emotional baggage. It's part of your identity perhaps, but why does it matter as a country? There is no we, as I've often argued on here. 'That's irrelevant,' says the libertarian. What's your response? Do you have a reaction to that?

Megan McArdle: I mean, look, I am a libertarian, but I've always been--a very smart libertarian who I will not identify because I don't think I was authorized to pass this quote on, but, recently, in the last few years said to me, 'Libertarianism is just a species of American nationalism.' And, I think, more and more there is an element of truth to that. When you meet libertarians abroad, they're different. They'll be like, 'Well, I'm a libertarian, but of course I don't want to get rid of national health care.' Right? Actually, to go back to Scruton, it's quite rooted in our national history. It's quite rooted in the American Constitution. It is quite rooted in the Declaration of Independence and how we perceive the American Revolution--

Russ Roberts: Libertarianism.

Megan McArdle: Libertarianism. And, it is itself a contingent set of developments. Which is, I think, why, while I am worried about the fact that there doesn't--this is not a good moment for libertarians in politics. Right? After 2016, I went to a dinner with a bunch of libertarian lawyers, which may or may not have ended with me pounding the table and shouting, 'We lost. We are the ones who lost this election.'

Russ Roberts: [crosstalk 00:23:58] Oppression[?].

Megan McArdle: This was right after--this is November 9th or something, I was--you know, I think too, that libertarianism spoke to a lot of problems America had in 1980 and 1990, and it speaks less to the problems that people perceive right now. And, I think that eventually it will speak more to them again. So, I'm less worried about the demise of purest libertarianism. For me, it's more of a tendency than kind of the Adam Smith, man of system with all the interlocking levers.

And, because of that, I've always known that I was American. I've always loved the American flag and all of the patriotic stuff. I like singing the national anthem at sporting events. And, I think it's madness when people suggest that the way to deal with the national anthem protests--which by the way I am in sympathy with--is to not sing the national anthem. In fact, I think America needs more empty displays of patriotism, because those are the things that--we need the things that bind us, we need the things that we can all participate in.

Or, I guess I would've said, before the national anthem protests, if there is one thing that is empty of content: Can we all be glad that we won at least one battle during the War of 1812? Right? No one cares about it. Even the British don't care anymore. They burned the White House. They left. They're not even mad about it. So, can we just celebrate this?

And, I think you do need those things. I want to emphasize that I'm not suggesting that we should not teach the horrific legacy of slavery and genocide in schools. We should. And, we should teach people that it was horrific. And, we should also teach people that it is tragically bound up in many of the things, certainly that the history of the 1950s would've celebrated, right? That we now find hard to celebrate for various reasons. The westward expansion and all the rest of it--that those were made possible, partly because our diseases--and I don't actually blame us for this. We couldn't have known, and I don't think there's anything wrong with coming here to trade with the Native Americans if you don't realize you're about to give them European plagues that will just decimate them. I can't morally blame people for that part of the expansion, the post-Columbian expansion. But we did: the Columbian expansion brought European diseases here and caused a mass die-off of the people who had been here. And, we should acknowledge that. That everything we have--not in a stupid land-acknowledgement way. I think it's--it's almost borderline offensive: I'm doing this on the land that I took from Native Americans. I just want everyone to know that.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, people announce that now. It's a thing.

Megan McArdle: It's such a weird, weird, weird way of doing things. And empty. It's the ultimate empty gesture. Right? And, I think if you're going to make empty gestures, they should be positive, not negative.

Russ Roberts: Interesting.

Megan McArdle: But, you know--so, I don't want to not acknowledge that whole history and have people understand many things, but I also am against trying to frame every single thing that happened through this. And, there's recently a report, the Tenement Museum in New York, which is built on the Lower East Side. And, the conceit of the museum is that each apartment represents a family who lived there during its tenement history. And, it represents the people who lived in the neighborhood, Irish and Italian and so forth. The spectator just reported that they're going to get rid of the Irish apartment, so that they can have an African American family, which on the one hand is, like, a laudable representation. On the other hand, the Lower East Side never was an African-American neighborhood. What did the Irish do to deserve being turfed out? Right? I think that--

Russ Roberts: Are there Jews there, Meghan? That's what I want to know.

Megan McArdle: There's a Jewish family. There's a Jewish family, too--

Russ Roberts: Oh, phew--

Megan McArdle: Obviously. It's the Lower East Side, Russ.Come on.

Russ Roberts: Your group got pushed out. It could have been ours. I don't know why we got the long straw and you got the short straw.


Russ Roberts: That's fascinating, but I want to talk about the ties that bind us and I'll come back to your libertarian roots and your Irish roots. So, I'll come back to my Jewish roots and my libertarian roots, as well. There are a lot of ties that bind us, right? Many of which we choose. Now, you can choose where to live in some extent. You can't choose where you're born. So, you were born, I think in America.

Megan McArdle: Yes.

Russ Roberts: I was born in America, but as I grew up a lot of the--and I grew up--like you, I had a very patriotic feeling and many times in my life, as I got older, other ties bound me more closely. My religious ties, say, to my synagogue and my local Jewish community. It could be my ties to my colleagues at work in my economics department. And, we were trying to achieve certain things.

And, I think what's interesting, is there is a place where they connect and it's in the Burkean--that's Edmond Burke--the small platoons that Burke talked about and the civil society that de Tocqueville wrote about when he came to the United States. And, I found this fascinating, because he was writing--Scruton was writing about England, but he could have been writing about the United States. He talks about all the voluntary associations we have: they could be religious, they're often hobbies, they're sports. There's a lot of that in America. There's a lot of it in England.

And, I think libertarians often say, 'That's what counts, not the national ones.' But, I think what Scruton's point is, and I think this is quite challenging to most of my worldview--and I take it seriously, and I found it thought-provoking--is that there is this national thing that allows that. And, it's not just the laws: It's the inherent culture of trust that gets created. It's the inherent associations we have with each other rooted in place, in physical place, not just some abstract thing. And, that borders matter more than we like to admit.

Megan McArdle: I think that that's right. There's nothing to make you feel like an American like living abroad, right? Suddenly you realize all of the ways in which you are very much not like the people elsewhere. And, there is for me, at least--I love living abroad and I love traveling abroad--but there's always this moment for me when I get into the airport. And, yeah, it's big and American and filled with fat people and they're not all that well dressed. And, you look around and you're, like, 'Everyone here ate the same breakfast cereal that I did when I was a kid.' It's just all of these small things, right? But they matter. They matter a lot in the end.

And, I think that that is the thing that the pandemic drove home, but I'd always already thought--is that: at the end of the day--now, libertarians have lots of reasons to be mad at the government and so forth. But, libertarians should also note that the reason they have vaccines is that the U.S. government made sure it happened. And, the reason that they don't have to worry about other people being vaccinated is that the U.S. government guaranteed that anyone could get a free vaccine, if they wanted it. Right?

Russ Roberts: I'm not sure I agree with that, Megan. I'm going to have to push back on that just for a second.

Megan McArdle: Okay. Sure.

Russ Roberts: I think in a world where the government was less involved, we might have gotten the vaccine a lot sooner. It might have had a lot of side effects and killed a bunch of us. I accept that possibility, but the FDA dragged its feet on testing, dragged its feet on lots of things. So, I take the point that governments--

Megan McArdle: Okay, let me--

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Megan McArdle: I think there are two things going on here. Right? One is that, yes, our public health institutions failed radically, in a bad way. Okay. So, we've talked about this in other EconTalk, but the U.S. government did one really, really good thing, which was Operation Warp Speed, which as it said to everyone, 'Look, just build a bunch of factories and manufacture it. We'll make sure you don't lose money.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, that was really--it could have happened privately in different worlds, in different ways, but that worked out well. I agree with you.

Megan McArdle: But also, the price guarantees that everyone gets it, even if they--and if the vaccine cost any amount of money, there would be a lot of people who'd be like, 'Oh, I'm not paying 15 bucks to get it.' That part of it actually worked really well. There are collective action problems here that the U.S. government could actually handle, now didn't necessarily, but certainly could. But, also, just more broadly, even if the U.S. government had done none of this, all of the other governments were going to act like they were governments and they were going to close their borders. And so, the United States couldn't make itself better off by being the only one that just didn't have a government that reacted. And, in fact, we put a lot of money into a lot of stuff that I think did make the pandemic better.

You can certainly imagine that absent a government coordinating role, the early wave could have been worse. There are a lot of critiques of lockdown that I buy. I think the kind of very initial one was not enough, but [crosstalk 00:33:23] people give credit for.

Russ Roberts: Megan, if I was going to give you a really hard time, I'd point out that China had a much stiffer lockdown and did much better.


Russ Roberts: But let's put that--let's stay away from the pandemic. I want to give you a harder question.

Megan McArdle: Okay.

Russ Roberts: I want to riff on your point about coming back to your American airport. And, I am in Israel. I've lived in America for 67 years and loved every--many of those [inaudible 00:33:53] not all of them, but many of them. So, a very proud American, still am an American citizen. Still pretty proud, I'd say. But, I'm now in Israeli. I've got Israeli citizenship and I have a connection to Israel that's different than Bulgaria, because I'm Jewish. You are Irish. Now, it's true that, if you spent a winter in Bulgaria, you might be really glad to come home to people who had the same breakfast cereal as you did as a child. But, I'm curious--because I know you've written about it--and, I'm curious for you to talk about what's meaningful to you about Ireland. Which surprised you, I think, when you first went back there. Because, you're not--your name's Irish, really, I mean, really come on: but you felt more than that. So, talk about that.

Megan McArdle: I also look really Irish. So, I look basically like the feminine version of my dad and--that family's genes are amazing. They all look like--he and his sisters, they all bear this incredibly strong family resemblance, which I inherited.

And so, I had a really weird experience of going back there. I went to cover Brexit subsequent to the vote. I mean, this is when it was actually going to happen; and then it didn't happen, but this was in the spring of 2018. And, I had just started working for the Post, and I go to Britain and nothing happens. So, now, I'm stuck there for two weeks and I don't know what to do.

So, I was like, 'Okay, I think I'm going to go write about the Irish language in the Gaelic speaking areas, Irish speaking areas of the West Coast.' And, I end up--for various reasons, mostly because I already had a plane ticket to Belfast, where I was supposed to be to cover Brexit--I ended up in Donegal, which has the smallest of the Irish speaking areas. But this also happens to be near where my family is from.

So, my family's from Armagh, which is known as Bandit Country and it's on the border of the North--it really should have joined the Republic, but the vote was kind of rigged. This is the county that least belonged in Northern Ireland, when the vote happened after Irish Independence. And, so I go to the town I'm from, which was its own little adventure because people were, like, 'Oh, yeah. The McArdle's are up on that hill. You should go see them.' And, I was like 'My family left during the famine. I don't think anyone's going to remember us.'

But, then I drive up to Donegal and I have these wonderful people at the Irish agency that promotes the Irish language because this is--I mean, the Irish is a somewhat similar situation to Hebrew in that--but different. Because Hebrew had--first of all, they had a really strong founder effect[?], as there's just a few people living there and they all decide they're going to speak Hebrew; and they managed to then come kind of inculcate that in all the newcomers. Ireland went the other way, which is that it was a majority Irish-speaking country until the famine, which disproportionately killed the poorer people who lived in the West of Ireland, where the language was more dominant, because it had absentee landlords and also, the land tended to be poorer.

And so, it's just hanging along on this fringe on the coast now, but there's a really, really strong effort to revive it, which is ironically getting a boost from immigration apparently. I was told when I was in Dublin that parents who don't want their kids in school with, say, Polish immigrant kids are now putting their kids in the Irish-only schools just because they know the only people there will be Irish.

Russ Roberts: I'm not surprised. Okay. Get back to your travel, your travelogue.

Megan McArdle: So, I'm back there and they're telling me--it's the first thing the guy I meet at this agency tells me is, 'Oh, oh. The McArdles. Yeah. So, they're [inaudible 00:37:36] of the O'Neil family and they're kind of--they're a little bit raffish.' And, I was like, 'Raffish?' And, he said, 'Do you know the term border reefer?' And so, he's telling me, just reeling stuff off about my McArdle ancestors. And, then what I realized was, in just a weird way: I look like people there.

Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah.

Megan McArdle: So, I was on the street and someone came up and asked me for directions and I was dressed like an American, but I look like everyone else. This has never happened to me. I grew up in New York, where I don't look like most of the people who live there. And it was a really uncanny--and so I'm in the office where they're promoting Irish and they're all native Irish speakers. So, they're holding meetings in Irish. They're just randomly talking to each other in a way that, like, kids like me who took, like, one semester of Irish at the behest of our parents--I can't really say anything. And, I realized: This is what I would've looked like. This is who the people I would've been around. This is the language I would've spoken, if not for the intervention of a lot of history.

And, I felt a little cheated. I felt sad that I didn't speak the language. I felt sad that I didn't know, because they know the landscape zone. Like, all the rocks have names. All the rivers have names. And, I missed that. And, at the end of the trip I said to the guy, 'I'm definitely going to come back.' And, he said, 'You have to, this is your home.' And, I thought: But, no it isn't, at the end of the day. But, I was sad to miss--and I think this is something that Scruton is talking about and something that American actually--I think Jewish Americans who--it's Aliyah, is to Israel? Is that the right word?

Russ Roberts: Aliyah. [Ah-lee-yah'--Econlib Ed.]

Megan McArdle: You make Aliyah.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Megan McArdle: There's something similar there--that Americans in general don't have that feeling and we miss it. We miss that feeling of this--the gene pool. Basically, in Northern Ireland, except for the influx of Brits, like that whole gene pool is basically, undisturbed since the paleolithic. The neolithic, really. But, I mean for thousands of years. And it was just an odd, uncanny feeling to suddenly find myself in the middle of the gene pool that I was drawn out of.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Megan McArdle: And, that thing, it's incredibly powerful. And it is actually--like, I was sad to not have it. And, at the end of the day though, I don't because I'm American. And that's a totally different kind of--it's very-place based, very culture-based, but different.

And, I think, that really stuck with me. And, I think that that is something with Judaism as well, right--is that: this is a people who has maintained themselves for thousands of years, despite having their home destroyed by the Romans and the people scattered deliberately. After following the Assyrians and the Babylonians. And to have maintained that, that blood connection, but also this deep creedal[?] connection to a book, in a way.

And, I actually, think that the danger of Scruton, there's a quote that really struck me, which I will now try to read school-teacher fashion to the class, that I don't miss the mic.

But, he says, 'We who are the heirs to the labor of people, such as Goethe, Mendelson, Wordsworth, Chateaubriand, and so forth, often fail to appreciate their achievement, which was to transform religion into culture and a hope of eternity into a vision of coexistence in the here and now.' And, I was really struck by that. And, I also wonder, if that isn't just so specifically British.

Russ Roberts: It could be.

Megan McArdle: It's so specifically, but I wondered what you thought of that specifically, because I believe you observed the Sabbath?

Russ Roberts: Yep.

Megan McArdle: And, you are in a country that it is kind of founded on something very different from that.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I thought what he had to say about religion and how it--I don't know, if he was a religious man or not, but he talks about--he certainly had some religious feeling. I've read some of his other books, but I'm not an expert on Roger Scruton in any way.

But, he argues--perhaps not correctly, but interestingly--that there's a residue of Christianity in the British people, a sense of trust, a sense of neighborliness, kindness. A desire to be a better person. I don't know, if that's true, fair. Who knows? I'm not interested in that. But I think that is part of the British character to some extent; it's part of the American character. It's not part of every character, for sure--every national character. There are different kinds. But to come back to your question about Judaism and here.

I had a very similar experience here, it was very early when I got here. We've been here now five months, and we're going to have an episode coming up soon, where I talk about the move and what it's like to be an immigrant. And, it's been a very incredibly, interesting experience. But, early on in my time here in Jerusalem, I ran into someone who I don't know well--I'd met him once, five years ago in some setting--and he said, 'Oh, good. You made Aliyah.' He said, 'Welcome home.' And, you talked about Judaism being a--and I've always hated that, by the way, that 'welcome home' thing. Like, the idea that I don't belong in America, I really belong in Israel, is sort of the implication of that. I'm not going to talk about that. But you talk about Judaism being about a people and a book. It is also about a land. And to tour here, to travel here to the North, say, to the Golan and to go to the town of Gamla, which the Romans destroyed about 2,000 years ago and find a synagogue, is sobering. It pulls you up short. You don't expect it. The Jews have been here for 2,000-plus years. More like 3,000-plus years. Is unlike anything, as you say that I'm used to experiencing as an American. My American family came to America in the late 19th century, early 20th century, like most Jewish families did. But I always felt American. Because that's what's beautiful about America.

Or at least has been. I think that's up for grabs now and I think that's a tragedy. But the idea was, you weren't a Jewish American, you were an American. You weren't an Italian American, an Irish American. You might have a heritage you were proud of, but that heritage was a heritage. It's not your identity. You subsume that identity and that may not--it's an ideal, it's a vision.

And, what you're suggesting is that it comes at something of a--maybe of a cost. It's more complicated than that. And, by the way, we had Michael Brendan Dougherty talk about this from an Irish perspective. It's a lovely episode; you can find it in the archive; we'll put a link up to it.

But, I think this question of home--and I'm going to make it a little different than home. I think it's really about belonging. And, to really go back to the challenges I think America and other countries are facing now: It's a problem if you don't feel you belong.

And I think--obviously, if you're black or other minority or oppressed group of the past and maybe of the present--maybe different amount, but it doesn't matter--you can't belong, or you can't belong in the same way.

As an immigrant, can you belong in the same way? You want to. I mean, I think that's clearly part of the American dream. It's not about owning a house. It's about becoming part of the same team. It's about being part of the same group. It's about rowing together in the same direction.

Again, you might not be rowing anywhere and that's maybe kind of silly, but I think in 2021, national identity has become a phenomenon, whether one likes it or not. People care about it. You might argue they shouldn't, but they do care about it. And, it's a part of who we are. The name of the Scruton book is, Where We Are, but it's a part of who we are.

You talked about libertarianism losing the election in 2016: most of the libertarian counterpoints and counter-arguments to these kind of concerns are irrelevant. People don't feel that way, the way the libertarians claim they do, or should. It's not on the table.

I'd say the same thing about economics, by the way. I think economics, as a contributor to public policy has been incredibly subsumed in the national debate. It was front and center for decades, starting in the 1970s, really, you could argue. And, now it's like, who cares? We'll care again, trust me.

Megan McArdle: We'll care again.

Russ Roberts: We will care again. And, it--

Megan McArdle: Economics has a way of making you care, as you saw.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, exactly. But, right now, it doesn't have that salience that identity has for my most people, or belonging. I just think--anyway.

Megan McArdle: And, I think there's a couple of things that are worth noting about that. And, I think the first thing is that identity becomes more important when you're not getting constantly richer. Right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Megan McArdle: It is--that, identity is your insurance, if you don't have financial insurance. And so, the more you feel like maybe the future is just not infinitely getting better, probably the more you need identity.

But, I also think there's something that you talked about, about how, you know, blacks or immigrants, that they feel excluded from the national identity. Right? And, I think that that's obviously true. And I think we are trying to rectify that, which is good.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, for sure.

Megan McArdle: But I also think there's another thing--and I'm going to speak carefully here because obviously, I don't want to kind of just--but, you know, my dad comes out of this. My mother's family--her mother's family--has been here since before the Revolution. And she was a Daughter of the American Revolution [DAR]. Not the weird, creepy, racist part. The part where, like, it's just old ladies sit around, like, trading little, like, Betsy Ross samplers, and stuff. This is the Northern DAR, not the one that wouldn't let a black woman perform in the DAR Hall down here.

And so, then there's my dad's family, which went to Charlestown, moved to Charlestown in Boston; basically stayed there forever. My grandfather had a business there. But the family--his parents moved to West Roxbury, which is a suburb. He went to Roxbury Latin, which is a fairly, fancy private school and--

Russ Roberts: South side of Boston.

Megan McArdle: It's south side of Boston. Yeah. Sorry, I should've made that clear. But, Charlestown, the place that he left and then a lot of the middle class Irish families left was also the place that had one of the worst busing riots. I mean, it went on for a year. There's a great book about it--

Russ Roberts: Riots upset about the busing of black students into their neighborhood.

Megan McArdle: Of black students during integration in the 1970s. And, it becomes a whole controversy. I won't get into that here. It's too much.

But, one thing that I see in that side of my family--and all my father's sisters, they all got advanced degrees and so forth--but, what I see is that they were pulled out of a very ethnically specific milieu that offered something, but was also created by discrimination. It was created by the fact that in Boston, the Protestants didn't want the Catholics hanging around. Right? And it was created--and these ethnic enclaves also, like, for them, the really salient, prior to the busing--when my dad's growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the really salient fights are between the Irish and the Italian kids. Race doesn't even really enter into it. It was a very ethnic place.

And, what I sense in my generation is this sadness of losing that. Is that, for us, it was a much less salient identity because no one cared. I've encountered two instances of anti-Catholic bigotry in my life. And, they both struck me as funny because--I worked at one of those Catskills hotels from Dirty Dancing--and a woman just kept calling me the name of her Irish maid from like the 1920s. And, someone finally said, 'I don't think that's her name.' And, she was like, 'Oh, we always change the name of our Irish maids. The Irish don't care about things like that.' Right? And, to me, that's funny because--'Of course, we don't care about names.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Of course not. Yeah.

Megan McArdle: Those things were funny to me. They weren't funny to my dad's generation because they were real. And, so--but that thing--losing the discrimination--which was good and which enabled my father and his sisters to go out into the world and be successful also meant losing this quite particular, this detachment to a very specific community.

And, I think that for immigrants and for successful black people and for other people, there is this feeling of, like, because they are still in this liminal place where the identity is more salient than being Irish American is in 2020. Right? There is this sense of having to negotiate that: Of not just becoming more recognized as an American by the American community, as should happen, but that, as that happens, as the prejudice and the discrimination lessen, it also actually lessens the ties that bind your identity. They are created--

Russ Roberts: Oh, for sure. Yeah--

Megan McArdle: And, I think this is something that Scruton goes into a lot, which is: Those ties are created by not being able to leave them. Right? That: We like the idea of the social contract, of the chosen community. But that actually--he talks about family. He talks about--there's one quote where he basically talks about that these ties enable us to choose--these ties to family and so forth.

And, I think that that's not right, actually. I think that they kind of precondition our choosing. Right? That, we have to have those ties to family. If you don't have unchosen obligations that you can't shed, you are an in some way not fully participating in the human condition.

And, that beautiful deep communities are created by horrible exclusion. Right? That those things--the exclusion is bad and should end. I'm not defending in any way the exclusion. I'm saying that there's a kind of completely unintended byproduct, which is that you have this precious thing. You have this group of people who are like you, and it's smaller and it's intimate. And, you have all of the things that you love about it. For the Irish, the music. It's not the food, but it's the--

Russ Roberts: It's the drink.

Megan McArdle: There's the drinking. Although, my family's actually--

Russ Roberts: No, not the drinking. Just the drink. Just the drink. Irish whiskey is a lovely thing.

Megan McArdle: Yeah, there's the whiskey, but there's the dancing. There is the language. It's just--it's everything.

And so, to have people scatter and go into wider[?] America and not recognize each other. I mean, like, my husband thinks it's really funny that both Tim Carney, who is a journalist at the Washington Examiner--we know, we're, like, 'Oh, yeah. No, they're Irish. They're Italian.' Right?

To slowly lose that is to lose something important. And, I think that you sense in a lot of the ambivalence that elites have, that, is that--I don't want to let go of that. I want to have that and this. And I actually think that to some extent, I see that in my father. I think it's not possible to have that and this. I think it's actually, you have one or the other; and the more you have one, the less you have of the other. And, I think that's something that people are really struggling with in America, right now.


Russ Roberts: I think that's true. My parents grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. Which--they experienced much more antisemitism. I've experienced very little, and certainly America in 2021 has more frightening things about it for Jews than it had when I was younger. But, it's still a pretty pleasant place to be Jewish, America is. But, my parents would never--if you asked my parents whether antisemitism was a big part of their life, they would say, 'Of course not.' Now, it turned out, intermarriage wasn't an issue in 1950s Memphis, because nobody wanted to marry a Jew. It wasn't like a religious principle to stay married to a Jewish person, to marry a Jewish person. The Jews kept to themselves. It was a very insular, tight-knit community. And, to this day, my mom, who is 89--she knows anyone in Memphis over the age of 80--who grew up in Memphis. They all knew each other.

And that was--we've talked many times on this program: there's wonderful things about it's and not so wonderful things. It's a mixed bag. But it's certainly a piece of your identity that you lose when the world becomes friendlier to your ethnic group or your religion.

And, it's just--like you said, we have a limited capacity to connect in that way. And, we connect the way we can: If we're not getting one, we look for another, if we're not getting it somewhere, we look for it somewhere else.

It's kind of a simpler point, I should make, which is: we look for ways to belong. And, sometimes it comes through our religion. It might come through our race. It might come through our think group, it might come through our hobbies. It might come through our passions. Belonging matters to people. I have to say that, read this one quote though, because I'm going to shift gears, unless you want to say something else.

Megan McArdle: No. Well, I was going to say that this, I think that probably one of the reasons that economics seems less salient and identity more is that those littler forms of identity are attenuating. Right? Religion is declining. Television and everything has been nationalized to an extent that people aren't participating in the same way as they used to, where there would be like local newspapers that were reading--that were geared towards the people who were your immediate neighbors.

And as that stuff attenuates, people are more and more desperate for some identity. And, I think that what we have seen is that, half of the country is kind of looking towards these particularist identities, as smaller subgroups of America. The identity politics, you can call it. But, then you have the conservatives who are kind of desperately trying to reconstruct this national, this big national identity, kind of World War II style identity, because the smaller stuff is missing. And, I think that is a problem. I don't know how to solve the problem, but I do think that it's a problem.


Russ Roberts: That's a great observation. I think--we're in the middle of a great time of turmoil. The loss of religion as a form of belonging and as a sense of identity, is--it's definitely in decline. It's in decline all over the Western World and has been for a long time, but especially in the United States, over the last 25 years. It's a much more dramatic, steeper decline, especially among young people. And that's going to change things. And, I wouldn't begin to predict how that might change things. But people certainly look--you know, I like to quote David Foster Wallace: 'Everyone worships.' It's just question of what. If you're not going to worship the divine, you'll find something else to worship, if you're a human being. That's his claim. I find it a fascinating claim. We'll see how that proceeds going forward.

I just want to quote--there's a of couple quotes I want to get from the book, the Scruton book, that I don't want to miss because they're so good. I've confessed on the show before that I really like The Crown and I find that--the soap opera on Netflix. And I confess to it because I have zero interest in the British monarchy. I don't keep up. I'm just--it has never been my thing, not my thing, still isn't my thing. And, I was impressed with how much I was drawn into that show. And, Scruton gave me an idea of why. And, I thought that might be fun to just read and get your reaction.

He says,

In the eyes of the people the assertion of national identity and togetherness remains the principle duty of the Crown; and their willing undertaking of this duty is the reason the Queen and the royal family remain so firmly anchored in the people's affections.

End of quote.

Now, what's fascinating about that quote, to me--first of all, it explains to me some of the reason why the Crown--meaning the British monarchy, the Queen, the royal family--they're not just some weird show. They actually have a role to play. It's not a role that we think of as a monarchy, as Americans. It has a different role. And that show gets at it. It gets at the role; it certainly gets at the role of duty. But, I was just struck by how insightful that is and the idea that people still like the Queen in England. Of course, many don't. And, I suspect many of them are the Anywheres. The Somewheres are big on the Queen and the royal family. And, that's why they matter, because they are the essence of Somewhere. You can't get more Somewhere than Buckingham Palace and the royal family. I thought that was a really important--

Megan McArdle: You can't outsource it. You can't outsource it to China.

Russ Roberts: Well, they used to a little bit. They used to [crosstalk 00:59:35] import[?] the kings and queens. But once they're on the ground, they're British.

Megan McArdle: Yeah, once they were on the ground, they were expected to act like British people. And I think that's that's right. And, yet also, you note, right?: is that in fact, that these guys have ties to everywhere, which is why hemophilia is so distributed throughout the royal families of Europe, because they're all so interbred.

And so, I think that that's actually an interesting point, is the ways in which the monarchy has both been a focal point for this affection and this Somewhere-ness, but also has been a way of tying the Somewheres, through birth and through everything else, to other places within Europe to build alliances that way. Very atavistic way to think about things. And, yet, I think still matters: that these guys all like go to each other's weddings and so forth actually does matter a little bit. It helps create this kind of European feeling that Scruton is ultimately kind of saying, can't exist or at least doesn't exist right now. This feeling of Europe as a real place, as a Somewhere that we all belong to. But, maybe they need more royals, not less, more royal pomp.

Russ Roberts: They're dropping like flies. They're abdicating, they're leaving town. It's a hard job, as the show illustrates really quite, quite eloquently.


Russ Roberts: I want to take an issue now that Scruton raises that I have to confess it makes me uncomfortable, but it's fascinating to me. And, again, he makes the case quite well. At one point, he contrasts the London skyline with the Paris Persian skyline. The London skyline, he argues, is ugly. It's jagged. He compares it, I think, to a bunch of teeth. A bunch of modern buildings built by finance companies on the Thames and also nearby that he evidently doesn't like. It certainly doesn't look like it looks--my favorite counterpoint to this would be, say, the London of Mary Poppins. You know--you have a certain look and feel of what London should look like; and that's gone. Not totally, but a lot of it's been destroyed and replaced by other things.

And, as economists and often as libertarians we say, 'And that's good, change is good. Dynamism is good. It's great.'

Contrast that with Paris. Paris has strict regulations about--not in all of the city, but in a good chunk of the city--strict regulations about building height and what buildings have to look like. And, I think they have to get washed a certain number of times. Things that we as economists often make fun of or criticize. As a result though, there's a certain look and feel to it that is--I've often criticized as museum-like. But sometimes it's nice to be in a museum.

Megan McArdle: Sure.

Russ Roberts: If I were per Parisian, I might not feel that way. But, it's an interesting question. And similarly, he gets a lot of mileage out of both the French and in the British countryside, English countryside. That, they have a certain look and feel, and there's an argument for preserving them. And, I think most of the argument comes from rent-seeking farmers who want government money. But it's worth thinking about the fact that there are people, for them, that's France, or that's England, or Scotland. It's just an interesting question of whether there's an argument to be made for a certain creation of a look and feel that would not emerge from a free market, multiple choices by free citizens, but rather by a more top-down approach. What are your thoughts on that?

Megan McArdle: Uh, yeah. I was really struck by his argument--that in fact a lot of these restrictions create what he calls 'social capital'. And, he then argues that this is actually, like, economically-friendly because it's creating all this social capital. I'm still grappling with that--

Russ Roberts: Creative. Very creative. A bit of a stretch for me, but I thought it was interesting.

Megan McArdle: I also think it was a bit of a stretch.

I would also note something, though: is that the thing he hates about the London skyline--I was just actually reading that someone was saying that the parts of London that are bombed are much more productive than the parts that weren't during World War II, because that was where people could build. It was where you get around the quite onerous British planning restrictions.

But, I would make another point, which is that the reason that Paris looks like it looks and the reason London looks like it looks--it has so many new buildings, kind of peppered in among the old--is that France surrendered to Germany and Britain didn't. And so, France--Paris--didn't get bombed into submission, and Britain did.

And so, in some way, the very thing that he is objecting to was created by the place-ness of Britain and the incredibly strong. There's also--like, militarily, it's harder to invade an island than France; but I think that France did give in, and prevented its country from being destroyed; and Britain could have and didn't. I'm in favor of this, to be clear. And, that that--you have to sort of accept the good with the bad, which he sometimes doesn't do. He sort of skips back and forth.

And, I wish he had engaged with that: that the fact that they stood Fortress Britain for so long and endured the blitz was the reason that all of the ugly buildings were built.

Now, I think that Scruton and the architecture critic would argue that we didn't have to build ugly buildings--which I agree with. But, the fact that Britain changed was the fact that Britain didn't change, in some sense.

Russ Roberts: That's a great observation. It's complicated. A lot of the buildings he objects to have been built long after the replacement of the aftermath of the blitz and the destruction of [crosstalk 01:05:39].

Megan McArdle: Right. But, they're built in places in the same way that no one in New York City is like, 'We must [preserve?]--' Well, actually, I'm sure there's someone lunatic in the city, but in general [crosstalk 01:05:45].

Russ Roberts: Yes, there are. I know what you're going to say, but the answer is, Yes, there is.

Megan McArdle: Look at that glass box. Someone wants to build a slightly taller glass box. People may object on the grounds that it'll block their light or whatever, but they're not like, 'Look at that gorgeous glass box. We must preserve it for eternity.' Right? You're getting some of this now around like the 1950s and the brutalist[?] buildings, but just, the public itself just has much less attachment to it. Those buildings than it does to these, the pre-war co-ops that are all over the Upper West- and Upper-East Side. And, there's a reason for that. I think it would've been a lot harder to build those tall buildings even much later, had there been gorgeous, old Victorian neighborhoods standing on those sites and the fact that there wasn't was thanks to Hitler.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. By the way, I was surprised that in Scruton's list of what was good about the British--you know, he mentions trade, law, and who cares what the third thing is? He did mention saving the world from the Nazis. But--he mentions it in passing elsewhere that was the setting for some of these discussions. But, I thought that was interesting.

I think the other tension there, and I wish we he were alive to defend himself, but the other tension is that he honors freedom a great deal in the book. And, he talks about one of the things that makes England great is that it's free. Meaning, you're free to associate with who you want. You're free to join a club. Free to join a religious group. Free to--you could argue, maybe build a building. But, he's happy to squash that freedom when he thinks it conflicts with another goal. And, that's legitimate. He doesn't have to be a purist on that. But there is a tension there that he doesn't come to grips with.

You know, he's basically arguing--he's not anti-immigrant, but he says, 'We should allow people into England who share our respect for British institutions--English institutions.' And, how that would be done is a little easier--it's easier to write about it than to implement it.

So, that's why it's a--I think an imperfect but useful book. It gets you to think about these things, even though, it's probably more complicated. He would concede that, I'm sure. And, it's a short book. Yeah, go ahead.

Megan McArdle: And I think that's the thing that America goes through--right?--is this tension of: We are a nation of immigrants. But, if the immigrants don't assimilate, is that a nation? Right?

And, I think that this conflict can get overblown because I think what you're seeing with Latino immigrants. They're more patriotic often than, like, Progressives in the Democratic Party, right? Who've been here for generations and generations. Is: They think America is awesome. They want the American dream. They want all of the--but how and when you demand assimilation, I think is important. Because ultimately--and ultimately there's an empirical question of: Do people just assimilate because the dominant culture is there? I think often the answer is, yes. And, you don't really have to worry about over the long run.

But, I think--a better argument for [?] to have made is, it is unhealthy to have a nation that is sufficiently unconfident in itself to say, 'No, you--' or, 'actually, there is a way of living here and you do, if you want to live here, have to comply with that.'

And, I think that the kind-of Anywhere idea of nations as hotels is fundamentally unworkable.

The idea that there is this kind of this service provider and you pay to get the amenities you want and so forth, and that any redistributional impulse should be animated solely by this kind of universalist humanitarian goals--I just think that idea of a government and a place is actually a pretty unappealing idea to most people. And, I think even unappealing to them. Right?

I often hear those things argued by the same people who complain that, like, everything--you probably noticed this traveling abroad. I've certainly noticed it: is that in the past 15-, 20-years, everything is starting to look the same. You walk into a bar in Italy and you could definitely be in that bar in Nashville or in Hong Kong or anywhere else.

And it's not--obviously this is an exaggeration. But the proliferation of places like that--of, like, the coffee shops all look the same. They're all Starbucks, they just all look the same. They all have the same potted plant sitting next to the same kind of Danish, modern tables. And that erosion of place, people as travelers, they're getting more and more freedom to travel and less and less reason to actually do so.

Russ Roberts: It's a fascinating point. People say it about America.

Megan McArdle: Yeah, that's true.

Russ Roberts: Atlanta looks a lot like Minneapolis and 50 years ago it didn't. It's a result of technology, trade, TV; the widespread social media, crossing borders.

There's something fabulous about it. And there's something not so fabulous about it. As you point out, it's complicated. I want to encourage the listeners by the way, to go back and listen to Roya Hakakian's episode on coming to America as an immigrant, and also, Lamorna Ash's episode on spending time with a Cornish family, which is very much a story of a Something of an Anywhere. Definitely being somewhere on the Cornish coast, on a cod fishing boat.


Russ Roberts: In closing, does Scruton's book make you more or less optimistic about the future? Or is that not an issue you think about?

Megan McArdle: Oh, I think about that all the time.

Russ Roberts: Why?

Megan McArdle: Why do I think about it? Because, I don't know that I know that I'm worried about us having a Civil War, simply because my understanding from, kind of, people who study this is that civil wars are mostly about having too many young men wandering around and we are an aging country. Also, we have pretty good state capacity to control--right--I think it's unlikely we're going to, like, lose control of parts of Texas or something.

But, I think that the thing that animates that, the sense that the Anywheres have kind of already seceded from the country in some fundamental way and are formed their own little nation within a nation--I think is profoundly--and now fighting kind of a rhetorical civil war with the rest of the country--I think is profoundly disturbing.

And, I think that--you know, it's not like the Somewheres have reacted. I think the way the Somewheres have reacted to this is also profoundly, profoundly, profoundly disturbing. You know, the fact that we're arguing about whether you should let elections proceed according to the procedures that were laid out in the election law, because Donald Trump is too big of an ego-maniac to admit he lost is just--that's where we are. Of course, I worry about the future. How could you not worry about the future right now? This is crazy stuff that I thought we all agreed on--like, this is how elections happen--

Russ Roberts: Hey, Megan. I'm living in Israel. There's no worries here.

Megan McArdle: Well, right. Yeah. This is very--

Russ Roberts: Where--I'm in a peaceful backwater in the Middle East. It's a piece of cake here.


Russ Roberts: By the way, I just want to say--I'll let you close in a sec. We've been talking about the Somewheres and the Anywheres for a good chunk of this hour. And, it's David Goodhart is the author who coined that phrase. I want to give him credit. Scruton quotes David Goodhart, and then uses that distinction. And it's one I'll remember for a long time. But, carry on. I want to give you the last word.

Megan McArdle: Yeah, I worry about it--because it's so particular. Right? I think a lot of what he is saying is right.

I think that the way forward for America, too, is to discover something in itself that can actually be celebrated outright and not merely celebrated as being-less bad than, which is the kind of victory that the Left tends to celebrate.

And then, the Right often does want this kind of mindlessly rah-rah, history taught that doesn't mention all the really terrible things--that the price that other people paid for us to have what we have.

And, which also excludes--you know, it is not nearly as inclusive as it could be of lots of groups that feel historically excluded for good reason.

But, having given those caveats, I think that Scruton is right, that: Any way forward for any country is going to be rooted, not on some set of abstract principles, but on visceral stuff. Because the problem with abstract principles, at the end of the day is that, people can argue themselves out of them as well as into them. Right?

And, that is fundamentally why this is your mates. Why those things have to be part of a nation. And, we really underestimate how hard it was to build nations.

There's a great story from Garibaldi coming to, I believe Sicily. And, his supporters are shouting, 'Viva, Garabaldi. Viva, la i'talia.' And, people thought his wife was named Talia because they didn't conceive of themselves. They didn't conceive of Italy as a thing. That actually making Italy happen.

Russ Roberts: This is in the 1860s, presumably. Hopefully.

Megan McArdle: Yeah. Making Italy happen, making Greece happen, making Germany happen. Making--we can debate the wisdom of that.

But, making those things happen was really difficult. And that building a nation, it doesn't just happen. It's not something that you can count on. 'Oh, the nation's going to be there. Now we're just going to argue about the terms.' No, actually you're always in the process of creating a nation. If you want to have a nation--and, I submit that the Left as well as the Right does want to have a nation--and that the Right should remember that wanting to have a nation means wanting to have obligations, unchosen obligations to everyone in that nation, not just the people that you think are like you.

And, I think about this with something like Black Lives Matter--is that, I've said to conservatives the whole way like, 'Okay, if you don't want to, like, that organization or that argument, then you should be out there when these abuses happen saying: This is America. These are Americans. We don't do that. Because this is America. And, these are Americans.' That there is a way for the Right to make the same kinds of justice claims, but root them slightly differently within the kind of commonality, within the common nation, rather than making them a particular claim against the nation. Right?

And, that, those things have to happen. And, that everyone in the country is less interested in that common project. They're less interested in like, 'What am I going to do to be building up the nation?'

And, I think that, if we are going to survive this as a healthy nation, that is capable once again of moving forward together to do great things, then of course, we're never going to just all agree. And, we're not going to have this rosy--Scruton, I think would also agree that his vision is a little bit rosy. Right? This is always going to be a contentious process. We're always going to be fighting, because: have you been to Thanksgiving dinner? This is what families do, too.

This is what any unchosen particularist obligation means, is that you are going to have a lot of fights and they're going to be really vicious because you can't get away. You don't fight have vicious fights with the people at Starbucks. Because at the end of the day, you can just take the business down the street to another coffee shop.

The worst fights are always with the people that you can't get away from.

But we can't get away from each other. There's no divorce process for nations. We are here and we are going to continue to be here, which means we need to figure out a way to live together and to love each other. Not always like each other, but to love each other and to recognize these common bonds that we do have, that are necessary for making government and making--you know, the alternative--I think for a long, long time. And, the EU [European Union] is part of this project--but there's the libertarian projects. The people thought that the opposite of nationalism was internationalism. Right? And, I think that what we're discovering is that the opposite of nationalism is particularism. Or it is these kind of vicious movements that arrive--the street fighting from the Left and Right.

Those are the things that happen when you do not have a nation that allows us to feel like, 'Okay, well there's a common us and we just kind of can't do that because we're all in this together.' We do need that. It doesn't mean we need a huge overwhelming government state that is in every little business of our lives. And, it also doesn't mean that we need a minarchist state that does nothing. But we do need something. And we need to figure out together collectively what that something will be. Not by trying to rig elections, so that our side wins them. And, not by engaging in this kind of fantasy, where one day you wake up and the other side's just not there anymore, which is something that you've seen quite a lot of in this country.

But, by recognizing that, like, we are all in this together; and at the end of the day--that for all of the--I am as capable as anyone else at pointing out the many, many flaws of all of the Americans who are not like me. But, these are--at the end of the day, they are the people, who when the chips are down and everything goes wrong, these are the ones who will have your back because you're an American and so are they.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Megan McArdle. We've been talking about the book Where We Are, by Roger Scruton. Megan, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Megan McArdle: Thanks for having me, Russ.

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