Megan McArdle on Belonging, Home, and National Identity


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.

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. [More to come, 30:11]