Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Tapu Misa on the "Dismal Science" (updated)

In an article in the New Zealand Herald Tapu Misa asks
Since the global financial crisis, I've wondered if even economists understand what Thomas Carlyle called "the Dismal Science".
I would ask, Does Tapu Misa understand why Carlyle called it the "Dismal Science"? It seems strange to me that Misa would invoke Carlyle. There are a any number of errors in Misa'a attack on economics contained in the Herald article  but what I find particularly weird is that Misa, like so many people who wish to attack economics, quotes Carlyle.

This comes from Professor David Levy, writing in The Freeman magazine, who does understand why economics is the dismal science:
In December 1849 Thomas Carlyle published “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” in the London monthly Fraser’s Magazine. In it he labeled the economics of his contemporaries “the dismal science.” In the next issue of Fraser’s, the greatest British economist of that era, John Stuart Mill, responded. That brief exchange—it counts less than 20 pages—is at the very heart of the nature and significance of classical British economics.

While everyone has heard that economics is the “dismal science,” almost no one in economics these days seems to know what aroused Carlyle’s ire. The failing is not Carlyle’s; he is as clear as can be as to what exactly is the problem with economics. It stands opposed to racial slavery. In the passage I quote next—which contains the first use of “dismal science” in the language—the only fact that a modern reader lacks is that Exeter Hall was the heart of organized Evangelicalism, the moral center of the British antislave movement:
Truly, my philanthropic friends, Exeter Hall Philanthropy is wonderful; and the Social Science—not a “gay science,” but a rueful [one]—which finds the secret of this universe in “supply-and-demand,” and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone, is also wonderful. Not a “gay science,” I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science. These two, Exeter Hall Philanthropy and the Dismal Science, led by any sacred cause of Black Emancipation, or the like, to fall in love and make a wedding of it,—will give birth to progenies and prodigies; dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto!*

* [Thomas Carlyle], “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, December 1849, pp. 672-73.
Much of the rest is unprintable in this respectable periodical; it reads like the vile racist screed it is. Nonetheless, if one can bear the racial pornography, Carlyle makes a point of vital importance: the economics of his contemporaries in its idealization of market relationships among equals stands in opposition to his dream of slavery’s hierarchical obedience.

Too often soft-pedaled by those who admire his attack on economics, Carlyle was the premier theorist of the idealized slave society. In opposition to the economists’ supply-and-demand model of human society, he put forward the doctrine of obedience to one’s betters. While he had been making such arguments through the 1840s, it wasn’t until the “Negro Question” that he realized that all white people are “better” than all black people. This certainly made the idealized slavery more attractive for white Britons than one in which they might be on the cutting end of the “beneficent whip”—a phrase in “Negro Question” that Mill singled out for particular attention.

Carlyle idealized slavery in the same way economists idealized markets. To match the economists’ claim of mutual gain from exchange, Carlyle put forward the doctrine of the joys of service to one’s betters. And according to the way things were supposed to work, the common religion would give the details of the hierarchy. (This is why Carlyle and his admirers often had “problems” with Jews; in particular, why we find the Anglo-German writer H. S. Chamberlain cited in Mein Kampf for his rants on the subject.)
Carlyle's article was reprinted in pamphlet form in 1853 under the title "Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question". The rest of Levy's article is well worth reading. For a book length treatment of the subject try Levy's book "How the Dismal Science Got Its Name: Classical Economics and the Ur-Text of Racial Politics". I'll guess Tapu has not read Levy's book.

Update: I see Eric Crampton made this point before me.

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