Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Why Is Economics "the Dismal Science"? The Reason May Surprise You

The strange history of how racists smeared economics

David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart write:

Everyone knows that economics is the dismal science. And almost everyone knows that it was given this description by Thomas Carlyle, who was inspired to coin the phrase by T. R. Malthus's gloomy prediction that population would always grow faster than food, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.
   
While this story is well-known, it is also wrong, so wrong that it is hard to imagine a story that is farther from the truth. At the most trivial level, Carlyle's target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor.
   
Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus's predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact--that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty--that led Carlyle to label economics "the dismal science."

They go on to write:
[P]olitical economists, such as James Mill, Harriet Martineau, J. S. Mill, Archbishop Richard Whately and John Bright … agreed that slavery was wrong because Africans are humans, and all humans have the same rights. … that deep down, we all share the same basic human nature.
    Carlyle disagreed with the conclusion that slavery was wrong because he disagreed with the assumption that under the skin, people are all the same. He argued that blacks were subhumans ("two-legged cattle"), who needed the tutelage of whites wielding the "beneficent whip" if they were to contribute to the good of society.

David R. Henderson quotes this and points out that it was the classical economists like John Stuart Mill, et al, who believed (using the current buzz phrase) that black lives matter.

Peter Groenewegen traces

Carlyle’s description of political economy as the ‘dismal science’ to its origins in an article called ‘The Nigger Question’. This had first been published in Fraser’s Magazine (December 1849) and then, four years later, appeared as a separate pamphlet (1853). Subsequently, it was frequently reprinted as part of his Latter-day Pamphlets (1858) and Miscellaneous Essays (1888).

Once incited, Carlyle rarely backed down.

As background to this piece was the abolition of slavery in the French colonies enacted in 1848, following the similar
measure for British colonies legislated in England in 1834 … It also came not long after the abolition of serfdom in Austria (which likewise occurred in 1848) … By the end of 1849, and also during 1853 [however], the institution of slavery continued as a going concern in many other parts of the world. The cotton plantations of the southern states of the American Republic are a well-known example; as are the plantations of the former (or continuing) Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch colonies in central and southern America and the East Indies, and, more generally, in Africa. Despite its abolition by Britain and France, slavery continued to thrive for some time as a nineteenth-century
mode of colonial production, as did the slave trade in Africa which was so frequently its prerequisite. ‘The nigger question’, to use Carlyle’s title, remained a highly topical issue in social and political debate for some time.

And Carlyle was on the wrong side of that issue, criticising the political economists who denounced slavery as following a dismal science for for doing so.

1 comment:

  1. After observation I find that formal modelling is hard. Epic research sometimes make one assumption when we would rather make a different assumption, just because the first model is easier to solve.

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