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Wednesday, March 1, 2000

150 Years and Still Dismal!

Thomas Carlyle's Problem with Economics Was its Opposition to Racial Slavery

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.)

Then and now, justification of slavery by any name assumes the benevolence of masters. It is with respect to the claim that slavery is a more benevolent institution than markets that I propose we read the sexual references in the “dismal science” passage quoted above. One of the most effective pieces of economic analysis of the time was Harriet Martineau’s demarcation of the hidden economics of interracial sexuality in the American south. This demonstration, when retold in fictional form in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, devastated the pretensions to slavery owners’ benevolence.

The lack of public prostitution in southern cities—a fact that had been pointed to as evidence of the moralizing effect of slavery in the debates of the time—was explained by Martineau’s extension of classical population theory. Why would a man rent a woman by the hour when he could buy her and keep the children for resale? Colored children, after all, followed the status of their mother. Slave concubinage replaced public prostitution. After Martineau, everyone knew how to see this. And by seeing this, one knew all there was to know about the benevolence of those with absolute power over the lives and persons of their subjects.

Interpreting the Facts

When we view the past through the lazy status quo of the present, we are liable to take as conservative those forces that helped effect this status quo regardless of the direction in which the world was moved. Economists who helped end racial slavery are in modern accounts judged reactionaries by modern readers who find it impossible to imagine that anyone of intelligence and integrity would defend racial slavery. With this failure of imagination comes the inescapable conclusion that the only possible direction from which classical economics can be attacked by someone serious is from the pro-socialist direction.

Of course this failure of imagination is aided and abetted by strategic silence. If a student knows the Carlyle-Mill debate, it is impossible to think of the classical economists as taking the reactionary side in the Victorian debate over social organization. The alternative to markets was not socialism. There were socialist experiments, but there were no socialist economies. The alternative to market organization was slavery. Teachers have to work rather hard to hide this fact. For instance, when students in classes in British literature encounter Charles Dickens’s 1854 Hard Times, with its savage attack on markets and market economics, teachers wishing to present Dickens as “progressive” have to be careful. When they explain why it is “inscribed to Thomas Carlyle,” it is probably helpful to their cause if they not mention that in 1853 Carlyle republished an expanded version of his part of the exchange with Mill under the title Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question. What would modern students think if they knew that the attack on market transactions came from those who idealized slavery for black people?

The Carlyle-Mill debate was a theoretical debate. Ideas do have consequences. The issues stopped being purely theoretical in what historians call the “Governor Eyre controversy” of mid-1860s Britain. What ought we to do about those responsible for an administrative massacre of nonwhite Jamaicans? On the side demanding colorblind justice we find the old coalition Carlyle opposed, antislave Evangelicals and economists now joined by Charles Darwin and T. H. Huxley. In opposition we find all the major antimarket voices in Victorian literature—Dickens, John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley, and Alfred Tennyson—joining Carlyle in making the case that it could not be murder to kill Jamaicans of color because one could only murder people.

The defeat of the Evangelical-economic coalition was complete. Eyre walked; Mill lost his seat in Parliament; the century of administrative massacre began. And the episode is never mentioned when in English classes the stories of the progressive literary figures and the heartless economists are retold.

One of these days students will learn how to read the silence between the lines.

  • David Levy is a professor of economics at George Mason University. His research specialties include the relationship of spending to productivity in research and development, and the statistical estimation of ethics in consumer choice.