How the Dismal Science Got Its Name: Classical Economics and the Ur-Text of Racial Politics
by David Levy
University of Michigan Press • 2001 • 320 pages
$52.50 hardcover; $21.95 paperback
Reviewed by Karen I. Vaughn
For about a century and a half, economics has been known as the “dismal science.” While perhaps few remember that it was Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle who coined the term, the phrase invokes sympathy from those who find economic theory difficult and mundane. What most people do not appreciate, however, is the reactionary, even abhorrent context within which Carlyle made his famous pronouncement.
In this important book, David Levy provides an exhaustive and authoritative account of that context. Levy exposes a shocking truth: the Victorian literary opposition to political economy had less to do with the dreariness of economic theory than it had with the consequences of the free market economy. That is, these Victorians (including in addition to Carlyle, John Ruskin and, to some degree, Charles Dickens) despised the flourishing of a market economy because it provided more goods to the lower classes and fostered equality of persons regardless of class or race.
Levy’s thesis is as surprising as it is provocative. Generations of students have been taught that the Victorian critics of capitalism were the good guys, the defenders of the working class against the cruelties of early capitalist exploitation. By calling attention to the miserable condition of the working classes in Britain through essays, letters, and novels, they were demonstrating a humanitarian concern absent among economists of their day. Levy shows that the underlying view of humanity and society that motivated these Victorian critics was not so appealing as we were led to believe. Often pointing to the Middle Ages as a paragon, they believed that society was composed of a natural hierarchy wherein the lower orders are to be cared for by their betters to whom allegiance and deference is owed. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the Irish and blacks, whom they considered subhuman and incapable of self-governance.
The unapologetic proslavery views of Carlyle and Ruskin come as a shock to the modern reader. While not completely unknown to literary scholars, such ideas tend to be wrapped in a blanket of silence. Levy removes the blanket and exposes such writings as Carlyle’s, “Occasional Discourses on the Negro Question” (1849). In this odious essay about Jamaican former slaves, Carlyle claims that blacks are incapable of managing freedom. They live only for pleasure and are content to eat pumpkins rather than to work to grow the West Indian spices that the “gods ordained” should be their lot. Emancipation of Jamaican slaves, he argues, has left them bewildered and unwilling to work. The only solution is to re-enslave them while reforming the laws to encourage more benevolent masters.
While the call for re-enslavement was extreme, Carlyle’s view of blacks was central to the critics of capitalism. They argued that rather than worry about the conditions of far distant subhumans such as Jamaican blacks, it is more important to be concerned about the plight of the fully human, if lowstatus, British working class. Capitalism, they argued, renders British laborers worse off than black slaves (a claim that Levy proves false), and so their improvement takes precedence.
Such reactionary ideas did not go unchallenged. Levy shows that at this time, slavery was opposed by a coalition between utilitarians (including the classical economists) and Evangelical Christians. Despite their differences, both groups believed that there was a single human nature, implying a universal equality among men. They also held that the utilitarian greatest-happiness principle was 55 equivalent to Christianity’s golden rule. Slavery violated both precepts because, on the one hand, slaves were suffering unhappiness and redressing their ills would increase utility, and, on the other, no one would choose to be enslaved himself, so no one has a right to enslave others. Thus the hardhearted economists and enthusiastic Evangelicals turn out to be the true humanitarians of the Victorian age.
This review can barely scratch the surface of Levy’s scholarship. For instance, there is no room to do justice to his claim that Dickens’s novel Hard Times must be read in conjunction with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to fully understand the nuances of the text. The same is true for the essay in which Levy explores the implications of Adam Smith’s contention that humans are the only species that trades, and that trade is a function of speech and reason. Hence, Levy argues, Smith’s system of economics shows trade to be the logical starting point of economic theory and not rational choice, an insight almost lost to twentieth-century economists.
While the arguments of this fascinating book can be difficult and the reasoning sometimes elusive, the importance of the message and the light it sheds on the relationship between the foundational assumptions of economic theory and a benevolent view of human association make it wellworth the reader’s effort.