Soundbite: Dismal Humanists


The eminent Victorian Thomas Carlyle famously castigated economics as "the dismal science." The epithet first appeared in his 1849 screed, "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question"—in which the "humanist" attacked free-market economists for their role in the anti-slavery movement. For Carlyle and "progressives" such as John Ruskin and Charles Dickens, economics was dismal because it sought to replace hierarchy with democracy.

In How the Dismal Science Got Its Name: Classical Economics and the Ur-Text of Racial Politics, David M. Levy revisits the debate between the pro-slavery Victorians and classical liberal abolitionists such as John Stuart Mill. He discusses the notorious case of Jamaica's Gov. John Eyre, who in the 1860s oversaw the beating deaths of hundreds of blacks. The controversy split British intelligentsia, with Carlyle, Ruskin, and Dickens defending Eyre in starkly racist and anti-market terms, while Mill, T.B. Macaulay, and John Bright pushed for prosecution. Levy, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, spoke with reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie.

Q: Explain the significance of your "Ur-text."

A: In his "Occasional Discourse," Carlyle goes after market economists for joining forces with religious types in the anti-slavery movement. Carlyle defended slavery on the grounds that blacks weren't fully human and that slavery could make them more so. If you weren't really a person, he argued, you could be exterminated. Fifteen years later, in the Eyre controversy, blacks were beaten to death with wire whips—and Eyre was defended by many of the leading lights of Victorian society, who also hated markets.

Q: What were the connections between the contempt for markets and defense of slavery?

A: Markets bust hierarchy. Carlyle also coined the term "consumer sovereignty" in 1833. It was a sneering reference to political economist Richard Whately's exchange theory of government, in which policy is viewed as a trade between something like equals. Carlyle's view of the world was that it should be ruled by hierarchy and the worship of heroes. Obedience to the demands of your superiors was everything. The exchange inherent in markets—rather than the command of hierarchy—was anarchy.

Q: Your next project deals with paternalism.

A: My next book, which I'm writing with Sandra J. Peart, explains the link between paternalism and bias against markets. Economists characteristically think people can take care of themselves. But paternalism is very attractive—it's all about warmhearted compassion, right? We're linking paternalism to fears of parasitism: Why is it that wherever you find the belief in a persistent class that paternalists see as victimizers, you find talk about parasites and extermination?