You're So Vain (If You're a Plato-like Hierarchalist)


Over at Economic Principals, David Warsh has a stellar review of David Levy and Sandra Peart's great recent book, The Vanity of the Philosopher, which charts the movement away from "analytical homoegeneity" favored by Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and other classical liberals and toward "analytical hierarchy," which attempted to create a scientific understanding for why some groups of people were supposely inherently inferior and hence deserving of rotten treatment. Summarizes Warsh:

Peart and Levy trace the peculiar forms that racism took in England—the equation of the Irish and the Africans as inherently inferior races; the notion that to seek self-rule was to step out a natural chain of hierarchy and to "devolve" into a still lower position on the scale; the strange three-way alliance among the classical economists, evangelicals and Jews that led to the abolition of slavery. They describe the gradual transformation of the heterogeneity view, first into social Darwinism, then into eugenics movement, and the policies that flowed from it: immigration strictures, sterilization, and, eventually, mass murder. The postulate of hierarchy is "extraordinarily pliable," the authors note: "'Inferior' becomes any group who is presently out of favor with the analyst."

The whole article is here and is well worth reading (as is the book itself), especially if you're into academic economics and its fetishization of mathematical precision. Levy and Peart do great work in rediscovering both how Victorian "progressives" were actually the vilest racists of their day and underscoring the role of classical liberal political philosophy in raising second-class citizens to something like full participation in society.

I interviewed David Levy here about his great book How the Dismal Science Got Its Name, and he and Peart wrote about H.G. Wells' jones for eugenics for Reason Online here.