The dismal science of freedom

The topic for my BrisScience talk tomorrow night is Economics: The Hopeful Science. The name, obviously, is an allusion to Carlyle’s characterization of economics as ‘the dismal science’. In choosing though, I was under the common misapprehension that Carlyle was attacking Malthus, and his prediction of a stationary economy with a subsistence wage, that could be raised only through ‘moral restraint’.

It turns out, however, that the phrase actually occurs in Carlyle’s defence of slavery, charmingly entitled, Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question*, and that the primary target is John Stuart Mill and other economists who favored free labour over slavery.

Also, well before Nietzsche (who disliked Carlyle, but has some obvious kinship with him) we have a reference to the “gay science”,

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

And while I was aware that Carlyle was (correctly) viewed by Fascists as a precursor of their ideas, and that his works were among Hitler’s favorite reading, I hadn’t derived the obvious corollary that his reputation would be revived and his work celebrated by postmodernists in the late 20th century.

Anyway, despite learning that it’s etymologically incorrect, I’m going to focus on the standard view of Malthusianism as the ‘dismal’ version of economics, and make the point that, if economists are generally hopeful about the possibility of combining economic progress with environmental sustainability, it’s in part because we have learned from our own 19th century mistakes.

* First published with “Negro” in the title, but Carlyle apparently felt this was not offensive enough, and changed it for subsequent publication.

49 thoughts on “The dismal science of freedom

  1. Don’t be silly. Neither “negro” nor “nigger” were considered particularly offensive in that day and age, or indeed in the days just before these days. My mother once told me of the shock she was greeted with when she quite innocently asked for some “nigger brown” material in a shop.

    More to the point, though, you might find the introduction to Nassau Senior’s “Wages” interesting; it covers some of the issues of free v. slave labour, and was written when that was no mere hypothetical comparison (he brings in demographic pressures too).

  2. “Nigger” was an offensive term in the 19th century, and Carlyle knew it. Your anecdotal evidence only shows that it was so widespread in some circles as to pass unnoticed.

  3. While welcome for his exposure of Carlyle’s racism, your decision to continue to use Carlyle’s nauseous appellation is regrettable. Even using it to describe ‘Malthusian’ economics as ‘dismal’ begs a few questions, as Sandra Peart has pointed out on her blog in reference to misinterpretations of Malthus:

    “One niggling detail has to be corrected: So obvious, apparently, it was treated as a throw away line. What? Rwanda. The Rwandan genocide was said to be the fulfillment of Malthus’s predictions. Really? It seems to me that Malthus argued the opposite. For Malthus, institutional arrangements matter: with secure property rights, people could foresee the consequences of their decisions and they would limit family size. So, crowding (conflict and death) would not be the result for Malthus because people would resort instead to the preventative check to limit births. David Levy and I have tried to correct this still-widespread misconception of Malthus in our columns at Econlib. Part 2 is called “Happiness, Progess, and the ‘Vanity of the Philosopher'”.


    Would it not be better for you and others to publicise these facts rather than perpetuate the myths that have grown up around them?

    Surely we can write about economics without being so defensive in deference to a racist bigot’s turn of phrase and so inept to be less than positive about economics as a science and not as a journalistic cliché?

  4. “your decision to continue to use Carlyle’s nauseous appellation”

    I’m doing the exact opposite, turning Carlyle’s phrase on its head.

    On Malthus, the original Essay on Population was almost entirely dismal. His discussion of the “preventative check” came later, and was not very useful given that he opposed contraception, so the only checks on offer were delayed marriage and emigration.

  5. “other economists who favored free labour over slavery”

    It’s not that other economists favoured, in the moral sense, free labour over slavery. It’s that they argued that slavery was an inefficient labour institution and had no future for economic reasons. Hence Carlyle thought economics was dismal, because it came to these unhappy conclusions.

  6. No, JQ. If a term becomes unnoticed that way, it is ipso facto not offensive (like “Welsh”, an archaic plural for the word “wog” – which is also inoffensive in its variant “Waugh”). Of course, it could have been offensive to any black people hearing it – but they weren’t around to hear that widespread usage.

    Here’s an example that shows how it was used by someone who was clearly (from context) acting in a very civilised and unprejudiced way. At a state dinner for the King of Hawaii, the Prince of Wales was host and his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II was a guest. The Kaiser objected to being seated lower than the King of Hawaii. The Prince of Wales pointed out that he was either a king and should take priority or “just another nigger and he shouldn’t be here at all”. After that putdown the guest of honour took his rightful place.

    Now, apart from the use of “nigger”, what about that attitude was in any way offensive? It was only the Kaiser who behaved poorly.

    On Malthus, his opposition to contraception makes it clearer what he was illustrating; he would have lumped it under the heading “vice”. He was well aware that checks existed that didn’t fall under the heading “misery”.

    Back on topic: once you find the Nassau Senior material (it’s on the internet somewhere), you might like to consider the accuracy of Carlyle’s economic insights. Apart from in the places where Malthusian limits were already approaching, the British brought in an indentured coolie labour system to replace the labour resources lost by emancipation. It is interesting to compare the statesmanship and wisdom involved in emancipation in a transitional way, with how the indenture system was ended abruptly with many casualties (described by V.S.Naipaul inter alia).

  7. You must be joking PML.

    It’s obvious that they both understood the offensiveness of the term. That’s precisely why the prince used it. The point of the story is that their shared prejudice against commoners trumped their shared prejudice against people with a different skin color.

  8. Prof Q
    As a lawyer (and perhaps by definition an economic illiterate) I have often wondered what description Carlisle would have given to my chosen profession! I would thus appreciate your brief thoughts (or anyone more qualified than myself to profer same) as to what these 19th C mistakes were and, the extent to which the mainstream economic profession (as ropposed to certain right wing think tanks) have recognised them as such.

  9. No, SJ – it wasn’t particularly offensive at the time, although it was somewhat condescending. There’s a lot more evidence around, from a Battle of Britain pilot who called his dog “Nigger”, the origin of the stadium that raised such a fuss recently and was actually named after a player whose affectionate nickname had been “Nigger”, to perfectly straightforward works of literature like “the Nigger of the Narcissus”.

    Quite simply, any reading of offensiveness is projecting current attitudes onto the past. You shouldn’t use false evidence about Carlyle – it muddies the waters.

  10. This is silly, PML. You’re proving that some white people didn’t find “nigger” offensive. The same is no doubt true of most ethnic slurs.

    Read, say, Frederick Douglass (a contemporary of Carlyle) and see how he uses the term.

  11. I find that the term “denialist” can be offensive. However those that weild it don’t.

  12. If you think “denialist” is offensive, try “fraud” which would be equally accurate. JQ is letting them off lightly.

  13. “Denialist” is intended to offend: it indicates that the person concerned is wilfully disregarding overwhelming evidence. Of course, you can cease being a denialist any time.

  14. Thankyou. I will cease being a denialist and now become a skeptic.

    Interesting that you should admit to choosing language to offend. What example does this set for the blog? Never mind that is a rhetorical question.

    I don’t know the history of the word “nigger” very well, however it seems reasonable to judge a person on whether they intend offence more so than if they cause it. I will let the history buffs argue over whether offence was intended.

  15. Terje, you can call yourself a sceptic, but that doesn’t make you one. The output of the denialists is, as SL says, obviously fraudulent, and placing any weight on it is evidence of credulity, not scepticism.

  16. I merely offer my own beliefs which others are free to accept or reject. Fraud would involve an intent to mislead people through lies. I have no such intent.

    You have made it clear that any offence that you cause in this regard is deliberate. It is good to have that clarified. We are not going to resolve this much further here so I won’t hijack this discussion any further.

  17. JQ, Frederick Douglass was slightly later than Carlyle in his heyday, but more to the point he was in a different country in which there were many blacks. Two countries separated by a common language… (Oh, and I have read an abridged version of the Education of Frederick Douglass – you may be surprised to know that “negro” was used in the titles of certain organisations he was involved with).

    What I am trying to get you to see is that you are projecting your attitudes onto the past. Whether your views are in any sense sounder or not, they are no filter to use to make sense of what Carlyle was getting at. By all means criticise what he said and did, but don’t recast those or you’ll end up over-egging your critical pudding.

  18. PML, as JQ pointed out ‘Negro’ was not offensive, but ‘nigger’ was.

    ‘Denialist’ is not a derogatory stereotype. It is not offensive and should not be taken as such. Why would a person who believes that climate change is not happening be offended at being called a denialist? Sceptic in the climate change context is the opposite of Carlyle’s ‘nigger’ in the sense that it is a word that puts a more positive spin on things than they deserve. It is as if, instead of nigger, Carlyle had called his essay ‘Occasional discourse on the angel-of-colour question’.

  19. melanie,
    “Denialist” is derogatory, and is intended to be. The implication is that you are denying what is, and should be known to be, the truth. A sceptic is someone who does not believe but keeps an open mind.
    Denialist – A person who refusal to grant the truth of a statement.
    Sceptic – “One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions.”
    You decide which, if either, is derogatory.

  20. Earlier this year, I got onto a discussion of the true derivation of the phrase “dismal science” with an ABC radio presenter (can’t remember which one) when discussing a paper of mine on happiness. They took delight in introducing it as a paper on happiness by a proponent of the dismal science. In return, I took pleasure in saying “they only called us that because we wanted to ban slavery”. Who knows what the listener made of it…..

  21. Just for the record, the original title of the essay in which “dismal science” was first used was “the NEGRO question”, presumably because Fraser’s Magazine was unwilling to use Carlyle’s preferred alternative. Carlyle commented on Mill’s reply in his journal of 7 February 1850:

    “Nigger article has roused the ire of all philanthropists to a quite unexpected pitch. Among other very poor attacks on it was one in ‘Fraser’; most shrill, thin, poor and insignificant, which I was surprised to learn proceeded from John Mill…”

    Carlyle described the striking West Indian plantation workers as “indolent two-legged cattle”, and jeered at the dismal philanthropists who were “wont … to proclaim … all two-legged anumals without feathers to be ‘free'”.

  22. Andrew R, so a sceptic is someone who is open to the notion that the earth might be flat? My mind boggles as to what is your notion of ‘fact’.

  23. melanie,
    Don’t be silly. A sceptic is prepared to critically examine all their beliefs. A true believer is not – as with a denialist.
    Some truly believe that Marx was an inspired genius whose every word is law. Some believe that Marx was the devil incarnate. A sceptic would look at what Marx said, the results of what he proposed and and then probably recognise that, while what he said might have made some sense the outcomes were not good and so therefore he was, on balance, wrong.

  24. melanie, historically the term sceptic has several meanings. It seems even in contemporary usage, the term is used by the same person to convey different meanings. For example:

    a) “Sceptic – “One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions”

    b) “A sceptic is prepared to critically examine all their beliefs.”

    b) involves cerebral activity while a) involves ‘instincts’ or habits’ (ie no new cerebral activity).

    A sceptical mind would doubt whether the author of (a) and (b) has any idea as to what he or she is talking about.

  25. Ernestine,
    Perhaps you can find the author of (a) by refernce to a dictionary – specifically the one at
    Personally, I prefer (b) as it does involve cerebral activity and is not as harsh as the first. But, as you sometimes do, you are free to supply any position in any cryptic way you choose to.

  26. Thanks for this clarification and extra evidence, Ian C. To PML, while I regard Carlyle as being little better than the fascists who now admire him, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that he was a naive provincial, unaware that “Negro” and “nigger” had very different connotations. Given that he was writing a racist screed in favour of slavery in countries where these terms had very clear meanings, there’s no point in defending him against the charge of being a deliberately offensive thug – you’re making him out to be an ignoramus as well.

  27. AR and Ernestine, I was certainly taking sceptic in the (b) sense. I’m perfectly prepared, therefore, to maintain a sceptical stance towards both the roundness of the earth and the existence of climate change. I’m just not prepared to deny that, since they are affirmed by multiple scientific observations, we ought to act as if they are facts, not theories. The relevant questions now for the climate change sceptic are: how much can we humans influence the process and how can we adapt? The relevant question for the denialist is: how long can we go on pretending? Denialists are engaged in a political exercise, not a scientific one, and nobody can accuse them of the cerebral activity involved in scepticism.

    In a similar vein, when science demonstrates that Einstein was wrong and the universe is actually a hologram, I am perfectly open to the implications thereof.

  28. JQ, I got sidetracked by the Denialist v. Sceptics game. But I wanted to ask if it really matters that econ got it’s dismal name through Carlyle’s racism rather than his attitude to the Rev. Malthus? Malthus was pretty dismal about the prospects of the lower orders and he has been a lot more influential than Carlyle – especially in early development economics.

    On the other hand he seems to have been adopted by environmentalists more recently: there is a lot of dismal neo-malthusianism around in the ‘finite resources’ debate. Meanwhile economics is often charged not with being dismal, but with being over-optimistic. I’d be interested to read your ‘hopeful science’ speech.

  29. Sigh. “Nigger” wasn’t offensive. Not in that era, not in that context. I expect that it would have been offensive applied to (say) Disraeli speaking in Parliament. There’s no point belabouring it further, but it is worth telling people to lok for examples from that era. What I am trying to get people to look at is the past through its own eyes, not through projected values.

    Think of Mel Gibson’s recewnt attempt to cause offence to a particular Jewish policeman. He reached for a convenient insult, but that doesn’t make him antisemitic as such, just offensive – the opposite of where Carlyle was coming from, unknowingly perpetuating an attitude but not being particularly offensive to an audience with effectively no targets in it.

    With regards to Gibson, it’s unconstructive to address a fault that is different from ones he actually has – and the same with Carlyle.

    But as I said, you won’t find the truth of the matter by repetition, nor will I convey it that way. Go and look.

  30. I am not sure at all whether I understand anything from these disussions. However, for what its worth, I’ll put down my understanding.

    a) PML says individual’s morality, as reflected in their writings, need to be judged within the historical context of the time of their writing.

    b) JQ says in times like the present, when some segments in society revive ‘old literature’ for the purpose of influencing current thinking, then the content of this ‘old literature’ needs to be examined through the eyes of the (still) predominant contemporary morality.

  31. I am not sure I understand it entirely either. However PMLs distinction between offensive and prejudiced does see to highlight the possibility that there are two subtly different argument going on here.

    If I understand PML he is saying that a phrase like “all men are created equal” was not meant to be offensive. However by ommitting women it is arguably prejudiced. No doubt many people (ie men and women) of earlier times believed such prejudice appropriate.

    Has prejudice always been offensive? Should it be?

  32. Melanie, I agree. Despite its historical incorrectness, the persistence of the “dismal science” tag is largely due to the fact that Malthusian economics was indeed dismal.

  33. Ernestine,
    Perhaps a way to look at it is that bad analysis is always bad analysis. Prejudiced language changes and, to understand what was meant by the original speaker, we need to deal with that.
    The analysis that “showed” that people originating from sub-Saharan Africa are less inherently able to pursue intellectual tasks was wrong and will always be so. Whether they are called “niggers”, “negros” or “people originating from sub-Saharan Africa” or some other term will change with the times and, to understand whether it was intended to be derogatory or not we need to put it in an historical context.
    Another example would be the word “kaffir” to refer to the same group of people. The word is originally Arabic, meaning “unbeliever” and is not derogatory except to the extent that a Muslim looks down on any unbeliever. In Afrikaans, however, it is clearly derogatory. So, an Afrikaaner saying “kaffir” and an Arab saying “kaffir” means two very different things, even if they say it at the same time and in the same place about the same person.

  34. John, Let me set against your “fact” the statements of some of the Malthusian economists themselves:

    J S Mill, in his Autobiography (1873): “Malthus’s population principle was … a banner … and a point of union among us. This great doctrine, originally brought forward in argument against the indefinite improvability of human affairs, we took up with ardent zeal in the contrary sense, as indicating the sole means of realising that improvability by securing full employment at high wages to the whole labouring population through a voluntary restriction of the increase of their numbers.”

    In his “Principles of Economics” (1847), Mill had said that Malthus’s “Essay” was the “fountain-head” from which “the permanent place now occupied in the minds of thinking men by the question of improving the condition of the labouring class may be dated”. A nd that “no thinkers, of any pretensions to sobriety, cherish such hopeful views of the future social position of labour, or have so long made the permanent increase of its remuneration the turning-point of their speculations, as those who most broadly acknowledge the doctrine of Malthus.”

    Among these thinkers Mill would have included economists such as his father (“The limitation of the numbers … may be carried so far as … to raise the condition of the labourer to any state of comfort or enjoyment which may be desired”: from James Mill, “Elements of Political Economy”, 1821) and James McCulloch, one of the original “respectable professors of the dismal science” (pilloried by Carlyle as “McCrory”) who wrote in his “Lectures”, “the well-being and happiness of society must ever necessarily depend on the degree in which the principle of increase is subjected to prudential control and regulation”.

    In his response to Carlyle’s essay on “The Negro Question”, J S Mill wrote that:

    “To reduce very greatly the quantity of work required to carry on existence is as needful as to distribute it more equally; and the progress of science, and the increasing ascendancy of justice and good sense, tend to this result.”

    It is not surprising that this seemed a dismal prospect to Carlyle, who argued that “The everlasting duty of all men, black or white, [is] to do competent work … for that and for no other purpose was each of us sent into this world.” Thus the “poor indolent blockhead[s]” in the West Indies who would not work were to be compelled to do the work that they were fit for “with benificent whip.”

    Carlyle’s attack on “the dismal science” was remembered, and warmly endorsed, in “The Times” obituary for Carlyle over 30 years later:

    ‘[T]he political economists mumbling barren truisms or equally unfruitful paradoxes about supply and demand; … and liberty made a pretext, in the West Indies and elsewhere, for flying in the face of the great law that, if a man work not, neither shall he eat – these were some of the butts of his scorn and contempt… The novelties and paradoxes of 1840 are, to a large extent, nothing but the good sense of 1881.”

  35. Ian, the crucial point here is the one Mill starts with

    This great doctrine, originally brought forward in argument against the indefinite improvability of human affairs, we took up with ardent zeal in the contrary sense

    However kind Mill may be to his intellectual forebears, the dismal nature of Malthus’ original argument can’t be denied, and wasn’t much modified at any time by Malthus himself. Since he opposed contraception, he only allowed for delayed marriage and emigration. Carlyle correctly poured scorn on the likelihood of achieving stable population by the first route, and the second is only a local expedient.

  36. When re-reading this thread, I find that when I take out the comments by PML, Terje and Andrew Reynolds, the points of discussion become quite clear.

  37. Ernestine,

    Each comment is preceded by the authors name. If you wish to skip the commentary of certain authors then there is little to stop you. I hope that this point does not cause you too much confusion.


  38. It’s amazing how clear you can make things if only you edit them selectively – e.g., G.W.Bush got moral clarity that way.

    But on the Malthusian position, I believe that we should not misread his analysis as a policy recommendation (though clearly it pointed in that direction). Rather, it was a sort of backgrounder/briefing document. He simply analysed all the options available and reckoned that all – in the end, after temporary remedies – led to things that were either misery or vice, according to his value judgments. He considered things like delayed marriage as implying earlier misery, although lesser misery than that caused by fecundity without resources.

    It does all come out dismal in the long run, if you hold his values. What some people see as refutation, in the form of contraception, counts for him as vice – and pressures to indulge in it as misery. The fact that others have other values in no sense refutes his analysis, merely bypassing it. Not only tempora mutantur but also et nos mutamur in illis – and he would have reckoned our changes of values as moral decay.

    But emigration need not always be a temporary expedient; it can happen – and has happened – that destinations get renewed by other people’s troubles. So while all up misery and/or vice remain problems, they need not be for the source countries – just the colonies. Remember, as well as oppressed natives there was the whole White Man’s Grave thing. You can send younger sons to India indefinitely.

  39. “Not only tempora mutantur but also et nos mutamur in illis – and he [Malthus] would have reckoned our changes of values as moral decay.”

    If and only if he [Malthus] would adopt PML’s position in the year 2006.

    The truth is that Malthus is dead and we don’t know what he would think in the year 2006 of his own writings of about 200 years ago.

  40. Actually, we do know what a believing Anglican of that era would think if he miraculously survived into our time – the people of that day were quite clear about what professing anglicans were. What we don’t know is what values someone like him would have, if he had been born more recently and had different formative experiences. But that doesn’t change the analysis, only the utility – so to speak – he would attach to the categories, and possibly how he would have assembled his sub-cases into categories. He certainly wouldn’t have reached for what are now archaic meanings of terms like “misery” and “vice”.

  41. EG,

    PML is clearly qualifying your last prior statement. It is not an answer to a question. We have covered this before but you still look for questions where none is required. PML is disagreeing with your assertion as to what the truth is about Malthus and what he would think of our time.


  42. Terje,

    I really don’t think PML needs your assistance and I certainly don’t need yours.

  43. Ernestine,
    If you were not so prickly about these things you may actually have something useful to contribute. Your education indicates that this may well be the case. You are, IMHO, at the moment just trying to “win” arguments through one-upmanship and putting the others down. This is not, again IMHO, a constructive way to go.

  44. Shall I consider myself chastised? No. I was making an effort to see if you could actually be helpful to the discussion. It was wasted, but I thought the attempt worthwhile. Oh, well.

  45. EG, I cannot be everywhere at once. Pending further information, Terje was perfectly entitled to speculate as long as he did not misrepresent speculations as something more solid.

  46. PML,

    Your post indicated to me that you did not like what I wrote. But this is not the same as you having proved me wrong in your reply.

    If you wish a ‘qualification’ then, given the information at the time and now, it would be a qualification of your original statement (ie create a different problem). Hence my: ‘What is the question to which you provide the answer?’

    Your original statement, which I quoted, was:

    “Not only tempora mutantur but also et nos mutamur in illis – and he [Malthus] would have reckoned our changes of values as moral decay.â€?

    My reply was:

    If and only if he [Malthus] would adopt PML’s position in the year 2006.

    The truth is that Malthus is dead and we don’t know what he would think in the year 2006 of his own writings of about 200 years ago.

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