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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.”

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.


  13. 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.

  14. “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.

  15. 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”.

  16. 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.


  17. Terje,

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

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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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