Friday, September 29, 2006

How Not to Be Invited to Visit Cambridge

Gareth Stedman Jones at Columbia University's ‘Reclaiming Adam Smith Conference’ at the Centre for History and Economic (Cambridge), where he is also Professor Political Science, and a fellow of King’s College. In short, they do not come much higher in British academe.

This he demonstrated eloquently in his paper, ‘When Did Smith Join the Neo-cons?’, which gave a highly competent and ranging analysis of what happened to Smith’s reputation among both left and right in the century and more after his death in 1790, with more focus on the early part of the 19th century.

There is not much more I can say about his contribution without breaching the protocol of the conference against citing or quoting from the conference papers. However, in every other paper this request is included below the title, but in Professor Jones’s paper it is absent. Does this mean I can refer to it or not? This is quite a poser, with caution suggesting not and the recklessness of retirement suggesting otherwise.

However, despite my retirement, and no longer a young academic ‘who lived dangerously’, as a professor-mentor once cautioned me privately at my first promotion, I shall desist from slipping between a busy contributor’s omission and commenting generally (and ‘Ken’ from his heavenly vantage point can smile indulgently that I have finally heeded his advice of 32 years ago).

In so far as I do comment on three minor matters, I shall plead for forgiveness rather than prior permission. After all, the paper is as one expects from a Cambridge Professor and judging by his physical ‘presence’ I take it that Professor Gareth Stedman Jones is well able to look after himself.

The most minor of comments is that his paper was poorly proof read, if read at all. This is not important in Blogs, or at least not as important, as it is in conference papers. The paper was finished on 15 September, probably against a deadline and no doubt Gareth was extremely busy. But I noticed no similar ‘typos’ in the other papers.

The second minor comment relates to the date of Adam Smith’s death. This could be a slip under the pressure of delivery, though among Smith scholars it was bound to be picked up when he first talked of Smith’s death in ‘1792’, instead of 1790. When the same error of his death in 1792 was repeated later in the talk I wondered.

My third and last comment is less than ‘trivial’ but again not earth-shattering. Gareth made three references to the ‘dismal science’ without once drawing the attention of the audience, not many of which were economists, to the literary origins of the term in Thomas Carlyle’s 1849 pamphlet of his defence of slavery and his brutal criticism of John Stuart Mill’s defence of the humanity of negroes taken into slavery in the West Indies and some states of the American Union.

Carlyle dismissed economists for their ‘dismal science’ because J S Mill recognised negro slaves as human beings on the same standing as white Europeans. Carlyle wrote this pamphlet under the title of ‘An Occcasional Discourse on the Negro/Nigger Question’ (depending on which edition is quoted). It had absolutely nothing to do with the economics of Ricardo or Malthus, or Bentham, and, we must note, emphatically nothing to with Smith’s account of economics in Wealth of Nations.

I spoke privately to Professor Jones immediately after he had finished speaking. He noted what I said, or rather what I started to say, and dismissed my concerns, saying he was only quoting the usual relationship credited to ‘dismal science’ and was perfectly aware of Carlyle’s role.

I returned to my seat suitably chastened by the professor’s authority, but was not happy that his reasons for repeating three times without mentioning the same false perspective on the origins of ‘dismal science’ was an appropriate justification for his choice of words to an audience of fellow academics.

● For an authoritative survey of ‘The Secret History of the Dismal science: economics, religion and race in the 19th century’ by David M Levy and Sandra Peart see:

●For a downloadable academic paper on the origins of the ‘dismal science’ in Carlyle’s racist pamphlet see:

●For an acknowledgement of Carlyle’s awful invention of the ‘dismal science’ and a case for keeping it in circulation because Ricardo and Malthus were dismal, see:

● For a recent rebuttal of its wrong use in 18th century economics and its correct origins in Carlyle’s pro-slavery criticism of J S Mill, whiule throwing it back defiantly see:

Need I say more?

I shall discuss Istvan Hont’s contribution tomorrow.


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