Sunday, July 30, 2006

No Need to Pander to Carlyle's Racism

John Quiggin (‘commentary on Australia & World Events from a Social-Democratic Perspective’) discusses the origins of the ‘dismal science’ appellation to economics by Carlyle in his defence – indeed, celebration – of slavery:

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."

While welcome for his exposure of Carlyle’s racism, John Quiggan’s 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 John 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 a journalistic cliché?

[Read John Quiggin – looks like a lively Blog - at:]


Blogger mus said...

The whole "dismal science" business neglects the fact that Adam Smith was immensely optimistic. It's also notable that economists are among the least dismal of today's scientists, with regards to things like resource exhaustion. The other sciences tend always to see impending doom, we tend to say that there's a problem but that human ingenuity can fix it, and will fix it if governments don't mess the incentives up. More and more I incline towards the view that Malthus made no serious contributions to economics at all. By the time he got to the later editions of the essay he'd added enough scope for human decision making to pretty much wipe out the gloomy argument of the first edition, but he doesn't seem to have realized it (I suspect Sandra Peart might disagree with me on that). His other work on political economy can't really be seen as contributions to the development of the field - his underconsumption model seems not, despite Keynes's suggestion, to have been so much a precursor of Keynesian economics as of the Harrod-Domar growth model. Given that Malthus got so much so badly wrong, why should we be stuck even with the standard view of where "dismal science" came from? Today most people who use that term are trying to deny the existence of resource constraints: to them, economists are dismal scientists because we insist on recognizing opportunity costs and the need to make trade-offs.

Brian Ferguson

9:01 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

I suspect you are right about non-economists seeing economics as 'dismal', more because I think such people do not like the answers given by economists to practical problems.

Even a simple issues such as more cars at the university campus wishing to park than palces for them. The top people favoured allocation based on their 'importance'; the socialists wanted 'rationing' based on 'social fairness'; the economists suggested either rationing based on prices or on 'first come first served'.
This drew the most criticism from 'top people', 'students' and socialists. They are still arguing, a year after my retirement.

9:30 am  

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