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How the Dismal Science Got Its Name: Classical Economics and the Ur-Text of Racial Politics

Author(s):Levy, David M.
Reviewer(s):Engerman, Stanley L.

Published by EH.NET (December 2001)

David M. Levy, How the Dismal Science Got Its Name: Classical Economics and

the Ur-Text of Racial Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,

2001. xv + 320 pp. $52.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-472-11219-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Stanley L. Engerman, Departments of Economics and

History, University of Rochester.

David M. Levy, Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University

and Research Associate of the Center for the Study of Public Choice, has

written numerous articles and books on the history of economic thought, works

that are most imaginative in their arguments. How the Dismal Science Got

Its Name is a collection of twelve related essays, six previously

published, concerned primarily with several leading mid-nineteenth century

English critics of capitalism, contrasting their ideology with that of some of

the major classical economists.

The major villain for Levy is Thomas Carlyle, who originated the title of

“Dismal Science” for economics, as well as providing other criticisms of the

economic beliefs of that time. Other literary figures under attack are John

Ruskin, Charles Dickens, and Charles Kingsley. The basic charge is that these

men, critics of capitalism, were racists, anti-Semites, and elitists. Levy’s

thought was first moved in this direction by comments of Earl Hamilton at the

University of Chicago. These points are not themselves novel — as readers of

Thomas Carlyle’s 1849 essay, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,”

long have known. (The word Nigger had been substituted for Negro for an 1853

reprinting.) That essay, and the rebuttal it drew from John Stuart Mill in

1850, have become staples of the debates on British West Indian emancipation

and racia1 differences in the nineteenth century. What Levy has done is to

make these arguments not an isolated aberration as some Carlyle defenders

argue, but rather a central part of his views as they relate to capitalist

society. Thus. according to Levy, there is a clear link between proslavery

racism and anticapitalist thought that has been overlooked by many subsequent

scholars. They have been led to classify the classical economists as “enemies

of humanity” rather than being humanistic and egalitarian as Levy, and several

other authors, contend. But, of course, to show that Smith and the earlier

classical economists were more humane than some believe currently is not that

novel an argument, nor does it mean that today’s classical economists are

necessarily to be considered as “friends of humanity.”

It is c1ear that the critiques of capitalism have come from at least two

different ideological directions. There is the ega1itarian critique, concerned

with the inequalities of income and wealth, which are seen as the outcome of

market capitalism. Then there is the elitist, more conservative, attack on

capitalism for destroying culture and creating a degenerate population of

individuals not able to make the right (by elite standards) choices in the

market. To those who believe in the advantages of hierarchy, consumer

sovereignty and market egalitarianism pose a major threat. This form of

criticism of capitalist society has a long, and continuing, history, and its

anti-democratic tendencies have been frequently noted. For some this failure

of individual tastes represents an unchangeable outcome, but to others the

extension of education could provide a desired solution, which would make

consumer sovereignty acceptable.

The question of proslavery racism among the critics of capitalism may also not

be as sharp a distinction as Levy argues. It is not that the critics were not,

by today’s standards, or even by the standards of that time, racist. The

problem is in trying to find any at that time who were not explicitly or

implicitly racist. The distinction would be between those who regarded racial

characteristics as genetic and not changeable, and those who believed that

with the passage of time, and the expansion of education and labor, the marks

of racial inferiority would be eliminated. At times the argument about

proslavery beliefs seems to shift ground, as Dickens, usually placed in the

antislavery camp, is considered somewhat proslavery, both because he thought

slavery could be reformed so that immediate abolitionism was not necessary,

and also because his Hard Times pointed to the greater evils of wage

slavery in contrast with chattel slavery. By such criteria, of course, the

percentage of the British population to be considered proslavery can be

greatly expanded.

The focus on the proslavery belief of the critics of capitalism is the

most-frequently discussed issue in this book. There are, however, other, quite

interesting and informative discussions, of Mi1l, Macauley, and Smith — three

of the heroes because of their concerns with the diffusion of the benefits of

economic growth, as well as Harriet Martineau and Bishop Berkeley. At times

the concern with language leads in unclear directions, but, in general, this a

very useful and thought- provoking contribution to the study of the history

of the “Dismal Science.”

Stanley L. Engerman is co-editor (with Robert Gallman) of The Cambridge

Economic History of the United States.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century