The surprising origin of the dismal science

In my interview with economist David Henderson, I asked him how economics came to be called the “dismal science.” The source, he explained, was Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth-century historian and essayist. The surprising reason for his coining the phrase? Carlyle was attacking free-market liberals for advocating the end of slavery.

Free-market liberals argued that all men were equally deserving of freedom, so the slaves should be emancipated. Carlyle counter-argued — with strong agreement from Charles Dickens and John Ruskin, two other strong critics of free-market capitalism — that blacks were unequal to whites and so undeserving and incapable of freedom. ruskinGiving slaves freedom, they believed, would lead to dismal social consequences.

Here is a fine essay by David Levy and Sandra Peart with the sorry details: “The Secret History of the Dismal Science. Part I. Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century.”

The image, as Levy and Peart explain, shows Ruskin as a white knight slaying a black man dressed in gentlemen’s finery and holding a book entitled Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith’s treatise being a major work in the free-market capitalist tradition.

cannibals-all-50x80Side note 1: Carlyle was a major influence, if not the major influence, on the thought of George Fitzhugh, the nineteenth-century American advocate of slavery. Fitzhugh argued that negroes are inferior to whites and that capitalism leads to the dominance of the weak by the strong; hence the freedom of capitalism would be detrimental to the negroes, as they would not be able to hold their own and compete; consequently, slavery’s security is a protection and blessing for them. See especially Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All! Or, Slaves without Masters.

fichte-50x71Side note 2: Carlyle was a strong student of German philosophy and literature, particularly of the Kantian disciple Johann Gottlieb Fichte, about whom I have written here.

David Henderson on seven myths of free markets

I interviewed Dr. David R. Henderson after his talk at Rockford College entitled “Seven Myths of Free Markets.” Professor Henderson teaches economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and is a research fellow with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Dr. Henderson also explains the surprising, true origin of “the dismal science.”

For more about Professor Henderson, check out The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey, the widely used Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, or his blog at Econlog.

The above interview is also posted at the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship’s site.