Saturday, November 14, 2009

The evil that poets do -- or, how economics became "dismal". 

Economics became known as "The Dismal Science" as the result of early 19th Century economists taking an unpopular stand in support of the equality of the races and against slavery.

Quoting from William Easterly's excellent Aidwatchers blog, guest blogger Adam Martin...

... contemptible economists -– apologists for markets, purveyors of selfishness -– were the public defenders of racial equality (along with the “Exeter Hall” evangelical Christians).

Then who were the bad guys? The poets: Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and everyone’s favorite literary critic of capitalism, Charles Dickens.

It was Carlyle who christened economics [social science] as the "dismal science", in contrast with the “gay science” of poetry. The context is shocking:
Truly, my philanthropic friends, Exeter Hall philanthropy is wonderful; and the social science — not a "gay science", but a rueful –- which finds the secret of this universe in "supply and demand", and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone, is also wonderful.

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.

These two, Exeter Hall philanthropy and the Dismal Science, led by any sacred cause of black emancipation, or the like, to fall in love and make a wedding of it —- will give birth to progenies and prodigies: dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto!...
Carlyle is arguing here for the reintroduction of slavery in the West Indian colonies.

John Stuart Mill responded, in line with classical economists’ assumption of a deep human homogeneity. Differences between societies are the result of the incentives individuals face, meaning that history and institutions are the root cause of different levels of development.

By contrast, the Romantic poets argued that inherent differences between individuals justified hierarchical relationships -– for the good of the lesser races, of course.

They longed for bygone feudalism when better men cared for their inferiors, while the economists argued that equals should come together in mutually beneficial market exchange...

Economists played this part again in the debate over Irish home rule, arguing that Ireland’s economic backwardness was due to bad institutional arrangements, themselves the result of centuries of British invasions...

In both these cases, economists’ underlying egalitarianism clashed with paternalism of an ugly sort. The “dismal” label should be worn as a badge of honor...