≡ Menu

Proudly Dismal

Tomorrow’s (Oct. 2nd’s) New York Times Book Review published this letter of mine:

Reviewing “American Dreamers,” Michael Kazin’s paean to the country’s radical left, Beverly Gage echoes Kazin by including the abolition of slavery among the great achievements of leftists — an example of their “utopian spirit” (Sept. 18). Such radicals did call for abolition, but radicals of a very different sort — thinkers who offered a new understanding of how societies hang together and prosper without the centralized commands that Kazin’s leftists so extol — also lent their influential voices to the cause of abolition. These radicals were classical economists.

It was economists’ prominence in the abolition movement that led Thomas Carlyle, in an 1849 essay, to defend slavery and ridicule economists as “rueful” thinkers, each of whom “finds the secret of this universe in ‘supply and demand,’ and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone.” Economists’ advocacy of freedom, even for slaves, so incensed Carlyle that he gave it, in the same essay, a nickname that — considering its provenance — economists should forever wear proudly: the “dismal science.”

Fairfax, Va.
The writer is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

Of course, the pioneering research from which I learned the above fact about Carlyle was done by my GMU Econ colleague David Levy and his long-time co-author Sandy Peart.  See also this book.