Monday 9 January 2012

Dismal Science: Mill and Carlyle.

With a negative connotation, the term "dismal science" has been widely used to describe economics: a recent Google search for that string returned some 2,140,000 results.

But is that connotation appropriate?

Some have argued that it is not:
"I have outlined above the true circumstance in which Political Economy (or Economics) was first labelled 'The Dismal Science'. It is a circumstance we should draw to the attention of our students. They, like us, can be proud to be associated with the profession which was the target of Carlyle's scorn." [1]
Thomas Carlyle [A].
According to this view, the "dismal science" label may be popular, but it is unfair: it would be based on the wrong belief that Thomas Carlyle used it to oppose Malthus' population theory.

J.S. Mill [B]
In reality, proponents of this view continue, it was first used against John Stuart Mill and like-minded figures during the infamous Negro Question debate. In this controversy Mill defended the abolition of slavery on economic grounds; Carlyle opposed him, and according to this view, found economics "dismal" because Carlyle supported slavery:
"At the most trivial level, Carlyle's target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus's predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact-that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty-that led Carlyle to label economics 'the dismal science'." [2] (Emphasis added).
Other, slightly less damning, more nuanced pronouncements on Carlyle have been made. According to these views, Carlyle was to some degree motivated by opposition to the political economy advocated by Mill and the classical liberals. [3]

It is not controversial that the epithet was used by Carlyle in the context of the Negro Question debate, as stated above; however, in my opinion, it does refer to Malthus' population theory, at least tangentially. Other authors have reached similar conclusions (see [4]).

Anti-slavery campaign medallion,
by Josiah Wedgwood, 1787 [C]

Nevertheless, regardless of whether it alludes to Malthus or not, that is not the key issue in the paragraph quoted above. Carlyle's alleged racism, proponents of this view seem to argue, is clearly the key issue.

In other words, Carlyle's beliefs/motivations are central in establishing whether the "dismal science" epithet is justified. At one hand, if Carlyle was motivated by a repudiation of Malthusian thought then the term "dismal science" would be justified, seems to be the premise (box A in the diagram below). But Carlyle was not motivated by a repudiation of Malthus: he was motivated solely by racism (box B). Therefore, the term "dismal science" is not justified (box D), the proponents of this view conclude.

At the other hand, if the "dismal science" epithet is not justified, then Mill and economics, by extension, are vindicated (box C), is the final but unstated assumption. Therefore, [economists] "can be proud to be associated with the profession which was the target of Carlyle's scorn".

The following diagram schematizes the whole reasoning:

It is my contention here that:
  1. Even if one were to accept that reasoning, it is easy to show that Carlyle had reasons beyond racism to consider political economy dismal. That is, I intend to show that B is false.
  2. However, the reasoning is fallacious in itself: it is logically flawed. Ultimately, Carlyle's shame does not imply Mill's virtue.
  3. Even if "Mill's virtue" could be ascertained, economics as a whole cannot be evaluated on the basis of any one single theoretician or group of individual theoreticians, regardless of merits.
  4. More importantly, both sides of the controversy were ostensibly defending high-minded positions, but in reality both sides were equally disingenuous.
In this piece I will attempt to demonstrate a valid reason to consider political economy dismal, in Carlyle's argument (i.e. point 1, above). Then, I will tackle point 2, the issue of the fallacy mentioned above. Point 3 should be obvious and requires no further elaboration. After that, I will explain why I believe both sides were equally disingenuous, that is point 4.

Finally, I will give a brief sketch of the aftermath and conclude.

Section 1: Carlyle's Motivations.

My intention is not to whitewash Carlyle's position. Consequently, I will quote him extensively, to avoid selective quoting. As Carlyle's text contains extremely offensive views, I apologize in advance.

Carlyle's Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question (see here), published anonymously in 1846, is where "dismal science" was famously used by Carlyle (my emphasis in all quotes):
"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!"
Apart from introducing the "dismal science" epithet, this paragraph makes clear Carlyle's views on race and is enough to convict him of the charge of racism.

However, the following paragraph explains both what was the solution proposed by the dismal science (and by Mill) and gives a reason for Carlyle's opposition:
"Science, however, has a remedy still. Since the demand is so pressing, and the supply so inadequate (equal in fact to nothing in some places, as appears), increase the supply; bring more blacks into the labour-market, then will the rate fall, says science. Not the least surprising part of our West Indian policy is this recipe of 'immigration;' of keeping down the labour-market in those islands by importing new Africans to labour and live there. If the Africans that are already there could be made to lay down their pumpkins and labour for their living, there are already Africans enough. If the new Africans, after labouring a little, take to pumpkins like the others, what remedy is there? To bring in new and ever new Africans, say you, till pumpkins themselves grow dear; till the country is crowded with Africans; and black men there, like white men here, are forced by hunger to labour for their living? That will be a consummation. To have 'emancipated' the West Indies into a Black Ireland; 'free' indeed, but an Ireland, and Black! The world may yet see prodigies; and reality be stranger than a nightmare dream."
In other words, an increase in the black West Indian population, by means of immigration of free African labourers (as advocated by economic science) would cut wages and reduce West Indians to misery levels, as it did in Ireland.

With this my first contention (point 1) is demonstrated: Carlyle's diatribe, if undeniably racist and despicable, was not solely motivated by racism. In principle, there was an apparent concern for West Indian workers: box B is shown false.

A potential and reasonable objection to this conclusion is that Carlyle could have been disingenuous. That is a valid objection, which requires further consideration and will be treated in section 3.

Before proceeding to the second section, I also would like to draw the readers' attention to the "Black Ireland" reference. This will be explained in section 3, too.

Section 2: Logical Fallacy

In symbolic terms, the first half of the argument (green boxes leading to box D) can be stated thus:

If M then J; however, not M, therefore not J.

In words: if the epithet was motivated by opposition to Malthus (i.e. M), it would be justified (hence, J); but it wasn't (not M), therefore the epithet is not justified (not J).

This argument superficially resembles Modus Tolens, but a closer look reveals it is different.

This is a symbolization of Modus Tolens:

If A then B; however, not B, therefore not A.

A simple visual inspection is enough to make the point: both forms are different. There is no logical form corresponding to the first argument, that I know of.

Putting this all in words: even if Carlyle was motivated only by racism, this does not imply that the dismal adjective is not justified. Economics should stand or fall on its own merits.

By falling into this fallacy, defenders of economics' honour turn a discussion on economics' merits into an argument about Carlyle's shame.

With this I consider my second contention (point 2) demonstrated.

Section 3: Disingenuousness

At the end of Section 1 there was a reference to a "Black Ireland", that readers might find intriguing. That is a reference to the Irish Potato Famine (1845-52).

Bridget McDonnell and her two children.
Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849 [D]

I turn to this now, starting with some background.

Since 1815, Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo, friends and intellectual rivals, embodied two radically opposed views on the economy. Ricardo decried land rents, and based on the so-called Say's Law, believed general gluts were impossible, advocating laissez faire, fiscal conservatism and free trade on agricultural products; Malthus, a believer in scarcity, underconsumption and general gluts, considered land rent a way to drain excessive output; he also supported tariffs on foodstuffs, and a more active government.

Ricardo's theoretical views, also unlike Malthus', with modifications were dominant in intellectual circles, counting among his followers names like John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau and John Bright.

More to the point, Ricardo's theoretical and policy recommendations became popular with the capitalist class emerging during the early phases of the Industrial Revolution. The party more closely aligned to these views was the Whigs.

At the other hand, Malthus' perspectives were shared by the landed aristocracy, that resisted the changes advocated by the Whigs and whose preferred political party was the Tories (predecessors of the Conservatives).

By 1845, Sir Robert Peel (Tory) was Prime Minister, governing also over Ireland.

The potato blight initially spread in continental Europe and the Scottish highlands, reaching Ireland that year.

With the potato crop failure and fearing a popular revolt at both sides of the Irish Sea, the government undertook a modest program of relief works, repealing also the protectionist Corn Laws (in May 15, 1846 at the Commons'; and June 29, the House of Lords).

This move, long-advocated by Ricardo and the Whigs, but firmly opposed by the Tories and Malthus, was argued on the grounds of lowering the price of food to provide some relief to the lower classes in England and Ireland. In reality, less altruistic considerations were powerfully at play:
"It has been my endeavour to shew throughout this work, that the rate of profits can never be increased but by a fall in wages (...) If, instead of growing our own corn, or manufacturing the clothing and other necessaries of the labourer, we discover a new market from which we can supply ourselves with these commodities at a cheaper price, wages will fall and profits rise." [5]
Dissent and anger swelling within the Tory ranks and with the Whigs still seething since Peel's passing of the Factories Act 1844 (reducing 9-13 year old children's shifts to 10 hours a day, six days a week), Peel found himself confronted by an unlikely alliance: Whigs, protectionist Tories and Radicals.

Ricardo's posthumous victory cost Peel dearly: his ministry ended with the defeat of the Irish Coercion Bill (designed to arrest Irish dissidents without warrant or trial).

With Peel's resignation, Lord John Russell (Whig) became Prime Minister. Peel and the Tories still loyal to him went on to merge with Whigs and Radicals, to form the Liberal Party. The protectionist Tories reformed as the Conservative Party.

Once in power, and following the dictates of laissez faire and fiscal prudence, advocated by the British Liberal intelligentsia, including Mill, Russell's Whig/Liberal ministry proceeded to cancel the relief works established by Peel.

In their place, Irish landholders, largely Tory/Conservative supporters, were to pay for workhouses and soup kitchens for their tenant peasants, as a way to redistribute the land rent landholders received. Unable or unwilling to do so, landowners did not provide much additional help, evicting their tenants instead, while cash crops were shipped to Britain uninterruptedly, as free trade recommended.

Peasants and farmers faced difficulties all over Europe, but in Ireland they were hit the hardest: the Irish population fell by between 20% and 25% (1 million deaths, half the total loss, due to starvation and disease). By most accounts, the majority of this death toll occurred under Whig/Liberal government.

Friedrich Engels [E}.
Having arrived in Manchester in 1842, a wealthy industrialist himself without any links to Whigs or Tories, Friedrich Engels' eyewitness account carries much more authority than anything I could add. Writing in 1845, on the power games played by Tories and Whigs:
(...) "In nearly every instance the Liberals try to emphasise the distress in the rural areas and to argue away that which exists in the factory districts, while the Conservatives, conversely, acknowledge the misery in the factory districts but disclaim any knowledge of it in the agricultural areas." [6]
From this one can reasonably conclude that Carlyle was pointing to a true problem: there was misery in Ireland (indeed, all over Britain) and there were good reasons to believe this would happen in the West Indies. His sincerity, however, is dubious.

With this, I rest my case on my contention of disingenuity. Principles might have played some role in this subject, but they were only a part of the discussion: the other part often remains modestly hidden.

Section 4: Aftermath

Neither Malthus nor Ricardo lived to see this episode, and the landowners v. capitalists fight for supremacy did not end with it.

While the Irish either migrated or starved to death, the novelty effect of the famine on the British public worn-out.

A new round of the fight started in 1849: the Carlyle-Mill Negro Question Debate, which so attracts the attention of contemporary economists. Ostensibly, at stake were the rights of recently liberated West Indian slaves as opposed to those of plantation owners.

From the monumental HET website:
"Carlyle's 1849-1853 work was not well-received. Although the Victorian world could entertain some degree of racism, even one as extreme as Carlyle's, it was Carlyle's attacks on the new gospels of the age that offended most. It was somewhat clear for many contemporaries that neither West Indian blacks nor Irishmen, nor prisoners, were his prime targets, but rather the evangelicals and economists themselves." [7] (My emphasis)
In the 1860s the debate expanded further, after a bloody massacre perpetrated by Edward John Eyre, governor of Jamaica, against protesting West Indian black workers. In this second stage Bright and Spencer, Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin joined in Mill's condemnation of Eyre; while John Ruskin, Alfred Tennyson and possibly Charles Dickens took Carlyle's side.

Mill went on to become a Liberal MP, and eventually embraced the cause of women's rights, labour unions and farm cooperatives.

Spencer went on to coin another famous phrase ("survival of the fittest"), expressing his understanding of Darwinism, as applied to individual human beings living in society. With this he became the father of Social Darwinism, even though he may have never used this label himself.

Darwin himself never publicly endorsed Spencer's views, so it is likely he did not share them; although this is not certain. If the readers can offer more details, that would be appreciated.

Carlyle is currently considered a proto-fascist.


"Whig history" is an expression used by history academics to denote partisan history, written to justify a current state of affairs, by depicting historical events and characters in the light of an assumed good v evil conflict, inevitably leading to the present.

The unqualified defense some make of economics against the charge of being the "dismal science" would seem a remarkably appropriate example of "Whig history".

Nevertheless, even the more nuanced views on this matter fail. To judge this episode solely on the basis of what was openly said by its participants, without reference to what was happening and to whom benefited from these public statements, is clearly misleading.

Attentive readers might have noticed that many current issues in economic policy were already hotly debated over 160 years ago. Section 3 gives several examples. In this sense, modern economics is little more than a "fugue and variations" on a theme composed in the 19th century. If no other failure could be attributed to mainstream economics, this failure to advance and reach a consensus on vital matters would be more than enough to find economics guilty as charged.

But there are other failures illustrated in this episode: for one, economists' amenability to become spokespeople for vested interests.

The label of dismal is by no means unfair.

But, just like mainstream economics stands or fall on its own merits, so should economists: whatever pride an economist derives from his/her occupation, it will never be due to economics itself, but to what the economist in question achieves.

In other words, a degree in economics does not automatically turn one into the latest in a long lineage of bright but misunderstood benefactors of human kind. The sooner economists realize this, the sooner economics might actually deserve a different label.

[1] Dixon, Robert. 1997. "The Origin of the Term 'Dismal Science' to Describe Economics". Department of Economics, University of Melbourne. Working Paper No 1999/715.

 [2] Levy, David M. and Sandra J. Peart. 2001. "The Secret History of the Dismal Science. Past I". First featured article in a series. Library of Economics and Liberty.

[3] Dixon, Robert. 2006. "Carlyle, Malthus and Sismondi: The Origins of Carlyle's Dismal View of Political Economy". Department of Economics, University of Melbourne.

[4] Groenewegen, Peter. 2001. "Thomas Carlyle, 'The Dismal Science,' and the Contemporary Political Economy of Slavery". History of Economics Review (Canberra, Australian National University) 34.

[5] Ricardo, David. 1817. "On The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation".

[6] Engels, Friedrich. 1845. Preface to the "Condition of the Working Class in England".

[7] The Carlyle-Mill Negro Question Debate. HET. The New School for Social Research.

Image Credits:
[A] Thomas Carlyle. Wikipedia.
[B] John Stuart Mill. Wikipedia.
[C] "Am I Not A Man And A Brother?" Medallion as part of the anti-slavery campaign by Josiah Wedgwood, 1787. Wikipedia
[D] A 1849 depiction of Bridget O'Donnell and her two children during the famine. Wikipedia.
[E] Friedrich Engels. Wikipedia.


  1. This was very well written, however i think it's faulty to imbue any special consideration of economics onto Carlyle's views. He painted with a large, racist brush. His ideas were heavily based around the need for domination and subordination and in Orwellian fashion managed to label emancipation a kind of slavery in itself. Our criticism of it should be completely separate of him.

  2. I am not sure I get your meaning.

    In any case, I suggest you have a look at Groenewegen's paper (Reference #4).

    Or, feel free to elaborate, if you prefer.