How the Dismal Science Got Its Name

Classical Economics and the Ur-Text of Racial Politics
David M. Levy
A shocking account of how economics became known as the dismal science


It is widely asserted that the Victorian sages attacked classical economics from a humanistic or egalitarian perspective, calling it "the dismal science," and that this attack is relevant to modern discussions of market society. David M. Levy demonstrates here that these assertions are simply false: political economy was characterized as "dismal" because Carlyle, Ruskin, and Dickens were horrified at the idea that systems of slavery were being replaced by systems in which individuals were allowed to choose their own path in life. At a minimum, they argued, "we" white people ought to be directing the lives of "them," people of color. Economists of the time, on the other hand, argued that people of color were to be protected by the rule of law-hence the moniker "the dismal science."

A startling image from 1893, which appears in full color on the book's jacket, shows Ruskin killing someone who appears to be nonwhite. A close look reveals that the victim is reading "The Dismal Science." Levy discusses this image at length and also includes in his text weblinks to Carlyle's "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question" and Mill's response, demonstrating that these are central documents in British classical economics. Adam Smith's egalitarian foundations are explained and contrasted to the hierarchical alternative proposed by Carlyle. Levy also examines visual representations of this debate and provides an illuminating discussion of Smith's "katallactics," the science of exchange, comparing it with the foundations of modern neoclassical economics.

How the Dismal Science Got Its Name also introduces the notion of "rational choice scholarship" to explain how attacks on market economics from a context in which racial slavery was idealized have been interpreted as attacks on market economics from a humanistic or egalitarian context. Thus it will greatly appeal to economists, political scientists, philosophers, students of Victorian literature, and historians.

David M. Levy is Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Research Associate of the Center for the Study of Public Choice. Levy received the Economics Department citation as the outstanding undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley in 1966 and his Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Chicago in 1979. He has published over fifty contributions to professional journals ranging from the Journal of the History of Ideas to Econometric Theory. He is currently on the Executive Board of the Eastern Economic Association and a member of the American Statistical Association's Committee on Professional Ethics. His research interests include statistical ethics, the relationship between language and optimization (see his Economic Ideas of Ordinary People: From Preferences to Trade) and the history of economics in which the "dismal science" plays a much-misunderstood role. Levy is now at work with Sandra Peart on a study of the various attacks on classical economics' doctrine of human equality.

Praise / Awards

  • "Nice people take the human side in what Toynbee called 'the bitter argument between economists and human beings.' In these brilliant essays Levy puts the record straight at last. Economics defends us from fascism so often favoured by literary intellectuals. This book is a major contribution to the study of nineteenth-century culture."
    —A. M. C. Waterman, University of Manitoba
  • "David Levy is always provocative, and this is Levy at his best. I'm not sure of the Ur destination, but that destination ain't the normal neoclassical station."
    —David Colander, Middlebury College
  • "Levy's brave book, intriguing throughout, exhibits the disreputable, even racist, history of the case against capitalism. It will not please the reds, or the greens. They need it, though."
    —Deirdre McCloskey, UIC Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, and English, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Tinbergen Professor of Economics, Philosophy, and Art and Cultural Studies, Erasmusuniversiteit Rotterdam
  • "A fascinating book. David Levy is a scholar who is not afraid to get his feet wet by wading beyond disciplinary limits, sometimes with astounding results. What Thomas Carlyle and his literary cohorts were really saying about classical economics and economists will shock modern sensibilities, even those of the most virulent market critics."
    —James M. Buchanan, Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, 1986
  • "Levy tells a fascinating story, backed by stunning erudition and analyses that are as dazzling as they are convincing. No one who reads this provocative study will be able to view the Victorian literary 'sages' in quite the same way again."
    —Martine Watson Brownley, Goodrich C. White Professor of English, Emory University
  • "Levy's scintillating volume offers a startlingly original reinterpretation of Carlyle's well-known characterization of classical economics as 'the dismal science.' Levy examines the positions of classical economics and its nineteenth century Victorian literary critics, as seen through the specific prism of the anti-slavery debate. He argues, persuasively in my view, that it was the economists, and not the poets, who were the 'true friends of humanity.'"
    —Nathan Rosenberg, Department of Economics, Stanford University
  • "Classical economic doctrine emerges from David Levy's brilliant and thoroughly engaging study of its social, political, and literary context as unmistakably reformist and compassionate. There can now be no excuse whatsoever for those caricatures of the great economists that to this day disfigure so much commentary by specialists and nonspecialists alike."
    —Samuel Hollander, Professor of Economics, Ben Gurion University
  • "While the arguments of this fascinating book can be difficult and the reasoning sometimes elusive, the importance of the message and the light it sheds on the relationship between the foundational assumptions of economic theory and a benevolent view of human association make it well worth the reader's effort."
    —Karen Vaughn, George Mason University, Ideas on Liberty, March 2003
  • "Levy relentlessly tracks [the] collective and long-term literary assault on British economists as destroyers of both cultural and social cohesion. The attackers invoked language of genocidal virulence against a number of low-status outsiders, including blacks, Jews, and the Irish. Levy abundantly documents the ways in which twentieth-century cultural critics, both left and right, developed a tradition of silence about the ethno-racial slurs embedded in Carlyle's writings in order to perpetuate his heroic stature as a literary pioneer in the cultural critique of early capitalism. . . . I recommend this intriguing work to students of literature, economics, and history alike."
    —Seymour Drescher, University of Pittsburgh, Not identified
  • ". . . highly interesting, worth telling and worth reading. No longer will economists be forced to fumble for some Malthusian explanation as the reason for the [sic] Carlyle's 'liberal' critique. Levy shows that the Malthusian problem was not the real issue. Racism was."
    —Robert B. Ekelund, Jr., Auburn University, Public Choice, 116 (2003)

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 336pp.
  • 4 drawings, 2 photographs, 5 tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2002
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08905-5

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  • $34.95 U.S.