Those were the days – Not


Fugitive Slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia — by David Edward Cronin, 1888. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fugitive Slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia — by David Edward Cronin, 1888. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Not long ago, Derek Thompson explored the origin myth surrounding Thomas Carlyle coining the term “the dismal science” for economics. Thompson writes:

But Carlyle labeled the science “dismal” when writing about slavery in the West Indies. White plantation owners, he said, ought to force black plantation workers to be their servants. Economics, somewhat inconveniently for Carlyle, didn’t offer a hearty defense of slavery. Instead, the rules of supply and demand argued for “letting men alone” rather than thrashing them with whips for not being servile. Carlyle bashed political economy as “a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing [science]; what we might call … the dismal science.”

Today, when we hear the term “the dismal science,” it’s typically in reference to economics’ most depressing outcomes (e.g.: on globalization killing manufacturing jobs: “well, that’s why they call it the dismal science,” etc). In other words, we’ve tended to align ourselves with Carlyle to acknowledge that an inescapable element of economics is human misery.

Thompson cheerfully suggests that because Carlyle could not justify slavery through economics, this (by default?) aligns “the dismal science” with promoting morality and happiness. (No, really.) The paper Thompson cites says this about Carlyle:

Carlyle puts the view that ‘work’ is morally good and that if a “Black man” will not voluntarily work for the wages then prevailing he should be forced to work. He writes of those who argued that the forces of supply and demand rather than physical coercion should regulate the labour market that: “the Social Science … 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 a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call … the dismal science” (Volume 11, p 177).

Coercing people into working for whatever wages plantation owners deem “prevailing” rather than simply paying them more must sound as sensible to contemporary red-state legislators as it did to Carlyle over 150 years ago.

All that is prelude to sharing these observations on Republican governors by Ryan Cooper at The Week:

The party’s intellectual apparatus (distinct from the Trumpist insurgency) has more-or-less fully regressed to an economic libertarianism straight out of the 1920s. They view basically all government programs outside of the military and the courts as illegitimate, to be slashed or eliminated wherever possible. The only problem with this is that when you try it, the results are immediate disaster.

That is to say, dismal.

Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback are the poster boys for tanking economies in pursuit of this born-again libertarianism. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker walks in their shadows, but aspires to greater (in effect lesser) things for his state. Louisiana is on life support. Brownback’s “quack economics” have left the state with a negative job growth and its schools underfunded in violation of the state constitution. Walker, who has raised underperforming to an art form, has taken Wisconsin to 32nd in job growth over five years. Obviously, he’s not working as hard at crushing his state’s economy as he is at destroying Wisconsin’s premier university system. Wrecking public education is theme here, if you need it pointed out. It would have been far worse for these states, Cooper writes, if the federal government (that is, the rest of us) weren’t backstopping these failed experiments.

Cooper concludes:

It took many years for Republicans to talk themselves out of the fact that Herbert Hoover’s presidency was a disastrous failure, but with the exception of Trump, Hooverism is where they stand. It’s an ideology that can gain wide popularity only insofar as it is not actually tried on a wide scale. It turns out that a vision of government that was already outdated a century ago (when farmers were over a quarter of the workforce) is not very well-suited to a modern economy. It’s just too bad the American people might have to be the collateral damage in re-learning that lesson.

Mister we could use a man

Like Herbert Hoover again.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Comments are closed.