Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish writer and thinker during the 19th century. He was clearly a brilliant and insightful man. But he was stuck in his Romantic thinking. It is not at all surprising that the Nazis found him most compelling. In On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, he argued that history is just the story of what great men did. I’ve always found this a particularly simplistic take on the world. Did Carlyle really not see in his own time what is clear enough today — that powerful people are usually straightjacketed by their power? That power itself is mostly a illusion that quickly dissipates if it is exercised?
But what’s most interesting about Carlyle is that he coined the phrase “dismal science” to describe economics, “Not a ‘gay science’ [eg, verse writing], 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.” The man could write, there is no doubt about that. But that sentence comes from a curious essay that he wrote in 1849, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question.” In it, he argued in favor of slavery. And like a good conservatives — always roughly a generation behind his times — this came 16 years after Parliament outlawed slavery.
Now, there is something to what Carlyle had to say. He was highlighting the fact that there was a certain hypocrisy about the end of slavery. For one thing, most people living in England at that time were not doing well. People lived horrible lives despite the fact that they were nominally free. Child mortality at that time in Manchester was 50% for working families. What’s more, the people so interested in freeing the slaves didn’t seem too concerned that former slave areas were (just like in the American south later) recreating a kind of slavery by another name.
None of this means that Carlyle was a good guy. He believed in slavery. He was a total racist who thought that blacks would not work unless they were forced to. And going right along with his theory of history, he thought that they could do no better than be working under the “care” of rich white men. All of this brought about what seems to have been an inevitable break in Carlyle’s friendship with John Stuart Mill, who was rather famous for his abolitionist (as well as many other liberal) beliefs. Mill soon after published his own essay in response, “The Negro Question.”
There was certainly a big difference between them in terms of philosophy. But I think their disagreement speaks to the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative worldview. Carlyle was right that it is hypocritical to care about slavery but not the conditions of the poor generally. But that was only an issue for someone like Carlyle himself who didn’t care about the poor. Mill certainly did care about the poor and did various things to try to improve their lot. So ultimately, Carlyle’s argument is only that conservatives shouldn’t care about slavery because they don’t care about people generally.
I don’t find economics to be a dismal science. (In fact, I don’t find it to be a science at all, but that’s a different matter.) What I do find dismal about it is the fact that people use it as an excuse to push policy that they want for different reasons. And as a result, we end up with a lot of economics that might be very interesting and insightful, but which is absolutely wrong in the real world. If Carlyle were around today, I’m sure he could find lots of economists who would provide him with lots of theories to explain why his antidemocratic and classist theories weren’t just the result of his own bigotry and selfishness, but rather necessary due to the laws of economics. And that is indeed dismal.