AUGUST 27, 2001
The Secret History of the Dismal Science. Part IV. Paternalism, Hierarchy, and Markets
Return to top
The economists' case for markets against the paternalists is that it takes time for people to learn how to be free.
Four months ago when we presented some of our research on the Dismal Science, we heard two criticisms. Two months ago at a conference where we presented different but related papers, we heard similar comments. The first was a rather simple but damning consideration—'Everyone in Victorian England was a racist, so why be particularly annoyed with Carlyle, Ruskin or anyone else's attitudes?' The second was the equally damaging suggestion that our focus on Slavery vs. Markets in the Columns above misses an important alternative to markets and racism: paternalism. We have been reminded that neither Charles Dickens nor Charles Kingsley (about whom we have not yet talked) is Carlyle, that among our Sages there existed a range of attitudes towards race and hierarchy. Perhaps the Secret History of the Dismal Science is simply wishful thinking on the part of economists? It's time to think seriously about how to respond to these recurrent challenges.
'Everyone was a racist'
We have encountered the first criticism—'they were all racists then'—widely. It implies that we've not yet learned or, having learned it we've neglected, the context of the Victorian period in which 'everyone was a racist'. If that's true, then Carlyle, Kingsley, Ruskin and all the Victorian Sages we've identified in our third column on the Eyre Controversy were simply reflections of their times, and not at all the monsters our earlier Columns have shown them to be. In the American context, one might suggest analogously that a slaveholder in the Anti-Bellum South wasn't unusually racist since he simply accepted and took advantage of the prevailing attitudes of his day.
Historians of economics generally try to avoid reading attitudes of the present into past actions or attitudes, something called Whig History or presentism. We find the argument that racist attitudes prevailed in mid-nineteenth century England is a peculiarly arrogant form of presentism. The presumption is that somehow we gained a sensitivity to issues of race by the early twenty-first century that didn't exist 150 years ago. To expect Victorians to hold attitudes as sophisticated as ours would be asking too much of the period!
In fact, a major thrust of our first column on the Dismal Science is that it demonstrates the variety of attitudes towards race in mid-nineteenth century England. What we have found is that it was by-and-large the economists who defended a race-blind attitude toward Economic Man, while the Sages argued for racial explanations of human behavior. Readers will recall that J. S. Mill famously defended the Irish against the racist charge levied by W. R. Greg, co-founder of the eugenics movement:
Is it not, then, a bitter satire on the mode in which opinions
are formed on the most important problems of human
nature and life, to find public instructors of the greatest
pretensions, imputing the backwardness of Irish industry,
and the want of energy of the Irish people in improving their
condition, to a peculiar indolence and insouciance in the
Celtic race? Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the
consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on
the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the
diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural
Paternalism and Reforming Slavery
The second potential difficulty for our Secret History is that while Carlyle's attitudes on race and hierarchy were horrible, those of, say, a Dickens or Kingsley were rather more progressive and less hateful. The Sages' opposition to markets, it is claimed, might have been framed along lines that we haven't yet considered. By offering paternalism as an alternative to both markets and slavery, some of the Sages might be salvaged as caring, progressive social commentators, commentators who genuinely wished to see the lot of the working poor improved. Thus, there may have been some paternalists whose distrust of markets can be contrasted with our characterization of Ruskin and Carlyle in our first column. Those paternalists, the argument continues, were not necessarily racists.
In what follows we will argue that, as a matter of fact, those paternalists were racists. Posing the problem as a choice among markets, slavery, and (somewhere in between), paternalism, suggests why contemporary scholars might be prepared to defend the Victorian Sages even today. Paternalism—as an "ism"—is a theory, the theory that, for their own good, some of us need looking after by the rest of us. Since there is no existing institution of paternalism, contemporary scholars might work only with the texts of Carlyle, Ruskin and Kingsley. What they fail to confront—and what we have found to be important—is the institutional means by which paternalists sought to "look after" the child-like among us. The paternalists favored slavery—albeit a reformed slavery—because they believed that African-Americans couldn't look after themselves.
Thus, what paternalism requires is a social or intellectual hierarchy: some notion of who is inferior and who is superior. While people may be sorted into a hierarchy along racial lines, there are of course other ways—including age, religion and gender—that paternalistic sorting occurs. We will treat the Jewish question in a future column.
For the economists of the day, no reform of slavery makes it acceptable. For paternalists, by contrast, slavery can and should be reformed: paternalism tells us how one might make actual slavery more nearly correspond to the idealized slavery of benevolent masters and child-like slaves. That paternalists wished to see slavery improved is illustrated by James Froude's explanation of Carlyle's social policy in the "Negro Question." According to Froude, Carlyle thought that slavery might be reformed, to make it into Teutonic feudalism.
Reformed slavery improves those among us who are in need of improvement. Paternalism, then, entails improvement of inferiors at the hands of their superiors. And, as we shall see, the great paternalists of the Victorian period all held that markets were incapable of producing such improved behavior.
Fixed or Malleable Human Nature: Reactions to Uncle Tom's Cabin
"Well, I've travelled in England some, and I've looked over a good many documents as to the state of their lower classes; and I really think there is no denying Alfred, when he says that his slaves are better off than a large class of the population of England."
We can better appreciate the debate between paternalists and economists if we attend to the most potent appeal for the abolition of slavery: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. One of Stowe's characters, St. Clare, is the voice of Kingsley and Dickens. Uncle Tom's Cabin was reviewed by Charles Dickens, in his magazine Household Words, as well as by Richard Whately.
Can slavery make one fit for freedom? On this question, the Classical economists used the assumption of a fixed human nature as a weapon in the war against racial slavery. For them, the institution of slavery cannot remake one's nature, not for good nor for ill. Human nature is one and the same everywhere.
In contrast, paternalists dealt with the proposal to abolish slavery by arguing that reformed slavery could be an instrument of improvement. Here we quote from the review by Henry Morley and Charles Dickens in an 1852 issue of Household Words. Several things are made clear in this review. First, Morley and Dickens intend to reform slavery and to delay emancipation until the black slaves are "suited" for freedom. Slavery, which mutilated black people, can also, when suitably reformed, heal them. Morley and Dickens describe in detail the hideously cruel treatment visited upon slaves. Cruelty is a bad but improvement is a good. How shall we choose when the two goals might conflict?
We think, too, that it is possible to combine with the duty of emancipation the not less important duty of undoing the evil that has been done to the slaves' minds and of doing them some good service by way of atonement. When we have clipped men's minds and made them slavish, it is poor compensation that their bodies should be set at large.
Morley and Dickens appeal to the importance of kind masters; those who would guide by words and not the lash. The reformed slavery would be one without cruelty:
The stripes! Though slavery be not abolished promptly, there can be no reason why stripes should not cease. Though there may be little of lashing and wailing in the slave system, as it is commonly administered in North America, yet men are degraded by being set to work by a coarse action of their fears, when the same men are far more capable of being stimulated by an excitement of their love of honour and reward (5).
Then, Morley and Dickens reflect upon innate racial differences and how the newly reformed slavery could make blacks nearly white. The educational prospects of reformed slavery are compared in detail with those of the existing model of slavery. In the existing system the slaves are too stupid to figure out that they ought to resent their situation. This is why Christianity cannot be preached in full:
The negro has what the phrenologists would call love of approbation very strongly marked. Set him to work for the hope of distinction, instead of the fear of blows. No doubt it has been true that negroes, set to work by any motive that called out their higher feelings as men, would become ambitious and acquire a thirst for freedom in the end. So it is, so let it be. Educate the negroes on plantations, make them intelligent men and women, let them imbibe in their full freedom the doctrines of Christianity. It has been true that it was not safe to give knowledge to men who were placed in a position which the faintest flash of reason would resent.
Under the reformed slavery, this defect will be mended and with it the slaves will be remade:
We have been told by a Christian minister, who laboured in his way to elevate the minds of negroes in some North American plantations, that his permission to preach was clogged with many stipulations that he was expressly forbidden to teach anything which might induce a slave to question his position or wish to be free; and that, in consequence, he found himself unable to preach even man's duty to his neighbour. So it has been and must be; the slave who acquires education and religious principle must desire to be free: let it be so. (1852, 5).
As a matter of racial destiny, the paternalists argued blacks could never really compete with whites, so after the period of beneficent slavery they would leave for lands for which their nature is suitable. Slavery is not essential, Morley and Dickens assure us, as long as improvement occurs before slavery ends.
The time is not far distant when the demand for negroes will be confined wholly to those districts in which the climate appears to be unsuited for field labour by white men: even to those districts whites will become acclimatised, but in those, for some time at any rate, negroes will be needed. It is not essential that the negroes should be slaves. If, step by step, the degraded race be raised, their higher impulses awakened, their minds developed, their moral ties religiously respected, there will arise out of the present multitude of slaves, by slow degrees, a race of free labourers far more efficient than the present gangs, while the yearly increasing surplus of black population educated into love of freedom would pass over to Liberia...(5)
The Economists' Case for Markets
In contrast to the paternalists, economists of the time maintained that incentives and markets could alter behavior though not human nature. What is important is how institutions influence behavior. We quote from Richard Whately's review of Uncle Tom's Cabin:
Mrs. Stowe has taught us generous sympathy for these [honorable slave-owners], while she has revealed to us the uncontrollable necessities of a system which is an incubus on the moral energies of the western world, and deliverance from which is become a matter of death. Her book leaves the conviction that the evil lies in the essence of the system and not in its accidents.
The economists' case for markets against the paternalists is that it takes time for people to learn how to be free. One of the most effective speakers for the Act of Emancipation of 1833, Thomas Babington Macaulay, drawing material from Adam Smith, previously had compared the intoxication of freedom with the intoxication of strong drink:
It is the character of such revolutions that we always see the worst of them first. Till men have been some time free, they know not how to use their freedom. The natives of wine countries are generally sober. In climates where wine is a rarity intemperance abounds. A newly liberated people may be compared to a northern army encamped on the Rhine or the Xeres. It is said that, when soldiers in such a situation first find themselves able to indulge without restraint in such a rare and expensive luxury, nothing is to be seen but intoxication. Soon, however, plenty teaches discretion; and, after wine has been for a few months their daily fare, they become more temperate than they had ever been in their own country. In the same manner, the final and permanent fruits of liberty are wisdom, moderation, and mercy.
Pro-abolitionists recognized that abolition would bring with it an enormous benefit—an end to the sexual use of slaves. In her 1830s visit to America, Harriet Martineau found compelling evidence against paternalistic accounts of slavery: fathers do not use their daughters sexually. As a Malthusian, Martineau attended to the trade-off between sex and material income. But she found in America an instance where a man can have more of both sex and material income by acquiring additional families, only one of which will be white:
Every man who resides on his plantation may have his harem, and has every inducement of custom, and of pecuniary gain,* to tempt him to the common practice.
* [The law declares that the children of slaves are to follow the fortunes of the mother. Hence the practice of planters selling and bequeathing their own children.—Martineau]
Martineau is responding here to the apologists' claim that the morality of slavery can be judged by the relative infrequency of prostitution in Southern cities. So it can, Martineau argues, but not the way the slavery apologists thought. Why, she asked, would a man rent a woman for an hour when he can buy her and keep the children to sell? Thus, the relative infrequency of prostitution in slave cities provides evidence that slaves were used sexually in sufficient numbers to affect the market demand for prostitution.
When Lord Denman wrote against Charles Dickens' views on slavery (and those of the Times) and in support of emancipation he remembered another passage from Macaulay's essay:
The "Times" Reviewer is quite justified in comparing the relation which the present slaveholders in America bear to this question to that of the planters in Jamaica before the great act of emancipation. But those planters and their advocates against the natural rights of the negro were loud in denouncing the experiment of giving freedom to the slave. They declared him unfitted to receive that blessing, urged that he be required to be educated into that capacity... These views were... discussed by Mr. Macaulay (as we understood) in an able paper which appeared in the "Edinburgh Review." He ridiculed the notion that such preparation was requisite, comparing it to the prudence of the father who advised his son not to bathe until he could swim....
By contrast, the paternalistic account supposes that the masters of mankind have their inferiors' interest at heart. What if this isn't quite correct? In Uncle Tom's Cabin the rational slave is seen as preferring freedom to slavery for the most benevolent master because one never knows who the next master might be.
'O, but master is so kind!'
'Yes, but who knows?—he may die—and then he may be sold to nobody knows who.' (p. 30)
'No, Mas'r,' said Nathan; 'you've always been good to me.'
'Well, then, why do you want to leave me?'
'Mas'r may die, and then who get me?—I'd rather be a free man.'
After some deliberation, the young master replied, 'Nathan, in your place, I think I should feel very much so, myself. You are free.' (p. 512)
There is no harder rationality principle than that which Macaulay learned from Adam Smith. The institution of slavery cannot remake one's nature, not for good nor for ill. Here is evangelical-economics policy in one lesson: release the slaves and they grope in freedom to become the same as their masters.
'Doingasyoulike' or Doing as You are Told
Figure 1. Illustration accompanying the text in Kingsley's Water Babies, p. 236.
That paternalism was offered in opposition to markets is clear from the account in one of Charles Kingsley's most enduring works—his 1863 fairy tale, Water-Babies. This "charming" story, avowedly in opposition to economics, concerns the evils of industrialism and the inferiority of the African people. A chimney-sweep, Tom, blacked by his occupation, becomes white—transformed by the fairies into a water-baby.
Here Kingsley confronts the laissez-faire doctrine of letting people seek their own happiness. The fairies show Tom a book:
And on the title-page was written, "The History of the great and famous nation of the Dosasyoulikes, who came away from the country of Hardwork, because they wanted to play on the Jews' harp all day long." (229)
Tom also discovers the evils of mixed race marriage in the context of a story about salmon and trout: '"Why do you dislike the trout so?" asked Tom. "My dear, we do not even mention them, if we can help it; for I am sorry to say they are relations of ours who do us no credit. A great many years ago they were just like us: but they were so lazy, and cowardly, and greedy, that instead of going down to the sea every year to see the world and grow strong and at, they chose to stay and poke about in the little streams and eat worms and grubs; and they have been very properly punished for it; for they have grown ugly and brown and spotted and small; and are actually so degraded in their tastes, that they will eat our children." [Note the cannibalism!]
' "And then they pretend to scrape acquaintance with us again," said the lady. "Why, I have actually known one of them to propose to a lady salmon, the little impudent little creature.
"I should hope," said the gentleman, "that there are very few ladies of our race who would degrade themselves by listening to such a creature for an instant." ' (125-26)
The consequences of doing as they liked?
"So they lived miserably on roots and nuts, and all the weakly little children had great stomaches, and then died."
"Why," said Tom, "they are growing no better than savages."
"And look how ugly they are getting," said Ellie.
Yes; when people like on poor vegetables instead of roast beef and plum-pudding, their jaws grow large, and their lips grow coarse, like the poor Paddies who eat potatoes. (233)
The story of the DoAsYouLikes continues
I am afraid they will all be apes very soon, and all by doing only what they liked.
And in the next five hundred years they were all dead and gone, by bad food and wild
beasts and hunters; except one tremendous old fellow with jaws like a jack, who stood full eleven feet high; and M. Du Chaillu came up to him, and shot him, as they stood roaring and thumping his breast. And he remembered that his ancestors had once been men, and tried to say, "Am I not a man and a brother?" but had forgotten how to use his tongue; and then he had tried to call for a doctor, but he had forgotten the word for one. So all he said was "Ubboboo!" and died. (235-7)
[For more on the loaded significance of the phrase "Am I not a man and a brother?", see Column 2.]
In the Times review, Water-Babies was connected with Carlyle's gospel of labor and the doctrine that obedience makes one human:
Mr. Kingsley might have quoted the authority of one of his great masters, Mr. Carlyle, who long ago warned us of the fate of the dwellers by the Dead Sea who revised to listen to the preaching of Moses. They became apes, poor wretches, and having once had souls they lost them. (26 January 1864, p. 6.)
The death of those without souls is of course no matter. Thus, we have a context for why Kingsley would become an apologist for Eyre (see our third column).
It is not our intention to dispute the motives of the Victorian Sages. From our reading it is clear that, like the Classical economists, their program had the 'well-being' of society at heart, and their intent was to improve society by improving the lot of the downtrodden. What we do dispute, however, is their notion of 'well-being' as it pertained to the downtrodden, those who were presumed to be inferior, who could not be trusted to respond to market incentives, who could not be trusted to DoAsYouLike but had to do as they were told. Although our focus above has been on slavery, we have also shown (Column 2) that the presumption of inferiority was extended to the Irish. Thus, in an attack on Mill's position quoted above, the early eugenicist, W. R. Greg, argued that the Irish could not be trusted to respond to incentives. We find the hard egalitarianism of the Classical economists, by contrast, with its underlying presumption that human beings are equally capable of participating in markets, to be a compelling alternative to such paternalism.
One indicative way this criticism is offered, has to do with the choice of racial epithet, "negro" or "nigger.". We have read and heard it said that since the latter was a well-used characterization in Victorian England, one shouldn't read too much into its by Carlyle or anyone else. In fact, there are many articles in the Anti-Slavery Review which make it clear that using "nigger" has the same purpose then that it does today—disparagement. Disparagement which substitutes for argument and evidence.
Yet scholars who specialize in Victorian racial attitudes have distinguished between the racial views of Carlyle and Mill . On Carlyle's "Negro Question" James Walvin writes "... one of the most nakedly racist tracts to be laid before the before the English reading public." (Black and White: The Negro and English Society 1555-1945, London, 1973, pp. 165-66)
In Column 1, we showed that Mill's attitude follows that of Adam Smith, who puts forward the argument that observed differences are attributable (only) to history, luck and incentives. It's the "vanity of the philosopher" that leads him to attribute such differences to natural inclinations.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Three Novels, New York: Library of America., 1982, p. 261.
September 18, 1852. "North American Slavery." Household Words. A Weekly Journal Conducted by Charles Dickens 6, p. 5.
Alicia Hill, Richard Whately and Samuel Hinds. "American Slavery and Uncle Tom's Cabin." North British Review (1852) 18: 235-58.
Thomas Babington Macaulay. 1961. Critical and Historical Essays. Arranged by A. J. Grieve. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, vol 1. pp. 178-79.
Harriet Martineau, Society in America, London: 1837, vol. 2, p. 223.
Lord Denman, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Bleak House, Slavery and the Slave Trade, London 1853, (19-20).
Beecher Stowe, Three Novels, New York: Library of America, 1982. P. 30, p. 512.
Kingsley's correspondence with James Hunt—the head of the British Anthropological Society—about people of mixed races is reported in David Levy, "How the dismal science got its name," Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 2001.
David M. Levy
is associate professor of economics, George Mason University, and a research associate of the Center for the Study of Public Choice. His email address is DavidMLevy at aol.com
Sandra J. Peart
is associate professor of economics, Baldwin-Wallace College.
For more articles by David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart, see the Archive.