Leftists weren’t the only opponents of slavery

In the letter below, Don Boudreaux reponds to an overly self-congratulatory book review wherein the author and reviewer think that attacking slavery was a great leftist success. Don points out that free market advocates also fought to end slavery. He also explains where the term “the dismal science” comes from — it was coined by advocates of continuing slavery to denounce the ideas of classical liberals who argued that slavery was both immoral and economically inefficient.

Editor, The New York Times Book Review
620 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 10018

Dear Editor:

Reviewing Michael Kazin's paean to America's radical left, Beverly Gage follows 
Kazin in listing the abolition of slavery as among the great achievements of 
leftists with a "utopian spirit" ("The Unacknowledged Victories of the American 
Left," Sept. 18).

Radicals of this sort did call for abolition.  But radicals of a very different 
sort - thinkers who offered a revolutionary new understanding of how societies 
hang together and prosper without the centralized commands that Mr. Kazin's 
leftists so extol - also lent their influential voices to the cause of 
abolition.  These other radicals were classical economists.

Indeed, it was economists' prominence in the abolition movement that led 
pro-slavery Thomas Carlyle in an 1849 essay to ridicule economists as "rueful" 
thinkers, each of whom "finds the secret of this universe in 
'supply-and-demand,' and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting 
men alone."  Economists' advocacy of freedom even for people with a dark or 
"dismal" hue so incensed Carlyle that he gave it, in this same essay, a famous 
nickname that - considering its provenance - economists should forever wear 
proudly: the "dismal science."*

Sincerely, 
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University 
Fairfax, VA  22030

* The definitive research on the origin of the term "dismal science" was done by 
my GMU Econ colleague David Levy and his long-time co-author Sandy Peart:
http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/LevyPeartdismal.html

 

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