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