The reviewer for Publishers Weekly did not like Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers. Annoyed evidently with the fact of economics — it’s very existence — the (anonymous) reviewer twice associates Madmen with “the dismal science,” hoping the reader shares every negative and objectionable connotation the reviewer seems to cast on that association. Madmen, we’re told, is dismal because it is a work of economics, because it is a difficult read, and because it recounts the life and works of “unheralded” Nobel prize winners such as Jim Buchanan and Ron Coase.
Meet Thomas Carlyle, who in 1849 coined “dismal science” while opposing John Stuart Mill and other free-trade economists on the slavery question. Mill and other laissez-faire economists believed all persons, black or white, are equal before the law and have the right to free trade. Carlyle was calling economists like Mill “dismal” because they were anti-slavery. Maintaining the slave trade was crucial to British society, Carlyle argued, because without it the supply of sugar and spices would run dry. Thus, the phrase dismal science emerged as a rhetorical instrument to seduce readers into opposing free-trade and freedom. This was the case in 1849, and this is sadly on display in the Publishers Weekly review of Madmen.
As for being difficult to read (“leaden and labored”), to my knowledge it is just this lone reviewer who characterizes Madmen this way. The rest have praised it for being accessible, memorable, lively, and fun — perhaps too fun! And as for recounting the lives and work of “unheralded” Nobel laureates, the reviewer curiously omits from our list one F. A. Hayek (perhaps for being too obviously and clearly heralded that a credibility constraint intervened, whether by the reviewer or among his or her editors), while also neglecting to mention that we give equal time to the work of Samuelson, Tobin, Pigou, and Keynes as to Hayek, Coase, Buchanan, V. Smith, and E. Ostrom.
The ugly history of dismal science is available to anyone who reads, thanks to the meticulous work of intellectual historians (and laissez-faire economists) David Levy and Sandra Peart. For starters, here is the cover of David Levy’s 2001 book, How the Dismal Science Got its Name. The two also provide a six-part series at The Library of Economics and Liberty which is published and hosted by Liberty Fund, Inc. If all those many thousands of words are too “leaden and labored” for some, there is even a short video lecture by Alex Tabarrok at MRUniversity.
Most people erroneously think dismal science is a reference to the doom of Thomas Malthus. Perhaps the Publishers Weekly reviewer is fallen to this myth. There is no fault in that. But repeating Carlyle’s dirty ploy without any recognition of doing so despite the truth being readily available? Well. Next reviewer, please.
NOTE: Because webbed content is fluid, I’m reproducing the entire Publishers Weekly review.
Called the dismal science, economics is most dismal when rendering interesting ideas into leaden and labored language. Political economists Leighton and López tackle the rigorous task of delineating ideas at the root of government policy and discussing the ways these entrenched notions have periodically been uprooted. Their subjects include radio wave licensing, airline deregulation in the late 1970s, 1990s-era welfare reform, and the creation and collapse of the early-21st-century’s housing bubble. The authors dissect the first two successes and latter pair of failures in lengthy, meticulously researched terms typical of economists turned political scientists with unfortunately little result beyond truisms about “entrepreneurs of political change.” The authors also provide brief introductions to significant Nobel laureate economists whose work remains largely unheralded outside the academy, such as James McGill Buchanan and Ronald Coase. The influential theories of these scholars, however, tends to clash with political reality, a phenomenon described too abstractly for either a satisfying intellectual history or a concise explanation of the economic roots of actual policy making. (Nov.)
Photo credits: Carlyle from the authors of Wikipedia, book cover from University of Michigan Press.