Peart, S.J. and D.M. Levy. The Vanity of the Philosopher.
Sandra Peart's and David Levy's The Vanity of the Philosopher (2005) may be interpreted as the latest product of a research project that first crystallised with Levy's How the Dismal Science got its Name: Classical Economics and the Ur-text of Racial Politics (2001) and that Peart and Levy subsequently promoted on www.econlib.org under the title of The Secret History of Dismal Science (2001-2). The two authors further developed this research project in papers delivered before the numerous societies that our North American colleagues are inclined to attend (and the usual institutional suspects may be rounded up here), as well as in articles published in most of the chief outlets devoted to our sub-discipline, such as JHET, EJPE, EJHET, HOPE and JEM. It is, indeed, an understatement to assert that Peart and Levy have ridden this research project hard, and, given the bewildering number of related documents that these authors have since posted to various web-pages, it seems likely that they will push its (tiring?) legs a little further. It is also apparent from the way in which this research has unfolded--which itself reflects the tremendous changes that have recently taken place in the way academics disseminate their ideas--that a number of the chapters that constitute the book under review have already appeared in the public arena. Readers of The Vanity of the Philosopher should therefore be warned that they are likely to come across passages that they have previously perused in different forms and forums. They should also be prepared for the kind of repetition and the occasional breaks in narrative rhythm that usually arise when a number of stand-alone essays are laced together within the stiff boards of a book.
I can, for all this, declare that all good university libraries should add this publication to their collections and, further, that all historians of economic thought who are serious about their craft should consider purchasing a personal copy. For, although the writings of Peart and Levy are characterised by repetition, a tendency towards over-statement, a certain selectiveness in the deployment of quotations, an occasional lack of finesse in closing an argument and sometimes insufficient corroboration of rather grand conjectures, it is also the case that they contain a driving hypothesis that has merit and, what is more striking, has left a mark on our sub-discipline. This central hypothesis, which presumably has reached its most precise and considered articulation in the book currently under review, is that the classical economists' belief in human homogeneity and their presumption that humans have the same capacity to make rational decisions (a presumption that the authors call analytical egalitarianism) was challenged in the middle of the nineteenth century by a number of individuals who believed in human difference and who presumed that humans have different capacities to make appropriate decisions (a presumption that the authors call analytical hierarchism). The individuals who laid down this challenge, and hence who championed analytical hierarchism, were initially the Victorian sages, such as Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin (who were the main targets in the early Peart and Levy publications), and subsequently a number of racist anthropologists and pioneering eugenicists, such as James Hunt, William Rathbone Greg and Francis Galton (who are the main targets in more recent Peart and Levy publications, including in the present text).
This driving hypothesis, which is eminently reasonable if not historically accurate, underpins a number of more speculative sub-hypotheses, not all of which, at least in my eyes, necessarily follow from the parent hypothesis and not all of which are delineated here. In fact, I restrict myself to considering what I perceive to be the three main sub-hypotheses that spin out of the parent hypothesis.
First, there is what may be called the 'vanity of the philosopher' corollary. The supporters of analytical egalitarianism (that is, the classical economists) attributed any observed differences between individuals to luck and history and, more importantly, were convinced that these individuals had the same potential or 'educatibility'. As Adam Smith stated: 'The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom and education' (quoted in Peart and Levy 2005, p. 3). The supporters of analytical hierarchism, by contrast, attributed any observed differences between individuals to their innately dissimilar natures, with some natures being distinctly inferior to others. Peart and Levy use this dichotomy to conclude that the supporters of analytical egalitarianism did not see themselves as superior to the individuals they were studying, while the supporters of analytical hierarchism did indeed see themselves as superior in this way. The former, as philosophers, believed that they were no better than the street porter and hence at least baulked at presuming that they were better placed to second-guess the street porter's preferences, while the latter, as experts, saw themselves as not only better than the inferior street porter, but better placed to make choices on the street porter's behalf. The so-called experts, in short, suffered from what Peart and Levy call the 'Vanity of the Philosopher', which explains the title of the book under review, and paternalistic policies are interpreted as being a product of this sense of superiority.
Second, there is what may be called the 'post-classical analytical hierarchism' corollary. Peart and Levy argue that the late-Victorian economists who succeeded the classical economists rejected analytical egalitarianism for analytical hierarchism. They deliberately use the phrase post-classical in this context, since they maintain that the movement from a belief in human homogeneity to human difference was by no means confined to the neoclassical economists. In their words: 'our argument in what follows is that economics moved from a doctrine of analytical egalitarianism in the classical period to one of analytical hierarchy in the postclassical period' (ibid., p. 5). And again: 'this chapter has demonstrated that, for a time at least, the classical economists' postulate of homogeneity was overthrown, and racial theories prevailed in economics' (ibid., p. 84). Peart and Levy believe that the ideas of the early eugenicists, such as the aforementioned Greg and Galton, were particularly influential in inducing the post-classical economists to support analytical hierarchism. They further maintain that the concepts of human homogeneity and equal competence were resurrected as the bedrock of economics only once Lionel Robbins began to exert influence at the LSE and the Chicago school came to the fore in the 1950s.
Third, there is what may be called the 'sympathy' corollary. Peart and Levy argue that the classical economists, as supporters of analytical egalitarianism, viewed all individuals as worthy of sympathy, while the post-classical economists, as supporters of analytical hierarchism, viewed those individuals who they believed were innately inferior as sufficiently unfit and parasitical to be unworthy of sympathy. Peart and Levy further argue that, when a person is sympathetic to another person, he or she is willing to give up something to that person in return for something else. Thus one person may yield wealth to another person in return for approbation. This, the two authors maintain, plays an important role in driving reform policies that entail the redistribution of wealth, since this redistribution may be presented as the act of trading wealth for non-wealth rewards. They then claim that the shifting view of sympathy through time explains why the classical economists, especially John Stuart Mill, took this type of sympathy-driven trading into account in their policy formation, while the post-classical economists did not. Peart and Levy add, as a rider, that sympathy was strangely not resurrected in our discipline with the resurgence of analytical egalitarianism that accompanied the rise of the Chicago school.
Now, because the present narrative is no more than a book review, it is not possible to critically assess these three inter-linking ideas in any detail. I certainly do not have the space to convey the richness with which the ideas are presented. There is, for example, no space to consider the interesting way in which Peart and Levy delineate the alliance between the Evangelicals and the classical economists that formed to confront those who supported analytical hierarchism, nor to analyse the skilful way in which the authors deploy illustrations by George Cruikshank and John Tenniel to highlight the prejudices of those who advocated analytical hierarchism. Indeed, the list of the insights and tools that the two authors have deployed with skill to shed light on their research project is endless, and I leave it to the buyer of the book to scrutinise them for him or herself. Instead, with the limited number of words left at my disposal, I wish to take issue with the second sub-hypothesis or what I have called the 'post-classical analytical hierarchism' corollary. The claim that economics moved from a doctrine of analytical egalitarianism in the classical period to one of analytical hierarchy in the post-classical period is, I believe, the least convincing of the arguments presented in the book, or, to be more precise, the argument that the authors push to such a level of over-statement as to warrant questioning. In fact, I would argue that the more appropriate research question that Peart and Levy should ask is why analytical hierarchism had so little impact on post-classical economics, especially the analytical core as opposed to policy applications.
The fact of the matter is that the classical assumption of agent uniformity, as reflected in economic man, was retained as the central tool in the construction of economic theory in the various schools of neoclassical economics (that is, the schools that dominated the post-classical period). If anything, the classical doctrine of human homogeneity was further entrenched in the discipline of economics via the mathematisation of the subject matter that transpired in the Victorian period when Cambridge wranglers from the Mathematical Tripos, French mathematicians and Italian engineers migrated to the study of economics. It is simply more difficult to portray human difference in tight analytical frameworks that defined the post-classical period than in the meandering narratives that defined the classical period. Agents became uniform rolling balls that collided with fixed obstacles in frictionless space. This perhaps explains why the evidence provided by Peart and Levy for the 'hierarchical' infection of the neoclassical schools is so thin. They allude to John Maynard Keynes's well-known support for eugenics, William Stanley Jevons's predilection to portray the Irish as sub-human, Alfred Marshall's assertion that the lower classes had a different time preference compared to the professional classes and, which I found the most insightful of the observations made by the two authors, F.Y. Edgeworth's twist to utilitarianism on the basis that some individuals have a greater capacity for enjoyment than others. This is all very good, and I would not be surprised if one and all of the post-classical economics were racist to the core. But, at the end of the day, the impact on the theoretical core of economics was virtually nil.
Peart and Levy also have the habit of using the clever rhetorical strategy of devoting the majority of each chapter to outlining the views of racist anthropologists or proto-eugenicists and then punctuating the chapter with one or two pages in which they illustrate the neoclassical economists' use of human difference. In other words, unsuspecting readers are so swept along by the long, scholarly narrative that relates to the non-economists (and it is indeed impressive scholarship) that, when they are finally confronted with the link to economics, they ignore its slender nature. Chapter five, for example, quite astonishingly ends with no more than a three-page account of Bagehot's and Marshall's well-known claim that excessive abstraction in classical economics may be attributed to Ricardo's Jewish heritage. Surely Peart and Levy could muster more support than this to suggest that these scholars were preoccupied with race. Furthermore, much of the evidence that the two authors either could or do muster to support their case is slightly tarnished (but by no means inadmissible) because allusions to human difference in the various neoclassical texts may be attributed to the influence of the many historicist laws of economic development, which were then very popular, rather than to eugenic or Social Darwinism influences. This is important because, within most historicist laws of development, agents are portrayed, in the classical tradition of analytical egalitarianism, as mutable entities who are equally capable, but different due to an accident of time that places them in a certain historically determined institutional setting. They are not different due to innate, insurmountable genetic wiring. It is, in short, often difficult to work backwards, with certainty, from an allusion to difference within a text to either institutional historicism or eugenic theorising.
I strongly advocate that HETSA members read the Vanity of the Philosopher for themselves. It is an important publication in our field. As a postscript, some members may be disappointed that relevant articles from our own society's journal are not cited in this text. I here, of course, refer to Terence Hutchison's rather testy exchange with Mike White over the period 1993-1994 on the issue of Jevons's racist attitude to the Irish (see issues 19 and 21) and Peter Groenewegen's 2001 article devoted to Carlyle's attack on the 'Dismal Science' in 'The Nigger Question' (see issue 34).
Gregory Moore, College of Business, University of Notre Dame--Australia, PO Box 1225, Fremantle WA 6959, Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Publication:||History of Economics Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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