Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Scholar as Truth Teller


Ian Castles (1935-2010) is best known as the first Secretary of  a new-born Department  of Finance (1979-1986) and the eleventh Australian Statistician (1986-1994).

I wish to shine a light here on a scholarly production of Ian Castles: his paper of 1984 entitled ‘Economics and anti-Economics’. This paper is equally remarkable and neglected. It is neglected: it is almost impossible to obtain. And it is remarkable that a public servant senior engrossed in administration could, amid the cares of such an office, produce what is essentially a Masters thesis born of the scrutiny of miscellaneous recondite texts.

The subject of Castles’ paper is the so-called ‘the moral critics of political economy’ of the 19th c. His thesis is that that they were, in truth, immoral critics of political economy. Even ‘immoral’ is understatement; in reading Castles paper I am left with the thought that ‘appalling, atrocious, indecent to the point of villainy’ would be closer to the mark.

Castle’s case is a careful 30,000 word long examination of the actual; what was actually said by the economists (as distinct from what they were said to have said); and what was actually believed by anti-economists. In detailing the gulf between these two actuals, Castles’ paper amounts to a crushing piece of table-turning upon these supposed ‘moral critics’.

Castles paper is a tour de force. But in the source of that force we may also locate its lacking; its ad hominem aspect. When I say ad hominem I hardly need say that Castles does not proceed by denigrating the personal attributes of his targets; he did not describe any of them as an ‘ill-bred, half witted Scotchman with a damned soul’; that is John Ruskin’s own well-bred caption for Adam Smith. When I say ad hominem I mean that Castles’ strategy is to show is that the positive assertions of anti-economists were ignorant and ludicrous, and their normative positions were obnoxious.  There is a power in this, procedure  and a frailty: for it is clear that to show that someone has misrepresented (besmirched, calumnied) a corps of doctrine is not to show the doctrine is true, or even an advance towards truth. And to demonstrate that the persons who have censured some tendency are far more censurable themselves, is not to demonstrate the tendency itself is beyond any censure. Thus while Castles paper establishes that the ‘moral critics’ offended justice, it leaves unidentified, unexamined and unresolved the questions at issue that were the background of that act of injustice. And his method of ‘personal critique’ leaves open a method of ‘personal defence’; where the anti-economist shrugs ‘we all know that Ruskin was barking mad; but still… ’.  I wonder if these deficiencies in its dialectic strategy may explain the aspect of proximity-without-contact that I have in contemplating Castles’ paper: for I am conscious that Ian’s apparently vanquishing riposte to anti-economics appeared on the eve of an eruption of anti-economics in  Australia of which in its ignorance, frenzy and indecency would almost match that of the 19th c originals. We must infer the paper did not prevent that eruption; we may suspect it did little to temper its frenzy. During that ghastly episode Castles paper would have given heart to a few economists who knew of the paper; but by its nature it could not supply the logical tools that might provide of logical antidote to the distemper.

One can’t do everything in a single paper!
Let me try to distill what it does do. 

At the outset Castles groups of his protagonists.

On one side Castles places the ‘Economists’; by which he means the Classical Economists.

On the other side are ‘anti-economists’, sometimes known to historians of ideas as the ‘sages’ of 19thc Britain; though perhaps better described as the rhapsodists, the Savonarolas, the berserks of that society: S.T Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, who, over two generations, personified a blazing seam of social and political reaction in British intellectual life; and exhaled cyanide gas against the ‘dismal science’, as Carlyle so enduringly branded it.

But, critically, Castles adds to ‘the anti-economists’ a second trio of persons; very different in character and station from the first; but who under mantle of progressivism broadcast in the 20th c the same travesty of economics promulgated by reactionaries of the 19th. These are three ‘teledons’ or celebrity intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s; CP Snow, JK Galbraith, and Kenneth Clarke; the authors of,

The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution
The Age of Uncertainty
Civilisation: A Personal View


The case against classical economics which these three disseminate was essentially the same, and amounted to insinuating a responsibility of classical economics for the banes of 19th c ‘industrialism’: those Dark Satanic Mills; that ‘the condition of the working class’, poverty amidst plenty, the Poor House vs Ascott House. The classical economists, at the very least, bestowed a self-satisfied benediction on this awfulness. They were therefore culpable of moral delinquency; or ‘inhuman[ity]’ in the words of Kenneth Clark,  who Castles rightly identifies as the  leading 20th c disciple of Ruskin’s ‘devastating’ (in Clarke;s word[1]) anti-economics.

Ian Castles contends that the truth about the economists and the anti-economists is much closer the very opposite; that classical economists possessed a feeling of humanity, and a sympathy for humanity; and it was the anti-economists gripped by a loathing of much of their fellow species .

Castles sustains that claim by contrasting the positions of the two groups on various heads of social and economic policy of the day. Let me go through them.


Castles points our that ‘probably the first serious proposal ever’ for universal [publicly funded] education’ Adam Smith, in the Wealth of Nations. [2] In his lead on education Smith was followed by virtually every political economist. Coleridge was roughly contemptuous of such programs of universal education. Ruskin maintained it was best if not all children were required to learn to read.


Castles bears evidence of a leniency of the classical economists to perpetually troubled Ireland. Ricardo recommended that to Ireland be applied a ‘system, of kindness, indulgence and conciliation’. And Nassau Senior, no soft touch in these matters, contended that ‘the erection, regulation and support of fever hospitals, infirmaries and dispensaries [in Ireland] should be fully and immediately attended to’(Senior 1831).[3] It was the anti-economists  who, as Castles documents, felt an irritated, resentful impatience at such solicitation for Ireland’s wants, and repeatedly insisted that the Lord would provide whatever necessaries Ireland might require.[4]

The New Poor Law

The New Poor Law would seem to be a prize case for anti-economists. But however severe the New Poor Law, it needs to be registered that it was the express position of those Political Economists who favoured the Law (such as Mill) was that the Law was warranted by the obligation of society to relieve the destitution of the destitute. However qualified that obligation was in the minds of Mill and the like, they held the destitute had a rightful and lawful claim on society, and the New Poor Law was to meet that claim.       
Political Economists could also be friends of private charity, and the greatest of them was the greatest friend; Ricardo. On his estate Ricardo established a dispensary, an alms house, and a school; he was a prolific subscriber to various charities: the Poor of the Parish of Hanovers Square, Extreme Distress at Spitalsfield and Persons Confined for Small Debts …. (the list is extensive). 

It was Carlyle who considered all this provision for the poor (be it public or private) an absurdity.

Why not regiment these unfortunate wretches, put colonels and corporals over them and thrash them, if it proved needful, into habits of industry …Try them for a couple of years and if they could not feed themselves … they ought to be put out into the world’ …. Sell them in Brazil as niggers.


Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Senior, were strenuous anti-slavers; the anti—economists were almost always  slavers.

Coleridge snarled that the Empire was being subverted by abolitionism. In Unto This Last  –  the anti-economics frenzy so by praised Clarke - Ruskin announced that slavery is ‘an inherent, natural and eternal inheritance of much of the human race.  It was Carlyle’s fury at abolitionism was the very occasion of his coinage the ‘Dismal Science’; in  his paper the ‘Nigger Question’ of 1849, in which, amidst fantasies of firing squads for political economists, he champions slavery as ‘the answer’ to that ‘question’.

There is an historical epilogue here: ‘the Eyre Controversy’. In October 1865 a rioting mob in Jamaica killed 18 people. At the behest of the Governor, Edward James Eyre, British troops executed, or lawlessly killed, 586 blacks, and flogged another 600. Scandalised, JS Mill formed a Jamaica Committee. But Carlyle ‘heartily sorry for Eyre’, and with Ruskin formed a Eyre Defence Committee to rebut the ‘nigger philanthropists’ of Mill and Henry Fawcett.

Let me pause to insert a speculation. I put to you that all three of these ‘moral critics’ of political economy adopted - presumably as a model for British public - the persona of tyrant. In the conduct of Eyre we have sinister possibility of Life imitating Art. Thus there is a more than personal significance in the character – the bad character – of the anti-economists; and there is a broader significance in the good character of Ricardo and Malthus. The evidence on that score, that Ian Castles’ careful plots, is that this most vilified of men they were equable, amicable, affectionate. 

There is also an added significance in the intellectual honesty of the classical economists, about which Ian also assembles a fund of personal testimony. For the insinuation of JK Galbraith in the Age of Uncertainty is that the classical economists were not so; his implicit message is the only significance in their thought lies in whatever propaganda purpose it might be put. It may seem strange for a supposed historian of economic doctrine to impute such logical insignificance to the theories of classical economics ; but the imputation is doubtless rooted in the position (so congenial to the adversaries of classical economics) that reality is plastic; that it can be pushed into any desired shape; that we have play-doh economy is free of constraints, trade-offs, costs,  … The upshot is that there is no hidden mechanism to trouble over, there is no economic law to be uncovered; only political power to be obtained

Very different was the outlook of the political economists, who believed that a powerful but  complex mechanism underlay economic events;  a mechanism that was hidden to careless observer but yet could be found. It was on account this outlook that, as Maria Edgeworth records, ‘[Ricardo and Malthus] hunted in search of truth and huzzaed wherever they found her ... .’

I  suspect it was partly that jubilant sense of discovery; that na├»ve joy; that impelled Ricardo to unabashedly advance his doctrines in the form of motions to the House of Commons, that were lost by vast majorities; provoking even one of his parliamentary allies to rise  from the bench and declare that the Member for Portarlington must have ‘descended  from Jupiter’.

How unworldly the ‘worldly philosophers’ seem in contrast to Clark, Galbraith and Snow,  those three sleek greyhounds of various mid-20th ‘corridors of power’. The ambassador’s residence, the division lobby of the House of Lords, the weekend party at Windsor castle; such were their natural habitats.

And it is on account of their unworldliness that the classical economists were very differently motivated to write than Galbraith etc. On this difference Castles tellingly quotes Galbraith from his Affluent Society;

Audiences of all kinds applaud what they like best … the great television and radio commentators make a profession of  …  saying with elegance and unction what their audience find most acceptable. 


The conflict between the wish to be something in the world and the wish for other things brings me Castles treatment CP Snow.

What provokes Castle’s ire in Snow’s Two Cultures is Snow’s light minded pairing – in a single phrase - of Napoleon wiith Adam Smith. To give some quarter to Snow for his apparent fatuity, I wonder if, as a self-identified ‘democratic socialism’ Snow was seeking some epitomisation of ‘autocratic capitalism’ and failing to find one, settled for epitomisation of autocracy (Napoleon) and epitomisation capitalism (Smith). But, however that may be, Castles does not hesitate to pounce, and stresses the perfect antipathy between the world views of the Emperor and the professor; the one a philosophy of conquest, and the other a philosophy of exchange; an antithesis exemplified in their stance to empire: the one  the supreme imperialist; the other an emphatic  anti-imperialist, who saw empire as corrupt and costly methods of Mercantilism; and who would have found every corroboration for this thesis the ‘Continental System’ introduced by Napoleon. This last policy provoked some forward opposition by some economists in France, which Napoleon dismissed as ‘the twaddle of economists’. As T. B McCauley said, Napoleon ‘hated political economy’
In its revolutionary despotism we can doubtless detect in the Napoleonic empire a prefiguring of the totalitarian state. But we can also see a prefiguring of the totalitarian state in Napoleon’s sensitivity to (and anxiety about) social ideas, including economic ideas. Napoleon once complained if there were a monarchy made of granite, the abstractions of the economists would be enough to grind it into dust.  Napoleon was resolved to subvert any such subversion by abstract thought: thus J-B Say, having refused the importunate overtures of the Emperor, was dismissed from the Legislature, and publication of his Treatise of Political Economy forbidden;  thus Napoleon abolished the Institut concerned with social sciences, amidst much fuming about ‘ideologists’ (while preserving the Institut of natural sciences and humanities).

Warp it, break it; make it teach that black is white. This is how totalitarian societies deal with social thought.  War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.

In ‘Economics and Anti-economics’, written in 1984, Castles makes effective rhetorical reference of Orwelllian oxymorons to underline the perverse rewriting of history of economics by Clark and Galbraith. ‘Inhumanity is Humanity’ is the double-speak slogan under which they stand. And yet Castles’ references to Orwell’s 1984 in some respects miss the mark. For we don’t live in a totalitarian state; and the perversely false mythologies of Clark and Galbraith flourish without the terroristic negative incentives of such a state. A free society evidently contains positive incentives that powerfully nourish such mythologies. Pondering what those positive incentives are brings me back to the unwitting (or shameless) admission of Galbraith that Castles highlighted:

Commentators make a profession of saying with elegance and unction what their audience find most acceptable 

The looming reference is the corruption to thought that lies in the temptations to popularity and celebrity. To put the thought another way, unpopularity and obscurity can be a price of integrity. An indifference to those prices can be a source of integrity 

We are fortunate that considerations of popularity and celebrity did not figure in Ian Castles motivations to write ‘Economics and Anti-economics’. It is a powerful piece of history of economic ideas. Yet it was never his lot to have it published by Andre Deutsch (it was never published at all). It was not his lot to deliver his economics by Reith Lecture; he did not have a BBC microphone or camera. Instead he delivered his paper to a session in Canberra of the (soon to expire) ANZAAS Conference; no place at all for any ‘great radio and television commentator’.

Ian Castles had the worldly unworldliness of Ricardo, and regardless of the presence or absence of the television camera, he ‘hunted in search of truth and huzzaed wherever he found her’.


Castles, Ian (1984) ‘Economics and Anti-Economics’, 54th ANZAAS Congress, 18 May 1984

Clark, Kenneth (1950) The Gothic Revival : an Essay in the History of Taste , London, Constable

Coleman, William (2004) Economics and Its Enemies: Two Centuries of Anti-Economics , Palgrave Macmillan

Senior, Nassau (1831) Letter to Lord Howick on a Legal Provision for the Irish Poor.

[1] See Clark (1950)
[2]   Barthelemi-Gabriel Rolland is recorded by historians of education to be the author, in 1768, of the very first such proposal (see Coleman 2004, p257).
[3] James McCulloch believed that in Ireland ‘the poor should have a claim, a right to support’. Senior opposed such a claim (Senior 1831, 30).
[4]What are the great causes of Irish misery?’ asked John Wilson (anti-economist and friend of ST Coleridge) … Without hesitation we reply … he is the author of his own misery … in the qualities of disposition for national prosperity, he stands at the lowest of civilised men’ (see Castles 1984, p34).