Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The "Vanity of the Philosopher": Analytical Egalitarianism, Associationist Psychology, and Eugenic Remaking?

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The "Vanity of the Philosopher": Analytical Egalitarianism, Associationist Psychology, and Eugenic Remaking?

Article excerpt

I

Introduction

THE "VANITY OF THE PHILOSOPHER" (Peart and Levy 2005) provides a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on the role that racial themes and eugenic doctrine played in the development of late 19th-and early 20th-century social science (see, e.g., Colander, Prasch, and Sheth 2004; Cot 2005; Leonard 2005a, 2005b; Levy 2001). Peart and Levy's mastery of the texts is apparent throughout Vanity, and they ably muster a truly impressive array of evidence to bolster their thesis that the rise of "postclassical economics" entailed the "loss of sympathy in economic analysis, and the endorsement of eugenical remaking" by a bevy of late 19th- and early 20th-century social scientists (Peart and Levy 2005: xi).

Rather than providing an in-depth review of Vanity, my comments here primarily focus on a puzzling omission from Vanity's narrative: associationist psychology. This is a puzzling omission because the tenets of associationist psychology play a vitally important role in both John Stuart Mill's race-blind analysis of cottier tenure in Ireland and Mill's exchange with Thomas Carlyle over the "Negro Question" (Mill 1850). (1) I conclude by noting a rather intriguing complementarity between the 1930s debate over eugenic remaking and the 1930s debate over socialist economic calculation. Additionally, I provide some suggestions for future research along the lines of Vanity. For example, why did F. A. Hayek never attack eugenic planning? First, however, we turn to associationist psychology and its intimate connection to Mill's race-blind political economy.

II

Egalitarianism?

PEART AND LEVY intriguingly note that many colleagues (including James M. Buchanan) have asked: "What if Plato were right about inherent differences among peoples?" (Peart and Levy 2005: 125). Plato, of course, exemplifies the hieararchicalist view that supposedly innate differences explain observed heterogeneity. Indeed, Plato's account of the division of labor presupposes innate differences among people. (2) Adam Smith's account of the division of labor, by contrast, contends that people are basically alike at birth, and that it is the division of labor--learning by doing--that induces any later observed heterogeneity in agents' productive capacities. My guess is that Peart and Levy's egalitarianism would not be swayed one iota by any affirmative answer to the Plato question. Indeed, Peart and Levy make abundantly clear that while they do think people "are, in fact, different" (2005: xv) on various physical margins, they readily subscribe to Lionel Robbins's view that all systems of "political calculations which do not treat ... [people] as if they were equal are morally revolting" (Lionel Robbins, qtd. in Peart and Levy 2005: xv). (3) Intriguingly, Peart and Levy state that they wholeheartedly subscribe to the analytical egalitarianism of classical economics that, "[s]tarting with Adam Smith ... presumes humans are the same in their capacity for language and trade; observed differences are then explained by incentives, luck, and history" (2005: 3). Peart and Levy's reference to Robbins (2005: xv) is particularly intriguing because Robbins places much emphasis on the difference between Plato's and Smith's rival accounts of the division of labor in his justly famous LSE lectures (Robbins 1998). Intriguingly, although Robbins argued that "nearly everybody who talks about differences of nature, including professional natural scientists, talks nonsense, and nonsense which can very easily be converted into immoral acts," he did consider it "important to realise that Socrates had hit on something ... There are differences of nature, although we don't at this moment know awfully much about them" (Robbins 1998: 14, emphasis added). Similarly, Robbins suggests that Adam Smith's account of the division of labor--"we all come into the world with, roughly speaking, equal potentiality, and what happens afterwards is a matter of education and experience"--is not "exactly right" (Robbins 1998: 130). …

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