Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The Vanity of the Economist: A Comment on Peart and Levy's the "Vanity of the Philosopher"

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

The Vanity of the Economist: A Comment on Peart and Levy's the "Vanity of the Philosopher"

Article excerpt

Peart and Levy's (2005) The "Vanity of the Philosopher" is a wonderfully rich tapestry, full of historical detail and intellectual insight. But it is also a work of persuasion, aiming to convince the reader of a larger story. That story, unhappily, is not fully fleshed out, the plot not fully convincing, and the moral not compelling. I reach these conclusions as a friendly critic who is deeply sympathetic to many of their attitudes and substantive beliefs.

Levy and Peart define analytical egalitarianism as the doctrine that takes as its working assumption that people are to be regarded as homogeneous in capabilities and respect. To assume that people are arranged into moral, intellectual, or social hierarchies is the opposite of analytical egalitarianism. Vanity explores the role of the competing assumptions of analytical egalitarianism and hierarchy in the debates over race (Irish versus English, African versus European) among 19th-century British economists and public intellectuals and the role of economists in the late 19th- and early 20th-century eugenics movement. Peart and Levy divide economics into "classical" and "postclassical"--roughly into before and after John Stuart Mill. Classical economics was, they argue, grounded in analytical egalitarianism; postclassical, in the assumption of hierarchy.

Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill are the heroes of Vanity. Peart and Levy take Smith's ([1776] 1976: Bk. 1, Ch. 2) formulation of egalitarianism as their starting point and as the source of their title:

   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. When
   they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of
   their existence, they were perhaps very much alike, and neither
   their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable
   difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed
   in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then
   to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the
   vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any

Note, in contrast to Peart and Levy's implication, that Smith is not here advocating analytical egalitarianism. Instead, Smith acknowledges that people are substantively unequal and analyzes the source of that inequality, concluding that it is nurture, not nature. The equality that he identifies is an equality of the original potential of people--a substantive, not an analytical, egalitarianism. Equivocation between analytical and substantive egalitarianism does much of the work in Vanity.

Peart and Levy's other hero, Mill, played a similar role in Levy's earlier How the Dismal Science Got Its Name (2001). Mill is the man of action, having fought the good fight against slavery and, in the case of John Eyre, the governor of Jamaica on trial for a massacre, on the side of equal justice for former slaves.

The villains are Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin--again, principals in Levy's Dismal Science--and Adolph Hitler. The case against Carlyle and Ruskin as racists is explicit. The case against Hitler is implicit in the question: "Does the Holocaust provide a firewall to eugenics?" (Peart and Levy 2005: 125, fn. 32; cf. 110). Peart and Levy write: "Firewalls do not maintain themselves. One purpose of our book is to help maintain a firewall in the space of ideas by discussing the consequences that have followed from the assumption that surface differences among people reveal underlying differences among persons" (2005: 125). Clearly, Vanity is not a dispassionate work. Peart and Levy do not hide their passionate opposition to racism and eugenics; nor do they disguise their polemical tone. There would be no objection to such a style, except where it distorts vision. Unfortunately, I think that, in Peart and Levy's case, it does just that. …

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