Race, Liberalism, and Economics.

Author:Henry, John F.
Position:Book Review

Race, Liberalism, and Economics, edited by David Colander, Robert Prasch, and Falguni Sheth. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 2004. Cloth, ISBN 0472113569, $65.00. 334 pages.

This collection of essays is an outgrowth of a Middlebury College conference surrounding the work of David Levy and Sandra Peart. Levy's seminal 2001 book, How the Dismal Science Got Its Name: Classical Economics and the Ur Text of Racial Politics, touched off a rather heated debate on the relation among economic theory, nineteenth century liberalism, and racist ideology. In summary, the contention is that the classical economists (notably Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill) took a non- or antiracist position, and this was consistent with their liberal (individualist) theory. As liberalism stresses the rights of the individual in a market economy, all individuals, regardless of race, are to be accorded equal rights to allow effective competition. Anti-neoclassicists such as Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin adopted a racist position. This followed from their paternalistic, non-market-oriented argument in which the "superior" members of society knew what was in the best interests of those deemed inferior, and blacks would be placed in the lower (or lowest) ranks of this population. In current parlance, this position would translate into a "government knows best" slogan.

In his introduction, Robert Prasch lays out the fundamental issue posed by the conference: whether the seemingly arcane issue of a nineteenth century debate leads directly to the more general issue of the role of markets in a modern economy and the policy implications of that inquiry. Is the work of Levy and Peart one aspect of the revitalization of the "Chicago approach" and the policy ramifications of the current neoliberal program?

The papers begin with a general introduction to the history of racism by Brendan O'Flaherty and Jill Shapiro and then move directly to the core presentation by Levy and Peart. Susan Zlotnick and Falguni Sheth then present opposition papers. Zlotnick argues that Levy and Peart take many issues out of context and, hence, miss the real sense of the debates that surrounded racism, the antislavery movement, factory reform, and nineteenth century imperialism. Sheth argues that Mill's progressive ideas on race had less to do with his support for markets than with his more general thinking on human nature, tradition, and other social factors that would fall within today's...

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