David R. Henderson  

Richard Ely, Racist and State Worshipper

Argumentative Theory... Show Me Compassion: Throw Me i...

Who Was This Guy?

As many long-time members of the American Economics Association (I was one for about 25 years) know, one of the famous economists to whom the AEA pays respects is Richard Ely. An annual lecture at the AEA meetings is named after him and the AEA put out an Economists Calendar in which he is featured prominently. In a just-released article, "Richard T. Ely: The Confederate Flag of the AEA?", economists Clifford F. Thies and Ryan Daza reproduce some startling quotes from his work, based on what appears to be a comprehensive reading of Ely's extensive work. Of course, the quotes are one-sided: that's the point. Thies' and Daza's goal appears to be to give us the side that the AEA conspicuously left out. Ely, among other things, was a man who worshipped the state, literally, who wanted to keep out certain kinds of immigrants, and who saw black people as inferior. A few choice quotes:

[T]he fullest unfolding of our national faculties requires the exclusion of discordant elements--like, for example, the Chinese.

God works through the State in carrying out his purposes more universally than through any other institution.

The sad fact, however, is not that of competition [that feeble persons compete for employment and, so, drive down wages], but the existence of these feeble persons.

The negro race, while endowed with a splendid physique and with great power for work, is neither progressive nor inclined to submit to regularity of toil, such as an industrial civilization demands.

May I dare assert that something could be said for military training as affording a disciple of life? Possibly there may be other objections to military training; but, as I have observed it, and particularly in Germany, it does afford this.

Now, it may rationally be maintained that, if there is anything divine on earth it is the State, the product of the same God-given instincts which led to the establishment of the Church and the Family.

Here's what would be neat: for the AEA to abolish the Richard Ely lecture or keep the lecture but name it after someone without such views.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Tim Worstall writes:

Very doubtful about this. For a start, it's very difficult indeed to impose our own senses of moral worth upon the actions of those in the past. Should we tease Darwin, as we teased Jerry Lee Lewis, for a first cousin marriage? Reject Newton's calculus either for his alchemy or his quite foul treatment of Hooke? Treat Jefferson the same way we would treat a modern day slave owner?

Tempus mutandis after all.....

But much more importantly, if we're going to reject someone for, for example, arguing that the problem with the feeble minded is their existence, then we've got to write off GB Shaw, the Webbs and pretty much the entire European Progressive movement. Sweden was still carrying out compulsory sterilisations of the feeble minded in the 1970s.

I can see the delight and share the joy in writing off the Webbs but would rather it be for their applauding of Stalin etc than anything else.

That view of conscription was one still extant in the UK in the 1950s, that it was part of the making of a man, providing a discipline for life.

That God and the State view is part of Christian Socialism now: there's a campaigner well regarded on the UK left who today argues exactly that, that the State is now the outlet for Christian charity and that the payment of taxes is the fulfilment of our Christian duty as with the Good Samaritan.

That we now regard those views as abhorrent is a good reason to abhore those now who hold them now.

It's not all that good a reason to abhore those who held them in times past. The ideas, sure, but the people not so much. For among other things, it can be really quite surprising who held what views we would abhore now. We just shouldn't be judging those in hte past the same way we judge those extant now.

Charles R. Williams writes:

Ely sounds like a Margaret Sanger type proto-Nazi. That said, his views were not unusual for the time and do not necessarily compromise the value of his work. Are we going to retroactively purge the economics profession of communists, apologists for Stalin, nazis, fascists, white supremacists and advocates of affirmative action? What about supporters of Roe v. Wade? Do we have any crypto-Peronists or members of the Mattachine Society? This kind of retroactive witch hunt is totally unnecessary. Is his work as an economist compromised? Did he invent data? Did he plargiarize the work of others? I imagine the answer is no. Then there is no basis for questioning the decision of the AEA in 1960.

Pandaemoni writes:

I have to agree with the other posters. He was born in 1854, so some allowances need to be made because he was shaped by the age in which he was raised.

That said, if you can find and establish deficiencies in his scholarship and his importance in the history of economic thought (related to these viewpoints or otherwise), that would be another matter.

I once read quotes by Charles Dickens that were racist, but that doesn't mean I refuse to recognize the significance of A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and his many other literary works. Nor do the sexual antics of and strange views of sex held by Mohandas Gandhi make me reevaluate his more famous accomplishments.

Mike Holmes writes:

If you read the entire article about Ely, which I have done, you will discover that this is more than mere historical cultural context.

Ely was a major architect of the modern statist/proto fascist tendency in economics.

Read it for yourself.

Would the German Institute of Architects (if there is one) still hold an annual Albert Speer Memorial Lecture? Even if he were an important founder? Doubtful.

Ely deserves the full Memory Hole treatment.

Octahedron writes:

I think some consideration should be given to the time period in which he grew up in. His beliefs were probably the norm, but at the same time I don't think the AEA wouldn't want to be associated with him in that way by celebrating him with an annual lecture.

rapscallion writes:

If you're going to say that everyone who held views you finds repellant--regardless of their culture and time--was evil, then you've got to admit that most of our grandparents and almost all of our great-grandparents were evil people. Are you prepared to say that about your own grandparents and great-grandparents?

Shane writes:

From the link:

"[W]e must notice the deterioration in the character of our immigration and ponder well the effects which a large admixture of baser foreign elements is likely to have upon American nationality. Going back to our early immigration we find men of intellect and conscientious conviction… As late as 1848 Germans of a fine class came to this country..."

I wonder what terrible ethnic groups were coming into the US in 1894? Catholics from Ireland and Italy? Chinese and Japanese? It interests me that today European Catholics are mostly uncontroversial as immigrants, while the fear has shifted to Latin Americans and Muslims.

Steve Sailer writes:


Do you really want to know how far down this rabbit hole goes?

Staunch eugenicists invented much of the science underlying modern genetics (e.g., Fisher), evolutionary theory (e.g., Fisher and William D. Hamilton), and even statistics (e.g., Galton, Pearson, Fisher, and Spearman), and they did it explicitly as a means to making eugenics feasible.

To purge this terrible blot on the history of science, we should only teach science discovered before 1869 when Galton published "Hereditary Genius." Everything since then is tainted by the contributions of eugenicists.

Evan writes:

A lot of people have made the decent point that we should judge people by how moral they were compared to the average person in their own time, not by how moral they were compared to people in the present.

That being said, Ely's views sound considerably more racist and statist than that of the median economist of the time. After all, didn't Thomas Carlyle criticize economics as the "dismal science" for not being racist enough a full 5 years before Ely's birth?

@Steve Sailer:

To purge this terrible blot on the history of science, we should only teach science discovered before 1869 when Galton published "Hereditary Genius." Everything since then is tainted by the contributions of eugenicists.

David isn't suggesting getting rid of Ely's work, he's just suggesting not honoring him in light of his other views.

I can understand that, imagine if the German special forces training schools had an "Otto Skorzeny lecture" because Skorzeny was an awesome commando. I think most people would want that removed in light of Skorzeny also being a Nazi. That wouldn't make his awesomeness as a commando any lesser, but his negative attributes more than balance it out.

I remember learning about Galton in my high school psych class and think that my teacher handled it quite well. We learned he made some important discoveries, but was also a filthy eugenicist. This is the exact right way to do it, because of the Halo Effect you really have to make sure people understand a person's bad points before you emphasize their good points. Otherwise people might get the idea Galton and the other eugenicist's discoveries somehow make them less morally vile.

Jacob Oost writes:

That's nothing, look up the history of the AAUP (the professor's union). Apparently it was all started to defend some racist eugenicist at Stanford (Edward Alsworth Ross).

Anyway, there are plenty of "progressive Christians" these days who seem to worship the government too, and see the state as a means of advancing God's kingdom. Perhaps not coincidentally these are the same Christians who are happy to ignore whatever parts of the Bible they don't care for.

But this ain't a religious blog, so......

Curt Doolittle writes:

Sorry. But that's just ridiculous.

We cannot apply the judgments of the day to the circumstances of the past. If we did, we would have only ourselves to admire. And would that not be the most fascinating hubris? :)

We'd have to stop teaching pretty much the entire history of ideas.

Mark Brady writes:

I must agree with those who have rejected your proposal, which would seem to be another example of a disturbing tendency among both conservatives and libertarians to make accusations of political correctedness against 'left-wing' heroes and heroines.

Indeed, if a free market economist held the view that the AEA should keep the annual Ely Lecture despite Ely's repugnant views on state and society, that same economist would be in a stronger position to argue against suggestions to throw significant 'right-wing' figures down the memory hole.

One last point. I'm puzzled by Tim Worstall's question, "Should we tease Darwin, as we teased Jerry Lee Lewis, for a first cousin marriage?" I'd suggest that bans on first cousin marriage are somewhat analogous to anti-miscegenation laws, which have been unconstitutional in the U.S. since 1967 (Loving v. Virginia). It seems that the United States has the only bans (in some thirty states) on cousin marriage in the Western world. Time for repeal, I say. But I don't suggest we confine advocates of a ban on cousin marriages to the memory hole!

Tim Worstall writes:

To explain the Jerry Lee thing: I'm English and oh yes, we really did tease him for that first cousin marriage of his.

Mark Brady writes:

@Tim Worstall

I'm English too, but I seem to remember the Brits gave Jerry Lee Lewis a hard time on account of the age of his third wife (thirteen) and not their consanguinity (after all, she was only his first cousin once removed). In the U.S. the second factor had more impact than it did in the UK.

cynical writes:

Saying that we cannot apply the judgment of the day to figures of the past would make sense, if it weren't for the fact that the notions of human equality were conceived and articulated well before this man was born.

Saying that Thomas Jefferson should be excused from his views on slavery presumes that somehow nobody knew or could know that slavery was wrong. But George Washington knew that slavery was wrong.

The idea of judging men by the standards of their day is appropriate for questions such as judging how Washington resolved the conflict between his ideas on slavery vs. his ideas about civic responsibility and justice. Given what he knew and was taught, he did the best he could. But Jefferson (the much smarter, better thinker) did not do the best he could, and is no more deserving of an after-the-fact "but everyone felt that way" than George Wallace or other right-wing figures who are rightfully condemned for being on the wrong side of history. Unlike Wallace, Jefferson gets marks for the things he got right. But his name and accomplishments are marred by his ethical failings.

Likewise, a man who rejects the core ideology of the United States - which begins with "all men are created equal" - in favor of imposing his cherished faith in the scientific Ubermensch is no more deserving of having his memory whitewashed than a right wing figure who argued for the same ends and/or the same means would be or ought to be. There is no reason to judge the man who says or does foul things in the name of Utopia any more generously than the man who says or does foul things in the name of theocracy. In both cases, choosing to argue that we should overthrow human rights and the founding values of this nation in favor of some ideological cure-all should not be treated as harmless, nor should we pretend such men somehow did not know what they were doing.

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