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No. 2623:
Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present

Today, economic salvation. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The mid nineteenth century found England in the throes of the industrial revolution. It was a time of unbridled technological advancement. But it also produced unparalleled social and economic upheaval, as an impoverished urban working class arose alongside a wealthy middle class. Could society continue on its present course, or were fundamental changes needed?

victorian working class alongside victorian middle class picture

Thomas Carlyle was among those who voiced an opinion. Carlyle established himself as a respected writer by completing a history of the French Revolution, but it was his role as social critic and bleak satirist that left its mark in history.

Carlyle portraitThe work Past and Present contains some of his most striking ideas. At the heart of Carlyle's social concerns was the free market economic system — a system that in part led Carlyle to deem economics "the dismal science." Far from being morally neutral, Carlyle believed free markets encouraged amorality. They freed participants from any moral obligations to one another — a fact he observed all around him. An industrialist could accrue vast wealth and pay his workers little because it was within the rules. Without some moderating force, Carlyle argued, free markets provided the working class only the "liberty to die by starvation." They also produced isolation as workers were forced to compete for what scraps of jobs were available, leaving them to ''die slowly all [their] lives long, imprisoned in a deaf, dead, Infinite Injustice."

But Carlyle's answer to the problem of free markets was neither regulation nor revolution. Carlyle was the product of a strict Calvinist upbringing. Morality came from faith, making faith the road to economic salvation. Socioeconomic problems couldn't be solved by manipulating the mechanical workings of a free market. Nor was overthrowing free markets the right answer. Instead, by drawing upon a faith-based morality, middle class industrialists would recognize the error of their excesses. Denouncing their "vulturous hunger for fine wines and gilt carriages," they would rise to eliminate the "squalor, hunger, rage and sooty desperation" of the working classes. 

Carlyle's thinking was a religious variant on a theme common to his era — that enlightened self-interest would limit the excesses of greed. Today, we've replaced enlightened self-interest with the rule of law. However, Carlyle's perspective highlights the fact that the rules of the game and sportsmanlike conduct are two separate things. And market participants are always free to play honorably, even when the rules don't require it.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Notes and references:

C. R. Vanden Bossche.  Carlyle and the Search for Authority. The Ohio State University Press, 1991. See especially Chapter 6, which provided the basis for this essay.

The picture of Thomas Carlyle is from Wikimedia Commons. The Victorian era pictures are in the public domain because the copyrights have expired.