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« Oliver Twist (II) | Main | Very »

February 25, 2009


Jonathan Dresner

Here, here!


While Himmelfarb thinks of her field as intellectual history, Krugman does not. He's a political and economic journalist, when he's not a serious economist. He (correctly) understood her comment to be political, not cultural, and he responded accordingly.

Also, Brandon is mistaken, in that it is Himmelfarb who has repeatedly referred to "Victorian values," which she thinks were conservative.


I'm not sure where I'm mistaken, since I didn't deny that Himmelfarb talked about Victorian values; I explicitly set aside the question of the cogency of her argument to consider Krugman's response to it. Bad responses to bad claims are still bad responses.

I understood the topic to be political as well, and I think Miriam's point covers both; pr perhaps I'm not sure what you mean by 'cultural' here.

joe fischer

Is a term like "Victorian," used outside of specific literary and historical study, like "Orwellian" or "Kafkaesque"? In other words, a word with a general meaning most people understand and agree upon, even as the word becomes distant from its original reference. Not that one shouldn't resist such linguistic meaning when it distorts that which it came from, which must be particularly frustrating for a Victorian scholar.


I misread your comment, Brandon, as critical of Krugman for referring to values (when that was Himmelfarb's term), but I see now that you think he moved from values to workhouses. I continue to see your comment as unfair to Krugman, as Himmelfarb focuses on Victorian strictness in regard to the poor and weak. She thinks the workhouse embodies the values she'd like to see regain fuller acceptance.


The comment really broke into two different points, namely, Krugman's failure to distinguish values and institutions and the irony that liberalism also involves 'Victorian values'.

(1) One can argue that Himmelfarb makes the same error and fails to distinguish Victorian values from Victorian institutions; I think there's a certain plausibility to the argument, and I wouldn't be surprised, although if so it's a matter of inconsistency, since I've read things by Himmelfarb where she makes the distinction very clear (and explicitly says that there is one and only one feature of workhouses that she thinks praiseworthy, namely, the 'principle of less-ineligibility', i.e., that welfare was provided in a way such that there was more incentive not to be a charity case than to be a charity case). But the fact that Himmelfarb started it would not be an excuse -- as an economist Krugman should know quite well that they are not the same, and should know it much better than Himmelfarb, since economists regularly debate such things.

(2) The irony is that he is making the same type of mistake as he accuses Himmelfarb of making, just from the opposite direction. It was actually this that was intended to be the primary thrust of my comment, although I can see that that doesn't show up as clearly as it should have. (And it was this point, of course, rather than the first, that Miriam picked up and improved upon.)


I intended to add, but forgot before I clicked 'post', that the connection between the two parts is that I think the first one is the reason why Krugman fails to realize he's basically accepting that Himmelfarb (as he understands her) is right that Victorian values are conservative values. Himmelfarb: impressive Victorian values like able-bodied independence, embodied in Victorian institutions, which disincentivized crime; Krugman: unimpressive Victorian institutions like workhouses, which embodied Victorian values, without aren't necessary for disincentivizing crime. Same categories, with opposing failures to separate the ideal and real. (Contrast it with a criticism Krugman could have made but didn't, namely, that the conservative glorification of the Gilded Age builds on a very selective approach to Victorian values.)


Sorry to belabor this, but I think both H. and K. are using shorthand when they refer to Victorian values. Victorianists may not like their doing so, but that's what they're doing. And H and K's reference is to what they take to have been dominant values, that is, what the Victorian social and economic establishment expressed through its various laws and institutions. Our knowing that there was great resistance to these values makes us uneasy with this shorthand, but as Joe Fischer says above, why can't specialists and non-specialists use the same term differently?

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