Dismal Science ?

Ever wonder why Economics is called “the dismal science”?

The standard answer is that “19th century author Thomas Carlyle used the phrase to describe the pessimistic theories of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, since they predicted decline and fall.”

Barron’s Gene Epstein takes that old saw to task: He cites economists David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart essay, “The Secret History of the Dismal Science” as the definitive resolution of the issue:

“Thomas Carlyle did originate the phrase, and he did direct it at economists. But the “scientists” he had in mind were not Ricardo and Malthus, but economists like John Stuart Mill and Harriet Martineau. And their “dismal” offence was to advocate the abolition of slavery.

In a fierce and ongoing debate, the celebrated author of The French Revolution referred to “the Social Science [sic]…which finds the secret of this universe in ‘supply-and-demand,’ and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone.”

The above is from Carlyle’s 1849 essay, “An Occasional discourse on the Negro Question,” in which he goes on to use the D-S phrase for the first time. Compared to the “gay science” — meaning poetry — he calls economics the “quite abject and distressing…dismal science…led by sacred cause of Black Emancipation.”

Epstein further observes “My impression is that Carlyle meant economics was too reductive to recognize the poetry of racial superiority — and was therefore dismal. — An essay he published the following year, in which he defended his proposal to re-enslave Jamaicans [!], included the stirring sentence, “Respectable Professors of the Dismal Science, soft you a little!” No examples can be found of his using the phrase in any other way . . .

My assumption was always that the phrase was not based on the inherent pessimism of its practioners; Rather, I thought the moniker came about simply because economists have such a weak track record in their forecasting follies. Dismal, as in frustrating in their attempts to be more of a Science, and less of an Art. Indeed, I’ve joked about the difference between Strategists and Economists: The former is usually wrong about the future, while the latter is typically wrong about the past.

The science that liberates? Perhaps not so dismal after all . . .


Economy Finds Strength, White House Loses Way
By Gene Epstein
Barron’s, November 24, 2003 

The Secret History of the Dismal Science: Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century
David M. Levy, Sandra J. Peart,
Library of Economics and Liberty

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  1. apostropher commented on Mar 22


    Economics may be “the dismal science,” but as science goes, it’s as soft and ideological a science as any of the other social sciences, despite using lots and lots of numbers. Almost every economic model rests on the assumption of…

  2. Fresh Politics commented on May 11

    Dismal Day for the Dismal Scientist

    From the Financial Times, US real wages fall at fastest rate in 14 years:

    Inflation rose 3.1 per cent in the year to March but salaries climbed just 2.4 per cent, according to the Employment Cost Index. In the final three months of 2004, real wages …

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