Dismal Science

From ArticleWorld

The phrase dismal science was coined in 1849 by Thomas Carlyle, popularly thought to be in response to the doomsday predictions of Thomas Robert Malthus. Malthus predicted that the human population, if unchecked, would grow exponentially, while the food supply would only increase arithmetically, thereby leading to a considerable decrease in food available per person. Carlyle writing in 1839, descibed this vision as dismal, and ten years later, called the entire discipline of economics a dismal science.

However, at this time Carlyle was not referring to Malthus, but to economic thinkers like John Sturart Mill, and not indicting the methods of economics, but what he saw as its 'sacred cause', emancipation of the enslaved. Mill and other liberals such as Harriet Martineau believed, like Adam Smith, that race did not determine economic behavior. Mill argued that when explaining why some nations are rich and others poor, institutions matter, and race does not. Smith, while not directly addressed by Carlyle, was also influential at this time, and had argued in the previous century that when it came to economic choices, there are 'natural' differences, such as race, between how people act. Human and social differences are to be explained by incentives, history and luck and there are therefore no naturally superior or inferior people.

Carlyle disagreed that these decisions were rational, and called economics a dismal science because of the assumptions it made about the equality of people. He described economics as the opposite of poetry, the 'gay science' (later the title of a book by Friedrich Nietzsche). The dismal science was directed by the 'sacred cause of Black Emancipation', and if paid heed to, it would result in English people '[giving] birth to progenies and prodigies; dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto'.