Anatomy of the “Dismal Science”

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Reading Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution got me curious about him. A friend of liberty? He describes the epochal event in 700 close print pages of exciting narrative. A stormy, breathless, you-are-there quality, with dashes of sarcasm and much heavy irony, makes it fascinating reading. What did he mean by writing On Heroes and Hero-Worship? No, he was no friend of democracy, liberty, and the common man, though he did begin as a radical. In fact, he seems to have been a rather tortured intellect, maybe a tormented soul.

While thumbing through his life, however, I came upon this interesting tidbit about him and his coinage, perhaps his most famous, i.e., economics is “the dismal science.” It can easily be interpreted as a protest against the pessimistic, inhumane, and souless discipline of a “science” devoted to money. Well, think again…

Everyone knows that economics is the dismal science. And almost everyone knows that it was given this description by Thomas Carlyle who was inspired to coin the phrase by T. R. Malthus’s gloomy prediction that population would always grow faster than food, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.

While this story is well-known, it is also wrong, so wrong that it is hard to imagine a story that is farther from the truth. At the most trivial level, Carlyle’s target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus’s predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact—that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty—that led Carlyle to label economics “the dismal science.”

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

The image at the top is a medallion produced by the abolitionist industrialist, Josiah Wedgewood. JW was good friends with that practitioner of the dismal science and fellow abolitionist, Adam Smith. (Darwin was married to one of JW’s family, and was also an abolitionist, as well as being about 100 years ahead of his time on the question of race. Not only was he against slavery, not only did he think that Africans were the same (species) as Europeans, but he was actually friends with some.) This children of The Enlightenment – that fearsomely evil, anti-moral, godless, soul-destroying ideology – seem like pretty good guys compared to Thomas Carlyle, romantic apologist for dictatorship and slavery.

Still, he was a pretty nice looking fellow, don’t you think?

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One Response to Anatomy of the “Dismal Science”

  1. Renegade Eye says:

    Very interesting post.

    I didn’t know about Darwin and slavery.

    I found this blog at Sonia’s.

    Regards.

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