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Mark Atwood
How Economics got the name "The Dismal Science".
Economics got the slur "dismal" not because of it's use in the countering of wrongheaded unthinking starry-eyed idealistic utopianism, but because of it's base assumptions of equality, individuality, personal choice, and it's implicit nullification of the cherished beliefs of virulant racists.


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."

Carlyle was not alone in denouncing economics for making its radical claims about the equality of all men. Others who joined him included Charles Dickens and John Ruskin. The connection was so well known throughout the 19th century, that even cartoonists could refer to it, knowing that their audience would get the reference.

"In choosing Mill as their target, Carlyle and his allies chose well. Like most classical economists, Mill treated such characteristics as race as analytically irrelevant."

2 comments or Leave a comment
elfs From: elfs Date: June 5th, 2003 02:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
That was probably one of the better things I've read this month. Most cool, thanks!
fallenpegasus From: fallenpegasus Date: June 5th, 2003 02:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
I got the link from David Friedman who used it in
this article to rec.arts.sf.fandom, where he said

One of the big variables between societies is who they define as "people". Slave-holding societies define slaves as non-people to varying degrees of completeness. Likewise women and societies with highly restrictive
"traditional" views of women's roles. We've worked our way to a point where, at least briefly, we've defined
"people" to include everyone in, at least, our own society.

And as it happens, the economists were the good guys in that particular change, although not the only good guys. And the anti-economists--the sort of people (Ruskin, Carlyle) from whom talk about economics coldly ignoring human, non-economic consequences descends, were the bad guys.

and also to this article to rec.arts.sf.composition.
2 comments or Leave a comment