Day By Day

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Now Here's Something I Thought I Knew But Didn't

How economics came to be called the "dismal science."

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.1

Read it here.

Verrrry interrrresting -- I had always admired Carlyle's literary talents but considered him to be an atrocious historian. Now I have come to also consider him an atrocious person. And as for Ruskin..., I had always been put off by his anti-capitalist diatribes, but now...., well..., just look at the cartoon. I know historians are supposed to view their subjects objectively, but these guys are just plain repulsive.

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