Economics – Why the Dismal Science?

Buckle up everybody, we’re going on a field trip.

I first came across this alternative name of “The Dismal Science” from the economics subreddit. I didn’t really get it, maybe because my knowledge of economics is limited, so I just ignored it. I have since seen it said that it’s all to do with how resources are scarce and that population will continue to grow, making them more scarce, I guess? I got curious and went in search of a proper answer and what I found is slightly heartening and horrifying at the same time.

Now, to the earlier explanation, it’s not entirely far off the mark. Thomas Carlyle did refer to the economic work of Thomas Malthus as being “dismal.” Understandable since Malthus kinda said that growth of population will eventually outpace agriculture, making starvation and famine inevitable. Dismal indeed.

The truth of the matter, according to this journal article (Persky) anyway, was that Carlyle was saying that “[this was the science] which finds the secret of this Universe in ‘supply and demand,’ and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone.” He didn’t like this and held that people needed strong leadership and guidance to be effective.

He seemed to be especially attached to the idea that some people, including the “idle
Black man in the West Indies,” were designed to be subservient by a divine authority. An idea I, and fortunately most modern societies, find abhorrent. I took the liberty of doing a little more reading about him and his opinions, partially trying to find the original source for the other quote, and find his view only slightly more nuanced. There are a handful of instances where he claimed that the skin color was not the central issue, but I guess the money shot for this post is as follows:

“The solution is perhaps still distant. But some approximation to it … must
be made:—this of declaring that Negro and White are unrelated,
loose from one another, on a footing of perfect equality, and subject
to no law but that of supply-and-demand according to the Dismal
Science; this, which contradicts the palpable facts, is clearly no solution.”

Mr. Thompson of The Atlantic seems to feel that one should be proud to be a student of a science whose nickname came about through an accidental opposition to slavery supporters. I’m not so convinced that economics should be taking some credit but I had a question, I feel like I did a decent investigation, and came away with an answer. I call that a win.

Y’all take care. I hope you learned something.

References if anyone cares:

Persky, Joseph. “A Dismal Romantic”

Kinser, Brent E. “Fearful Symmetry: Hypocrisy and Bigotry in Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Occasional Discourse[s] on the Negro Question.’”


BlaugustBOnlylogoIn case you haven’t heard, we’re in the middle of an event called Blaugust. The goal is to simply promote and stimulate the blogging community by encouraging people of all skill levels and backgrounds to post. The official post can be found here and it’s never too late to start.

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