Just this week, I interviewed Gene Epstein for the summer issue of the Austro Libertarian Magazine. One of the questions I was preparing to ask him had to do with the description of economics as the “dismal science.” This phrase of course refers to the words of Thomas Carlyle. Gene explained to me that most people think that by this phrase it is meant that economics is bland or boring. But this is not what Carlyle meant– he was actually seeking to praise economics. Gene writes to me:
Why is economics called “the dismal science”? Ask the victims of Econ 101 — who are routinely confronted with indifference curves, money multipliers, and equations of exchange (bogus concepts, all) — and they’ll probably tell you: because it’s the boring science!
Ask the textbook writers, environmentalists, and general cognoscenti, and they’ll almost surely tell you: because it’s the unhappy science.
According to almost any standard source, 19th century author Thomas Carlyle used the phrase to describe the pessimistic theories of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, since they predicted decline and fall.
Not true, as economists David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart show in their essay, “The Secret History of the Dismal Science.”
Thomas Carlyle did originate the phrase, and he did direct it at economists. But the “scientists” he had in mind were not Ricardo and Malthus, but economists like John Stuart Mill and Harriet Martineau. And their “dismal” offence was to advocate the abolition of slavery.
In a fierce and ongoing debate, the celebrated author of The French Revolution referred to “the Social Science [sic]…which finds the secret of this universe in ‘supply-and-demand,’ and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone.”
The above is from Carlyle’s 1849 essay, “An Occasional discourse [sic] on the Negro Question,” in which he goes on to use the D-S phrase for the first time. Compared to the “gay science” — meaning poetry — he calls economics the “quite abject and distressing…dismal science...led by [the] sacred cause of Black Emancipation [itals and caps in original].”
My impression is that Carlyle meant economics was too reductive to recognize the poetry of racial superiority — and was therefore dismal.
An essay he published the following year, in which he defended his proposal to re-enslave Jamaicans [!], included the stirring sentence, “Respectable Professors of the Dismal Science, soft you a little!”
No examples can be found of his using the phrase in any other way.
So how did this myth about the coining of the D-S phrase get started? The whitewashing, not to coin a pun, of Carlyle’s image must have had something to do with it. Some of the racist statements in the abovementioned essays are truly vile. But, otherwise, no one seems to know how the transmutation took place.
The originator of the D-S phrase was making grudging reference to a science that liberates. I myself will continue to use the phrase with that meaning in mind.