David R. Henderson  

The Origins of the Dismal Science

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How the Dismal Science Got Its Name

In an otherwise excellent post responding to Noah Smith about economic growth, my Hoover colleague and friend John Cochrane makes a mistake in the history of economic thought.

John writes:

They do not call us the "dismal science" because we think the current world is close to the best of all possible ones, and all there is to do is haggle over technical amendments to rule 134.532 subparagraph a and hope to squeeze out 0.001% more growth. Usually, the role of economists is to see the great possibilities that every day experience does not reveal. ("Dismal" only refers to the fact that good economics respects budget constraints.)

Actually, that's not what dismal refers to. David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart write:
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."

They go on to write:
Carlyle disagreed with the conclusion that slavery was wrong because he disagreed with the assumption that under the skin, people are all the same. He argued that blacks were subhumans ("two-legged cattle"), who needed the tutelage of whites wielding the "beneficent whip" if they were to contribute to the good of society.

In a speech at Susquehanna University earlier this year, I quoted this and pointed out that it was the classical economists, John Stuart Mill et al, who believed that black lives matter.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
ThomasH writes:

Interesting. I remember the joy of discovering Mill in college.

I guess that the story gets it's resonance (at least with economists) from our experience that when we point out that there are trade-offs in pubic policy -- maybe minimum wages do cause a bit of unemployment, maybe unemployment insurance leads to somewhat longer job searches -- we are seen as necessarily opposing the policy. And face it, we do sort of take professional pride in pointing out that nothing is a easy as the "naive" public assumes.

John writes:

It's astounding to me that someone of Cochrane's stature doesn't know the origin of the term.

ThomasH writes:

BTW I noticed that Noah in his reply to Cochran's reply


does point to the correct origin. Did he know that all along or did he learn it from you? My guess is that it's a little unacknowledged tribute to your piece.

Zach Groff writes:

Interesting piece. It's striking to me how different modern economics is from the economics of John Stuart Mill in its moral agnosticism - in some cases, leading to a total disregard of what Mill and his intellectual family tree would regard as basic justice. http://www.zachgroff.com/2015/07/the-dismal-science-could-not-be-so.html?m=1

[full url substituted for shortened url. Please use full URLs. Our readers like to see where they're going.--Econlib Ed.]

Roger Sweeny writes:

You are, of course, right about the origin of the term "the dismal science." However, there is a difference between the origin of a term and its persistence. It may persist because it says something that people think is true and important, even though, in so doing, it acquires a very different meaning.

That is certainly what has happened with "dismal science." People who don't like what economics says (and just about everyone doesn't like something) consider it dismal.

It's a little surprising that the same thing hasn't happened with evolution. As Jason Rosenhouse points out in his amazingly honest Among the Creationists (Oxford, 2012), evolution is a cruel and "inefficient" process. A tremendous number of superfluous living things come into existence, all of whom die before reproducing--often cruelly: of starvation, disease, being eaten by some other living thing, or any number of unpleasant things. Evolution works because the ones that survive are more likely to have genes that make them more likely to survive.

From page 145: "The processes of Darwinian evolution just are not the sort of thing in which a just and loving God can take delight. As Richard Dawkins has noted, ‘The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond decent contemplation.’ Indeed. That evolution occasionally produces something an observer might regard as beautiful is scant mitigation for the awesome quantities of suffering the process entails.”

Yet people who say they believe in evolution seem to view is as some sort of bloodless process, where living things kind of magically change to become "better." It may be dismal in real life but in imagination, it is beautiful.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Perhaps "dismal science" meaning "those theories that make me sad like ThomasH describes in the first comment" is an example of what Dan Sperber calls a "cultural attractor."


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