Monday, May 22, 2006

The Dismal Science...Just Thought You'd Like to Know

I think everyone who teaches economics has heard the story about Thomas Carlisle dubbing the field as the "dismal science" in response to Thomas Malthus's work on population. And I suspect more than a few of us use it in introducing the study to our students.

However, Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution has a pointer to another link at The Library of Economics and Liberty that provides a different story.

Posted by TSchilling at May 22, 2006 3:38 PM

There was a great Barron's article a few years ago on the same subject (see this link:

"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 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 sacred cause of Black Emancipation."

Posted by: Barry Ritholtz at May 31, 2006 3:14 PM

Thanks for your addition. The more information we have, the more interesting we can make it for the students.

Posted by: Tim at May 31, 2006 4:03 PM

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