Why Is Economics “the Dismal Science”? The Reason May Surprise You!

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.

This post first appeared at Econlog, the blog of the Library of Economics and Liberty. © Liberty Fund, Inc., reprinted with permission.

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