Nearly everyone knows that economics is known as a “dismal science”, but few know how economics came to receive the label. Timothy Taylor explains, in an essay published in the latest issue of a quarterly publication of the IMF.
The “dismal science” is the most prominent verbal hand grenade lobbed at economics. But economists who know the history of the wisecrack wear it as a badge of honor.
In an 1849 essay, the historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote that the subject of political economy was “a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.” But Carlyle’s essay, titled “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” is an argument that poor black laborers in the West Indies suffer from “the vices of indolence and insolence.” For them to achieve virtue, he argued, the “idle Black man in the West Indies” should “be compelled to work as he was fit.” Carlyle wasn’t only a racist. He believed that poor people around the world of all races “the whitest alike and the blackest” should experience “the divine right of being compelled (if ‘permitted’ will not answer) to do what work they are appointed for.”
In short, Carlyle called economics a dismal science because it was built on ideas like “letting men alone” and “ballot-boxes,” or what we would call personal freedom and democracy.
John Stuart Mill, the economist and political philosopher, published a scathing critique of Carlyle’s essay in 1850. Mill pointed out that the rich often oppressed the poor and that when the actions and attitudes of the poor seemed uncooperative or dysfunctional, it stemmed from the negative incentives caused by oppression rather than any defect of character. Mill ended with this thought: “Though we cannot extirpate all pain, we can, if we are sufficiently determined upon it, abolish all tyranny.” In the actual historical debate over the dismal science, the enlightened economist is the clear-cut winner.
Timothy Taylor, “Economics and Morality“, Finance & Development (June 2014), pp. 34-38.
Taylor provides numerous historical and philosophical insights that readers may not be aware of. I, for one, did not know that 19th century Christians opposed not only gaming and sale of alcohol, but also the purchase of life insurance.
In 19th century America, buying life insurance was considered a morally unacceptable practice of gambling against God, until it was transformed—-by a promotional campaign directed at churches—-to become viewed as a prudent way of showing love for family.
Timothy Taylor is Managing Editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives and blogs here. In his day job, he teaches economics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.