Dismal Science

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DEFINITION of 'Dismal Science'

A term coined by Scottish writer, essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle to describe the discipline of economics. The term dismal science was inspired by T. R. Malthus' gloomy prediction that population would always grow faster than food, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.

BREAKING DOWN 'Dismal Science'

Exactly what inspired the term has been a subject of debate. Those who doubt the story say that Carlyle was reacting not to Malthus but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that institutions, not race, explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus' predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was the discipline's assumption that people are basically all the same and thus entitled to liberty that led Carlyle to label the study of economics "the dismal science". The connection was so well known throughout the 19th century, that even cartoonists would refer to it knowing that their audience would understand the reference.

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