What is Dismal Science?

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

Key Takeaways

  • Dismal science is a term coined by Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle to describe economics.
  • Its use has become commonplace to describe economics.
  • Theories differ on what inspired the term. Some say Carlyle used it to reference T.R. Malthus's prediction that population would always grow faster than food. Others say that Carlyle was reacting to John Stuart Mills' assertion that institutions—not race—determined why a nation became rich while others were not.

Understanding Dismal Science

Exactly what inspired the term dismal science has been a subject of debate. Those who doubt the story say that Carlyle was reacting not to Malthus, but to 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.

Origin of Dismal Science

The phrase dismal science first occurs in Carlyle's 1849 tract called Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, in which he argued slavery should be restored to reestablish productivity to the West Indies. In the work, Carlyle says, "Not a 'gay science,' I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science."

Carlyle's phrase, "the dismal science," was so often quoted that there is a risk of thinking that the opinion behind it solely belonged to him and his followers. However, the opinion was widespread at the time and thought to be a justifiable one by many economists.

Carlyle's article began by espousing the devil's advocate point-of-view that challenged what Carlyle perceived to be a hypocritical philanthropic movement for the emancipation of West Indian slaves. Although slavery was abolished in the British colonies by 1807, and in the rest of the British Empire by 1833, Cuba and Brazil continued using slaves until 1838.

In his original publication, Carlyle presented the concept of dismal science as a speech "delivered by we know not whom" written down by an unreliable reporter by the name of "Phelin M'Quirk" (the fictitious "Absconded Reporter"). The manuscript was supposedly sold to the publisher by M'Quirk's landlady in lieu of unpaid rent. She reportedly found it lying in his room after he ran off.