Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The term 'Dismal Science' brings no discredit to Economics

Dear Professor G. P. Landow
Professor English and Art History
Brown University

Dear George
A contributor writes in the page (The Victorian Web: devoted to Adam Smith:

"Thinkers such as Ricardo and Malthus postulated that overpopulation, low wages, and starvation would always continue to plague society. Economics, which started with Smith's guarded optimism, quickly became known as "the dismal science." (David Barber, Adam Smith)"

This contains popular, but nevertheless, gross errors. The term 'dismal science' was accorded to the alleged failings of Political Economy, or economics, in the 19th century in a pamphlet written by Thomas Carlyle. That much is true, but everything else in the two sentences is not only wrong, but also embarrassing.

Carlyle's pamphlet was titled: 'An Occasional discourse on the Negro Question', first published in 1849 (another edition appeared in London in 1851 entitled 'An Occasional discourse on the Nigger Question'; surely an outrageous and disgraceful indicator of the nature of Carlyle's argument, which far from merely poking fun at economists, actually exhibits a deep racist slant on the subject?

Carlyle did not direct his remarks at David Riccardo or Thomas Malthus, or even at Adam Smith. He was writing a rebuttal of ideas expressed by James Stewart Mill, whose book on political economy was published in 1848. Mill had advanced the notion that all peoples on Earth, from all races and colours, were basically the same. Blackmen and women were not born to slavery; they were forced into it. Carlyle absolutely disagreed with Mill's humanistic notion. He expresses in his pamphlet the most offensive justification of slavery, denied explicitly that Africans were of the same species at Europeans (the very idea incensed Carlyle - as it did his friends and colleagues, among whom we find Ruskin and Charles Dickens)and he lambasted J. S. Mill, an economist for claiming the contrary view.

It was the notion that people are equal as human beings that Carlyle found as evidence that economics was the 'dismal science'. This had nothing to do with Malthus, or Riccardo, or Smith (who explicitly agreed (1776) with the humanistic notion, later elaborated by Mill in 1848).
To suggest that the disgraceful origins of the notion of economics as a 'dismal science' had anything to with the contents of economics (the popular misconception), when what Carlyle was criticising was to the lasting credit of Smith and Mill, is a canard that should be corrected and not passed on in a web site addressing educational topics to young people.

You can find a scholarly account on this episode in Robert Dixon (University of Melbourne), "The Origins of the term 'Dismal Science'"at:
or simply go to Google and enter 'dismal science'.

Kind regards

Gavin Kennedy

author: "Adam Smith's Lost Legacy", 2005, Palgrave MacMillan


Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

A reply from George Landow (received 14 April 2005):

Dear Gavin

Thanks for the interesting e-mail, which I would be delighted to include in the Victorian Web as a separate document entitled something like "How Did Economics Come to Be Called the Dismal Science?" I would propose to link this to the phrase in Dhamee's essay and also include it in the main sitemap for economics.

Valuable as is your information, I do not think the two sentences you quote are as misleading as you claim. I don't see anything wrong with the first sentence ""Thinkers such as Ricardo and Malthus postulated that overpopulation, low wages, and starvation would always continue to plague society." Moreover, since Dhamee cites Barber's book only to say that economics became known as the dismal science, which you point out is correct, there doesn;t seem to be any problem here. Since the author doesn't mention Carlyle — I'm sure Dhamee had no idea of the origin of the phrase — the sentences mislead only if one takes them to assert that's what Carlyle meant. He's writing about general attitudes towards economics.

Certainly, there are many words or phrases that quickly become detached from their author's exact meaning and earlier usage: gothic, Pre-Raphaelite, rococo, baroque all began as very negative descriptions and later became either positive or simple neutral stylistic terms. The popular expansion of the phrase "dismal science" to include all economists and not just Mill seems much less of a change than often happens. Today ethnography and anthropology have few political ideas associated with them, but when, they began anthropology was largely racist and pro-slavery while ethnography was the home of anti-slavery people.

By the way an essay by another contributor claims that studying Malthus closely reveals that the grimmer parts of his argument are not what believes but satirical statements, — not that they were always understood as such.

Carlyle, who started out as a leftist radical who embraced the French Revolution as a warning to the UK, certainly wrote offensive racist polemics, but although Dickens and Ruskin loyally supported him in the Governor Eyre controversy, I don't think either was a racist in the modern sense. Having written two books on Ruskin, edited parts of his correspondence, and spent a good bit of my career reading his works, I can't recall many mentions of the race question at all. Of course, at this point in the century Punch consistently portrayed Irish as explicitly negroid, and as Tony Wohl pointed out in material in VW since 1988, contemporary commentators attributed the same qualities to members of the British working class, Irish, and Blacks — they were all shiftless, oversexed, incapable of saving, and had rhythm!

It's also important to see how Carlyle's use of Africans evolved from polemical ways to attack the British middle and upper classes (who, he asserted, spent time, money, and energy improving the lot of distant Africans instead of the British poor) to outright racism.



3:38 p.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Dear George

You write: "Moreover, since Dhamee cites Barber's book only to say that economics became known as the dismal science, which you point out is correct, there doesn't seem to be any problem here."

I believe that there is a problem. A statement can be true in one limited sense but still misleading in the wider sense.

The conventional belief, repeated as an assertion until it came to be accepted without question, is that economics is a 'dismal science' because Carlyle, speaking for all of us, reacted to the pessimism of Malthus and the dry as dust analysis of Ricardo (which many economists find difficult to read as Ricardo was not 'accessible' even to members of the profession).

In other words, the statement about the 'dismal science' was plausible and Carlyle was only pointing this out. The fact is he barely mentioned Malthus or Ricardo in all his writings and shows no evidence of assessing either man's Works in this manner.

The truth is different. Carlyle called 'economics the dismal science' not because of its pessimism, but because he objected to its humanitarian optimism, namely that John Stuart Mill (not Malthus or Ricardo) in 1848 believed that all men were equally fit to be civilised, well mannered and educated, including black slaves and 'savages' from and in Africa.

That was a notion that Thomas Carlyle could not abide. Read the reference I gave to you - it is on-line - and read Carlyle's obnoxious racism. He bemoaned the fact that economists such as Mill reduced relations and 'valid' distinctions between men to the exchange of goods and services and also he denied (quelle horreur!) that some men (the White race)were suited to rule the black race and to make them slaves

That is why the statement is misleading. Adam Smith's vision of the human condition combined moral sentiments and the advance of democracy, the rule of law and justice with his great hopes that gradually commerce and agriculture would rid the world of poverty and injustice.

Most economists, let alone the general public, do not know of Smith's broader humanistic and optimistic vision. They have dumped this part of Smith's legacy for 'Homo Economicus', which was never part of his legacy. They have used Smith's name to justify the most appalling breaches of human behaviour. Hence, if economics was truly the 'dismal science' asserted by the popular misconception from an entirely different attack on economics by Thomas Carlyle, then I would not draw your attention to the misconception.

By trespassing on your patience, perhaps, I am only trying in a small way to counter the shameful origin of the association of economics with the 'dismal science' because Carlyle pursued his appalling racist agenda.

However, thank you for reading my message and for replying so eloquently. I will not trespass on your patience further. In the great measure of all things, the issue is not a capital crime or something we should fall out over!

Kind regards

Gavin Kennedy

1:23 p.m.  

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