Economics

Why is Economics the Dismal Science?

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In the "centuries old, but news to me" category, via an economics-oriented listserv I'm on, I today learned the context of Carlyle's famously dubbing economics a "dismal science." See this, from an article in 1849 in Fraser Magazine, called "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question." Warning: it's ugly.

Truly, my philanthropic friends, Exeter Hall Philanthropy [organized
Evangelicalism against slavery] is wonderful; and the Social Science-not a
"gay science," but a rueful[one]-which finds the secret of this universe in
"supply and demand," and reduces the duty of human governors to that of
letting men alone, is also wonderful. 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. These two, Exeter Hall Philanthropy and the Dismal Science, led by
any sacred cause of Black Emancipation, or the like, to fall in love and
make a wedding of it, -will give birth to progenies and prodigies; dark
extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, widecoiled monstrosities, such
as the world has not seen hitherto!'

Economics, then, is dismal because its arguments can be used against slavery. Further historical context on the quote here, from Robert Dixon of the University of Melbourne. Dixon writes: "These then are the true circumstances in which Political Economy (or Economics) was first labelled "The Dismal Science". It is a circumstance we should draw to the attention of our students. They, like us, can be proud to be associated with those economists who were the target of Carlyle's scorn." Commenters, feel free to tell me every educated person in the world already knew all this.

UPDATE: But you know who did know it? Everyone who pays attention to Reason magazine, that's who–see this February 2002 interview by Nick Gillespie with David M. Levy, who wrote a whole book on the context of Carlyle's remarks. So why did I, who actually was a staffer on the magazine when that interview appeared, not know it? To quote Steve Martin, "I forgot."

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  1. Interesting.

    Now, for double points, explain how boxing of all things came to be known as the “sweet science”.

  2. I don’t know about every educated person, but I thought everyone with a background in Poli Sci or economics knew that.

    There. I’ve sneered. Now no one else need to.

  3. I made it all the way through my undergrad econ program without hearing, so it was (good!) news to me.

  4. So it’s not called the dismal science after Sir Eustice Dismal?

  5. First I ever heard the phrase “dismal science”, but I’m an engineer.

  6. I think economists and social scientists as a whole are fortunate that “dismal science” ended up winning over “gay science”

  7. I was about to ask how this thread escaped being titled “Gay Science” but I guess we’re all “adults” around here or “not knuckle-dragging fratboys” or some nonsense like that. But my inner child lives in South Park.

  8. OK, Dan T. Spill it. How did boxing become known as the sweet science?

  9. “dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, widecoiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto!”

    So combining Economics and Black Emancipation gives one Lovecraftian Horrors? Nobody ever told me that!

    IA! IA!

  10. I’d heard the phrase before, but didn’t know the context.

    Now, I can hardly wait until some smug socialist flings the epithet out in a conversation.

  11. OK, Dan T. Spill it. How did boxing become known as the sweet science?

    No idea.

  12. But you know who did know it? Everyone who pays attention to Reason magazine, that’s who–see this February 2002 interview by Nick Gillespie

    That’s where I learned it.

    Perhaps it’s not a prevalent meme cuz of the slavery connection.

    Didja ever notice that disciplines that really are science don’t tend to be appended with the word? For example, it’s known as “physics” not “physics science”. And it’s just the opposite for disciplines whose claims to science are marginal, as in “political science”.

  13. up yours, Rick, I’m a materials scientist 😉

  14. von Laue,

    Sorry, I was kinda just kidding with that one anyway. And I had thought of exactly your discipline as a counter example. Here, have this nice vid along with my apologies:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qIuEx85LFc

  15. Sweet, thanks for the info!

  16. It was called that originally by Pierce Egan in Boxiana, where boxing was called the “Sweet Science of Bruising”.

    http://www.greatbasinweb.com/gb2-2/sweetstories.htm

  17. Hi Mo,

    Good to see ya!

  18. Rick – thanks for the Human League!

    A good Friday New Wave Link!

    Backatcha from New Wave Theater

    Hi Mo!

  19. Thanks VM! Power Trip, huh? Very nice. Dug it, saved it to my faves. New Wave Theater- sounds like a slice of heaven.

  20. These two, Exeter Hall Philanthropy and the Dismal Science, led by
    any sacred cause of Black Emancipation, or the like, to fall in love and
    make a wedding of it, -will give birth to progenies and prodigies; dark
    extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, widecoiled monstrosities, such
    as the world has not seen hitherto!’

    First, I think when he says a Gay Science he is referring to Nietsche’s work of the same name, no? Second, yes, the union of economics and Black (Rasta) Liberation produces MOONINITES. I hope you can see this because I am doing it as hard as I can. All your base are belong to us!

  21. It sure was. I only saw it once, but it was, like, the coolest thing (remembering I was in California at the time).

    To keep with the theme:

    Harmony in my head (Buzzcocks)

    and

    capain sensible’s wot

    A little more on topic – “physical science” “natural science” “social science” could be used as over-arching terms with “astronomy”, “physics” “biology” “chemistry” “poli sci” “soc” “anthro” “econ” etc. being subordinate terms. But then you have “food science”.

    and astrology.

    and Knight Rider!

  22. “physical science” “natural science” “social science” could be used as over-arching terms with “astronomy”, “physics” “biology” “chemistry” “poli sci” “soc” “anthro” “econ” etc.

    That sounds perfect. At least something good came outa my attempt at humor @ 3:05.

  23. and Eyre was defended by many of the leading lights of Victorian society, who also hated markets

    Give us slavery or give us agriculture subsidies.

  24. Give us slavery or give us agriculture subsidies.

    Brilliant!

  25. Stevo is the only one who’s going to comment on the “gay science” thing, and even he’s not going to make a joke about it?

  26. “Number 6 | February 23, 2007, 2:47pm | #
    OK, Dan T. Spill it. How did boxing become known as the sweet science?”

    Well, they did call the boxer Sugar Ray…

  27. “Didja ever notice that disciplines that really are science don’t tend to be appended with the word?”

    Like weird science?

  28. The phrase “the sweet science of boxing” was popularized by Liebling. He got it from Pierce Egan’s Boxiana, collections of articles about boxing in England in the 1700s. Egan called boxing “The Sweet Science of Bruising.”

  29. Brian Doherty,

    Carlyle was – like a whole heck of a lot of 19th century authors – a critic of the individualism associated with the economics of his time. Anyway, I knew it largely because I’ve read tons of material on the 18th and 19th century British Caribbean.

    In brief, the post-emancipation period for some of the former “jewels” of the British empire, particularly Jamaica, was bleak – for evidence of this read some of Anthony Trollope’s fiction and non-fictional work on the region. Many of the abolitionists had predicted that the economic fortunes of the region would be bouyed by emancipation (even prior to emancipation there had been an economic downturn on most of the older Caribbean colonies*). Indeed, many of the abolitionists – a group which was often strongly imbued with a sort of Christian paternalism – had expected that the former slaves would continue to work on the plantations under a legal regime which no longer allowed for their ownership but did fence in their ability to live as free individuals.

    None of this worked. The former slaves generally would rather either buy a small portion of land (or squat on it) and from time to time (if they must) work on a plantation for than. This response ain’t suprising nor is it uncommon in the wake of emancipation (though it wasn’t always possible regionally or individually).

    Anyway, following these developments one sees laments (by white people) about what has happened in the British Caribbean, etc.

    *This is because slavery was not necessarily unprofitable in the age of capitalism (indeed 19th century Cuba’s rapid expansion explodes that idea); it is more likely because of exhaustion of the soil, and other factors like that which had led to the decline of sugar plantation economies since their rise in the Levant Crusader kingdoms. The abolition of the slave trade was also harmful, since the British Caribbean depended on new imports of slaves as a means to maintain the population size (sugar plantations were horrific places to work and they quickly killed larger portions of their population through overwork, etc.). Note that this isn’t a defense of slavery; it is a truly despicable institution.

  30. “Stevo is the only one who’s going to comment on the ‘gay science’ thing, and even he’s not going to make a joke about it?”

    Let me try such a joke:

    John Maynard Keynes! Ha, ha!

  31. As an economist, I was long aware of the “dismal science” appelation.

    I thought it was because of the “iron law
    of wages,” a purported long run process by
    which population growth pushed wages down
    to bare subsistence. (Very dismal indeed.)

    While few economists worry about that market
    process these days, we do have a habit of pointing out indirect costs of various “sound
    good” policies, often arguing that the costs
    are greater than the benefits. That is a bit
    dismal.

    Of course, I read of Levy’s arguments (an economists at G.M.U., my alma mater) and have
    been mentioning it to my students ever since.

    A different quote attributed to Carlyle is that
    “if you want an economist, just get a parrot and teach him to say, ‘Supply and Demand'”

  32. I had a dark extensive moon-calf as a kid. Didn’t think it was dismal at all, really.

  33. Carlyle predated Nietzche.

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