Re: How the Dismal Science Got Its Name

Robin Hanson (
Mon, 24 Mar 1997 11:45:08 -0800 (PST)

Max More writes:
>I always heard that economics was referred to as "the dismal science"
>because it was associated early on with Malthus's doctrines of increasing
>scarcity of resources and the inevitability of poverty. From the above
>quote, it's not clear that even from the racist's viewpoint economics would
>be "dismal" unless the word meant something different then.

Here is the exact quote:

And the Social Science, -- not a "gay science", but a rueful, --
which find the secret of this Universe in "supply and demand," and
redues 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, Exter-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,
wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hithertoo!
(Carlyle "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question", 1849, pp 672-3.)

Looking up Carlyle in a Reader's Companion, the entry talks about his
being anti Mob Democracy and anti Materialism, but doesn't mention his
racism. Two pages on him in Barlett's Quotations also don't mention
his racism!

Davy Levy claimed to me in person, and I now believe him, that there
has been a great effort to distort our intellectual history in this
area. According to Levy:

The fact is that early socialists tended to ally with and be
pro-slavery folks, and these economists were anti-slavery and
pro-birth-control. The socialists complained that the economists
cared less about the "white slavery" of British workers than about
black slaves, and these socialists looked favorably on the slave
system as a form of socialism (people working for the "state" instead
of themselves).

Later socialists and Marxists painted themselves as pro-labor, vs. the
economists being pro-capital, and so pro-socialist historians have
ignored the the race and gender views of early socialists and
economists, where the economists come out looking lots better by
modern standards. This white-wash has been made easier by the fact
that Marx himself came from the economic tradition, and so shared
their views on race and gender.

Robin D. Hanson