The dismal science
"The dismal science" is a derogatory alternative name for economics coined by the Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century. The term is an inversion of the phrase "gay science", meaning "life-enhancing knowledge", a reference to the technical skills of song and verse writing. This was a familiar expression at the time, and was later adopted as the title of a book by Nietzsche in The Gay Science.
It is often stated that Carlyle gave economics the nickname "the dismal science" as a response to the late 18th century writings of The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, who grimly predicted that starvation would result as projected population growth exceeded the rate of increase in the food supply. Carlyle did indeed use the word 'dismal' in relation to Malthus' theory in his essay Chartism (1839):
The controversies on Malthus and the 'Population Principle', 'Preventive Check' and so forth, with which the public ear has been deafened for a long while, are indeed sufficiently mournful. Dreary, stolid, dismal, without hope for this world or the next, is all that of the preventive check and the denial of the preventive check.
However, the full phrase "the dismal science" first occurs in Carlyle's 1849 tract entitled Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, in which he was arguing for the reintroduction of slavery as a means to regulate the labor market in the West Indies:
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.
It was "dismal" in "find[ing] the secret of this Universe in 'supply and demand,' and reducing the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone." Instead, the "idle Black man in the West Indies" should be "compelled to work as he was fit, and to do the Maker's will who had constructed him."
Carlyle's view was attacked by John Stuart Mill as making a virtue of toil itself, stunting the development of the weak, and committing the "vulgar error of imputing every difference which he finds among human beings to an original difference of nature."
The teachings of Malthus eventually became known under the umbrella phrase "Malthus' Dismal Theorem". While some argue that his predictions were forestalled by dramatic improvements in the efficiency of food production in the 20th century during the Green Revolution, classical liberal economists argue that the law of supply and demand would mean that if the supply of food were to decline, the price of food would then rise, thereby allowing for a gradual adjustment in consumption and preventing an all out famine.
See also 
- An Essay on the Principle of Population
- Malthusian growth model - the math behind the theory
- Malthusianism - political (and economic) fall-out from the theory
- Economics Help page on The Dismal Science
- As quoted in Joseph Persky, 1990. "Retrospectives: A Dismal Romantic," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 4(4), pp. 167-169 [pp. 165-172].
- John Stuart Mill, 1850. "The Negro Question," Fraser's Magazine, 1850. Republished in Eugene August, ed., 1971, The Negro Question, Appleton-Century-Crofts.
|Look up the dismal science in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Thomas Carlyle, ‘The Dismal Science,’ and the Contemporary Political Economy of Slavery., by Peter Groenwegen, History of Economics Review (Canberra, Australian National University) 34 (Summer 2001), 74—94.
- The Secret History of the Dismal Science, by David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart.
- The Origin of the Term "Dismal Science" to Describe Economics, by Robert Dixon
- Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question , by Thomas Carlyle