Monday, April 18, 2016

Who Called Economics the "Dismal Science" and Why?

It's a phrase I won't be using again and, after reading this, I expect you won't either. The "dismal science" phrase was coined by a Scot, Thomas Carlyle, in the mid-19th century. Carlyle was a prominent polymath of the Victoria era - a philospher, historian, satirist, mathematician and an all round bastard of sorts.

The "dismal science" reference traces back to an article Carlyle wrote, "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question" published in Fraser's Magazine, December, 1849.

It deals with the labour situation in the West Indies where the white planters were complaining that following the emancipation of the slaves they were unable to obtain enough labour (at the prevailing wages and conditions of work) to carry on their business. Carlyle puts the view that 'work' is morally good and that if a "Black man" will not voluntarily work for the wages then prevailing he should be forced to work.

Carlyle was an unrepentant racist to the end. He believed that white and black were bound by their "mutual duties" - i.e. master and servant.

In Carlyle's opinion: "declaring that Negro and White are unrelated, loose from one another, on a footing of perfect equality, and subject to no law but that of supply and demand according to the Dismal Science", "is clearly no solution" to the problem.

Which is why this is probably as opportune a moment as any to retire "dismal science" from our conversation. Enough said.


Northern PoV said...

“Those with brains but no balls often become mathematicians; those with balls but not brains join the mafia; and those with no brains and no balls become economists. There are exceptions (for mathematicians).” Taleb

Origin aside, the description is apt.

chris said...

History can be quite disgusting sometimes-all those brilliant minds thinking horrible thoughts. Western history I think they call it, have some more:

Those horrible thoughts and ideas never die, they just get updated. Modern 'conservatives' still agree in many ways with Smith and Hume and Carlyle. One has to wonder if even not-so-bloodless revolution or the singularity or global warming will change that. Probably not...

Bring on the asteroid.

Anonymous said...

Even brilliant minds were not aware 150 years ago of difference in DNA diversity between Europeans, who have on average 2-3% of Neanderthal genome, and folks from Africa proper who have 0%.
Apparently, most of this inherited Neanderthal genome is related to skin and hair genes, but pleiotropy is common in nature.
Study of the "Molecular Basis of Tame and Aggressive Behavior in the Silver Fox Model" is quite modern too...