16 May 2011

The dismal science

Opponents of economic thought and analysis prefer to call it "the dismal science" instead of considering and responding to the analysis. What's interesting is how inhumane some of these opponents have been.

Consider Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian historian who coined the phrase (via wikipedia):
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.
Carlyle argued that slavery was actually morally superior to the market forces of supply and demand promoted by economists, since, in his view, the freeing up of the labor market by the liberation of slaves had actually led to a moral and economic decline in the lives of the former slaves themselves.

Carlyle's view was attacked by John Stuart Mill and other liberal economists.
JS Mill, by the way, wrote some good stuff:
It is only in the backward countries of the world that increased production is still an important object; in those most advanced, what is economically needed is a better distribution.

[snip]

It is lamentable to think how great a proportion of all the efforts and talents in the world are employed in merely neutralizing one another. It is the proper end of government to reduce this wretched waste to the smallest possible amount, by taking such measures as shall cause the energies now spent by mankind in injuring one another, or in protecting themselves against injury, to be turned to the legitimate employment of the human faculties, that of compelling the powers of nature to be more and more subservient to physical and moral good.
From the 1848 Principles of Political Economy [online]

Bottom Line: Economists like me take pride in calling attention to the unpleasant problems that impede human progress and happiness. I'm happy to take this dismal role.

1 comment:

tmgieseke said...

I always thought it was quite odd to accept the science of economics as dismal. Would it be similar to accept ecology as dismal because species go extinct?