The surprising origin of the dismal science

In my interview with economist David Henderson, I asked him how economics came to be called the “dismal science.” The source, he explained, was Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth-century historian and essayist. The surprising reason for his coining the phrase? Carlyle was attacking free-market liberals for advocating the end of slavery.

Free-market liberals argued that all men were equally deserving of freedom, so the slaves should be emancipated. Carlyle counter-argued — with strong agreement from Charles Dickens and John Ruskin, two other strong critics of free-market capitalism — that blacks were unequal to whites and so undeserving and incapable of freedom. ruskinGiving slaves freedom, they believed, would lead to dismal social consequences.

Here is a fine essay by David Levy and Sandra Peart with the sorry details: “The Secret History of the Dismal Science. Part I. Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century.”

The image, as Levy and Peart explain, shows Ruskin as a white knight slaying a black man dressed in gentlemen’s finery and holding a book entitled Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith’s treatise being a major work in the free-market capitalist tradition.

cannibals-all-50x80Side note 1: Carlyle was a major influence, if not the major influence, on the thought of George Fitzhugh, the nineteenth-century American advocate of slavery. Fitzhugh argued that negroes are inferior to whites and that capitalism leads to the dominance of the weak by the strong; hence the freedom of capitalism would be detrimental to the negroes, as they would not be able to hold their own and compete; consequently, slavery’s security is a protection and blessing for them. See especially Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All! Or, Slaves without Masters.

fichte-50x71Side note 2: Carlyle was a strong student of German philosophy and literature, particularly of the Kantian disciple Johann Gottlieb Fichte, about whom I have written here.

2 thoughts on “The surprising origin of the dismal science

  • February 25, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    This is one of those “secrets” that’s never really been secret at all–Carlyle’s quote isn’t obscure, and scholarly articles concerning it and the debate that supplies its context go back, I think, to the ’60s. Admittedly many who have heard the phrase “dismal science” have assumed it to have a rather different meaning. But that’s only because they never bothered to check.

    In revealing the supposed “secret,” on the other hand, I hope the David Henderson and David Levy and others won’t inadvertently perpetuate a different but equally unfortunate misconception, namely, one that would be warranted in dismissing Carlyle as a mere racist and economic dunderhead, instead of recognizing in him one of the most original (if also one of the most cranky and reactionary) voices of 19th century British literature.

  • February 25, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    Agreed that it’s not a secret among scholars, George, though interestingly there’s a wide gap between them and the general public’s believe. I googled “meaning of dismal science” and the first four entries returned got it wrong:

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