What is the Dismal Science?

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

The Dismal Science is the moniker Thomas Carlyle ascribed to what was at the period named Political Economy and is today referred to as economics. The provenance of the term is somewhat complicated, with the confusion arising from a belief that Carlyle fashioned the phrase to describe the unremitting pessimism of Thomas Robert Malthus’ predictions of the starvation that would result from population growth. Whereas others contended that the term came from Carlyle’s treatise on the labor crisis of the time that troubled the West Indies after the recent manumission of the island’s slave population.

Carlyle did indeed label Malthus’ outlook on the correlation between population and starvation as "dismal," asserting, in his essay of 1839 entitled "On Chartism," that the controversies issuing from Malthus’ Population Principle and Preventative Check were “dreary, stolid, dismal, without hope for this world or the next, is all that of the preventative check and the denial of the preventative check.” Although Carlyle does indeed use the word dismal here, it is was not until a decade later that he brought the adjective into opposition with the noun "science" to give the sense of the expression we understand it to have today.

In December of 1849, Carlyle penned a polemic piece for Fraser’s Magazine entitled “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question." It is in this article that we find the first instance of the term Dismal Science and he coins it to deride the principles of free market economics that were then in their incipiency. Thinkers such as Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and Harriet Martineau believed that the labor shortage, at the time in the West Indies, would be remedied by the free market and the principles of supply and demand. This contrasted starkly with the world view held by many Victorians, Carlyle among them, who believed in the native superiority of the white man and his obligation to compel servitude from the indigenous blacks.

In positing the equality of the races and promulgating the idea that free market economics would provide social solutions, liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill were upsetting the immemorial relationship between master and slave. If free market economics and the principles implicit therein were the only bonds that related man to man then one could not help but conclude that black emancipation was not only incontrovertible but necessary to an economic system that turned on the axes of supply and demand. This prospect Carlyle found deeply distasteful and ascribed it to a strain of bastardized science, the Dismal Science, that would later become economics: “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.”

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