How the Dismal Science Got Its Name

by on July 8, 2013 at 7:25 am in Economics, History | Permalink

Here is How the Dismal Science Got Its Name, one of my favorite videos from the Great Economists course at MRUniversity.

Jeff J July 8, 2013 at 8:26 am

The name “Dismal Science” has it wrong on both counts.

mike July 8, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Indeed, most of what I hear from economists today is psychotically over-optimistic unscientific propagandizing like “Open Borders Would Double World GDP”

kebko July 8, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Very dismal, indeed.

scineram July 8, 2013 at 9:05 am

So it has to do with pushing their own political agenda. Quite apt.

Edward Burke July 8, 2013 at 9:26 am

Alex: thanks for highlighting this topic, which only came to my attention a few months ago and which just this past weekend I’d called an acquaintance with economist credentials to pester with. (Good luck to all with finding Carlyle and Mill’s exchange online, I’ve only found dead links galore trying to track down the respective essays and will still likely need to visit a local academic library.) Levy’s book looks much like the source to begin with, apart from the Collected Works of Mill and Carlyle.

A further detail of the exchange which purely astonished me: the Carlyle-Mill exchange in 1849/50 was not the end of the story. It erupted again some fifteen years later when the prosecution of Gov Edward Eyre of Jamaica was undertaken for his suppression of a revolt on the island, which critics charged ended with extra-judicial hangings. The Jamaica Committee (if I’m awake enough to recall) advocating prosecution was led by Mill, and Carlyle undertook to defend Eyre. Mill’s camp came to include Spenser, Huxley, and Darwin, among other notables. As your MRU video shows, Ruskin was in Carlyle’s camp, as was Tennyson, but most stunning to my mind was the finding that Charles Dickens gravitated to the Carlyle camp: I remain astonished–Dickens, the proto-typical, quintessential Victorian humanitarian–an ally of Carlyle’s?

But Wikipedia insists it’s the case. My gast remains flabbered. (Charges against Eyre seem to’ve been dropped or somehow the case against him never proceeded.) One fascinating episode altogether.

Alex Tabarrok July 8, 2013 at 11:37 am

I agree, the Eyre debate is astonishing. Levy and Peart discuss here

http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/LevyPeartdismal3.html

Best

Alex

Daniel Klein July 8, 2013 at 9:49 am

Great stuff. Kudos to our colleagues Levy and Peart, and to MRU.

One thing I think a little unfortunate: The title “How the Dismal Science Got Its Name” affirms the name “dismal science” for the liberal economic philosophy. Or so it seems to me.

Teufelsdröckh's Book Review July 8, 2013 at 10:24 am

Thomas Carlyle is sadly criminally underrated so it’s great he gets such a ringing endorsement from MR.

All of his work is freely available courtesy of our friends at Google and Project Gutenberg.
If you are interested in his take on the “pig-philosophy” of his time you would do well to start with his “Latter-Day Pamphlets”.
His “Sartor Resartus” is your best bet if you want to sample his pure literary genius.

Ross Emmett July 8, 2013 at 12:31 pm

First, congratulations on putting this discussion in video form. Levy/Peart’s reconstruction of the history needs a greater audience!

Re. Edmund Burke’s comments about Dickens:

Toynbee’s remark that the 19th century was a long dispute between “economists and human beings” should be kept in mind. Almost any Victorian moralist/humanitarian was on the “human being” side of the debate, which meant that they were at bottom hierarchicalists, not analytical egalitarians!

Ricardo July 8, 2013 at 6:49 pm

It is not true that Carlyle “is being sarcastic” when he says “wonderful.” He means “provoking wonder; amazing.” Today “wonderful” has a positive connotation, but Carlyle intended no such connotation (sarcastic or otherwise).

Silas Barta July 8, 2013 at 11:44 pm

I think you mean a synecdoche rather than a synonym. Exeter hall was to the anti-slavery lobby what Hollywood is to the American film industry.

J July 9, 2013 at 10:05 am

I think I might be joining the MRU student body soon. I’m really interested in both this class and the spanish Microeconomics.

But, on the margin, are my benefits better than my costs? Are they equal? Is my pie being maximized? I like pie.

Nichol Brummer July 9, 2013 at 10:32 am

Strange. I thought that slave trade was ended by Britain in 1807, and they even started enforcing it along the african coast, although the Portuguese and Dutch continued it longer. And slavery itself was abolished in Britain in 1834. Britain had a very active role in persuading the rest of the world to end slavery too. In 1849, Britain was making treaties with different countries year after year to make them stop slavery, or the trade.

.. and that is when this story happened?? Wow. It also seems that Carlyle really didn’t like mixing of races.

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