Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The dismal science is another, often derogatory, name for economics devised by the Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle. The term is an inversion of the phrase "gay science", meaning "life-enhancing skills". This was a familar expression at the time, and was later adopted as the title of a book by Nietzsche.
It is often stated that Carlyle gave economics the nickname 'dismal science' as a response to the writings of Robert Malthus, who grimly predicted that starvation would result as projected population growth exceeded the rate of increase in the food supply. Carlyle did indeed use the word 'dismal' in relation to Malthus's theory in his essay Chartism (1839):
- "The controversies on Malthus and the 'Population Principle', 'Preventative Check' and so forth, with which the public ear has been deafened for a long while, are indeed sufficiently mournful. 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."
However the full phase "dismal science" first occurs in Carlyle's 1849 tract entitled Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, in which he was arguing for the reintroduction of slavery as a means to regulate the labor market in the West Indies. Developing a deliberately paradoxical position, 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.
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