The dismal science of freedom

by John Quiggin on July 30, 2006

The topic for my BrisScience talk tomorrow night is Economics: The Hopeful Science. The name, obviously, is an allusion to Carlyle’s characterization of economics as ‘the dismal science’. In choosing it, though, I was under the common misapprehension that Carlyle was attacking Malthus, and his prediction of a stationary economy with a subsistence wage, that could be raised only through ‘moral restraint’.

It turns out, however, that the phrase actually occurs in Carlyle’s defence of slavery, charmingly entitled, Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question*, and that the primary target is John Stuart Mill and other economists who favored wage labour over slavery.

Also, well before Nietzsche (who disliked Carlyle, but has some obvious kinship with him) we have a reference to the “gay science”,

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

And while I was aware that Carlyle was (correctly) viewed by Fascists as a precursor of their ideas, and that his works were among Hitler’s favorite reading, I hadn’t derived the obvious corollary that his reputation would be revived, and his work celebrated, by postmodernists in the late 20th century.

Anyway, despite learning that it’s etymologically incorrect, I’m going to focus on the standard view of Malthusianism as the ‘dismal’ version of economics, and make the point that, if economists are generally hopeful about the possibility of combining economic progress with environmental sustainability, it’s in part because we have learned from our discipline’s 19th century mistakes.

* First published with “Negro” in the title, but Carlyle apparently felt this was not offensive enough, and changed it for subsequent publication.



post pc 07.30.06 at 7:48 am

wasn’t it also that malthus didn’t treat the environment as an infinite sink? at some point there are measureable (negative) externalities, that if not incorporated into economic stewardship, tips the ecosystem into a new partial- ‘equilibrium’ state, which lowers public utility/general welfare in the process.

like the case could be made that global warming is like inflation – an unwelcome result of running the economy ‘too hot, for too long’ – and that a ‘central bank’ is needed to regulate economic activity ‘within bounds’ so as not to upset the balance – to maintain price/temperature at acceptable levels in order to maximize “economic progress with environmental sustainability.”

at what levels and thru which levers of thermostatic control i cannot say (carbon credits?), but comparing the institutional resources at the disposal of monetary policy around the world and that of environmental policy, provides a glimpse at the enormity of the challenge for creating a body/mechanism/framework to address global warming.

and while the consequences of failure for monetary policy implies a return to the gold standard or a barter economy, what analogous fallback is there to a failure of environmental policy? the eocene?*


post pc 07.30.06 at 8:01 am

in other words, as a qucik followup, we have a collective institutional memory, rich with experience even and an extended literture, of prior periods of monetary instability and failure. we have nothing similar with regard to climate change, except thru paleo/geologic abstracts… to end it dismally :D



Neel Krishnaswami 07.30.06 at 10:53 am

David Levy wrote a book, How the Dismal Science Got its Name, which goes into great detail about this. (I think I got the ref from dsquared.)


Jim Harrison 07.30.06 at 11:33 am

I don’t know if Carlyle intended the same reference, but Nietzsche’s Gay Science was partly an allusion to the Gai Saber, the Troubadour art of love poetry.


P O'Neill 07.30.06 at 2:14 pm

I read your 1st sentence too quickly and thought for one brief moment that there was going to be an economics talk at a circumcision.


marcel 07.30.06 at 7:30 pm

P O’Neill (5 above): No, much like Friedman’s positive economics, you will see grown men responding to an economics talk as if it were a circumcision.


vivian 07.30.06 at 7:31 pm

p o’neill, that would be dismal indeed…


Dabodius 07.30.06 at 11:03 pm

IIRC, Carlyle originally entitled his Discourse as we have it now; somebody edited it to “Negro,” and Carlyle changed it back. It should be read, not as a treatment of economics, but a touchstone of political ressentiment.

When slavery was abolished in Jamaica, the free blacks discovered that they didn’t need to work the plantations for wages, but could subsist as small freeholders on their own crops, mainly pumpkin, which could be grown with little labor. Carlyle was outraged that “Quashee” had leisure, to loaf and fornicate or (one thinks) smoke ganja and invent ska; he should have been miserable and kept working the plantations, whose production had fallen off. For the sake of “Quashee’s” morals and the Empire’s agricultural needs, then, Carlyle proposed that the black Jamaicans be re-enslaved.

If utilitarianism is a flawed moral philosophy, disutilitarianism must be worse, and Carlyle’s example of it or of an unhappy aretaicism has its counterparts today in e.g. the RW folk who don’t want their daughters vaccinated against HPV.


Harald Korneliussen 07.31.06 at 1:33 am

There is an essay on this exact topic at econlog. I got the link from Marginal Revolution. (This may be the text you wanted to link to, neel, but I couldn’t get yours to work)


Zeph 08.01.06 at 7:39 am

Add Charles Dickens to the ranks of the would-be racists. (He was in the Carlyle camp).

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