The dismal science of freedom
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 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 free 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 own 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.