Gavin Kennedy convincingly argues that Carlyle coined the phrase “dismal science'” in his pamphlet, “An Occasional discourse on the Negro Question” not as a critical characterization of Malthus and Ricardo but as part of a racist attack on John Stuart Mill's arguments for racial equality. That may well explain the origin of the phrase, but it does not explain why so many people quickly adopted it as an accurate description of economics, a field that became accepted as a scientific discipline during the reign of Victoria. Many considered it a dismal science because it was, well, pretty dismal: both the early classical economists and their opponents assumed that nothing could improve the lot of the average person, who lived in a condition of malnutrition and near-starvation. As Sylvia Nasar explains,
Malthus's law of population and Ricardo's iron law of wages and law of diminishing returns — the notion that using more and more labor to farm an acre would produce less and less extra output — all dictated that population would outrun resources and that the nation's wealth could be enlarged only at the expense of the poor, who were doomed to spend "the great gifts of science as rapidly as ... [they] got them in a mere insensate multiplication of the common life." Government could do no more than create conditions in which enlightened self-interest and laws of supply and demand could work efficiently. . . . Mill and the other founders of political . . . maintained that advances in productivity were of little or no benefit to the working classes. In their imaginary firms, produc- tivity might grow by leaps and bounds, but wages never rose for long above some physiological maximum.
Perhaps surprisingly, the political economists, like Mill, who preached such darkly pessimistic views of the future condition of the working classes, saw themselves as liberal advocates for the poor. “Mill noted that Ricardo, Smith, and Malthus were all vocal champions of individual political and economic rights, opponents of slavery, and foes of protectionism, monopolies, and landowner privileges. He himself favored unions, universal suffrage, and women's property rights.” Nonetheless, although he not only argued against the Corn Laws and “correctly predicted that once the tax on imports was abolished food prices would decline and real wages would rise. . . he remained profoundly pessimistic about the scope of improvements in the lives of workers” (33). Like Carlyle, Mill thought that technological innovation and emigration might improve the worker's lot for a while, but nothing could change what they mistakenly assumed to be immutable laws.
Economics could not cease being regarded as a dismal science until someone offered theories that explained how the lot of the average person could improve. That someone was Alfred Marshall (1842-1924). Mill and the other dismal scientists believed that “advances in productivity were of little or no benefit to the working classes. In their imaginary firms, productivity might grow by leaps and bounds, but wages never rose for long above some physiological maximum. Working conditions, if anything, worsened over time” (90). Marshall, who knew that since 1848, “when The Communist Manifesto and Mill's Principles of Political Economy appeared,” wages and working-class consumption in fact rose not fell. Marshall, inspired by Marx to look at work inside factories, concluded that “Competition for labor forced owners to share the benefits of efficiency and quality improvements with workers, first as wage earners, then as consumers” (90). Economics no longer had to be dismal.
Nasar, Sylvia. Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011.
Last modified 10 September 2012