The Dismal Science

This is the story of how Economics came to be called the Dismal Science. It is a story I choose to begin with Piano wire…

Piano wire is known for producing beautiful sounds from Turning Point by Nina Simone, to Changing Opinions by Phillip Glass, to the Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach. The sound made by piano wire when threaded into a whip and used to rend flesh from the backs of plantation slaves is presumably not among them. But it was this sound of piano wire on flesh, or news of it, that caused uproar in London during the year 1865. The whipping of slaves with piano wire had occurred in Jamaica on the orders of the Governor George Eyre. Among those who came to his defence, arguing that the whippings had been an important part of suppressing a rebellion, was Thomas Carlyle.

Over a period of many years prior to this event Thomas Carlyle had often made the case that while slavery itself may not be strictly desirable it was a reflection of an innate superiority of whites over blacks. He had a long running and public feud with John Stuart Mill on precisely this topic, including an 1849 essay entitled “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” in which he described Economics — “the Social Science […] which finds the secret of this universe in ‘supply-and-demand’ ” — as the Dismal Science. This was the coining of the term Dismal Science to describe Economics.

Economics was a dismal science, indeed “a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one” because it denied the superiority of certain men. This was in direct contrast to Carlyle who held that some men, mostly White ones, were innately better than others, namely “Black Quashee”.  Addressing himself to Blacks in the West Indies he advised, “You are not ‘slaves’ now; nor do I wish, if it can be avoided, to see you slaves again: but decidedly you will have to be servants to those that are born wiser than you, that are born lords of you, — servants to the whites, if they are (as what mortal can doubt they are?) born wiser than you.”

Carlyle felt that “Black Quashee” was “indolent” and that if left to his own devices would simply choose to sit around eating “Pumpkin”, which would be against his “sacred appointment to labour”. To save “Black Quashee” from his own indolence he had an “indisputable and perpetual right to be compelled” to work. Economists, in a most dismal fashion, denied that certain men were inferior and should be compelled to work. Instead they suggested that a wage be offered for work and the “poor indolent blockhead, black or white” simply be left to decided for themselves whether or not to work at that wage.

While Carlyle’s essay certainly has racial undertones — less undertones than blaringly loud tones — his point was also part of a larger argument. Part of the essay and an opinion Carlyle shared with his contemporary supporters, among them John Ruskin and Charles Dickens, was the idea that some men are simply Great Men who are from birth simply destined for great things. It was the opposition of Economists to such ideas of innate superiority and their insistence on a more egalitarian view of mankind to which Carlyle objected.

A denial that some men may be innately better than others lead Economics to be known as the Dismal Science. Dismal was to insist that all men and women be treated equally. If only Economists were more Dismal today!


If you decide to read Carlyle’s essay it will help to know that Exeter Hall was the home of the anti-slavery movement. It would also help to know what Carlyle’s obsession with Pumpkins is all about, but on this point I have no idea. Among Thomas Carlyle’s main opponents on the issue of slavery was the Economist and Moral Philosopher John Stuart Mill. The trial of George Eyre, the Jamacian Governor, led John Stuart Mill together with Charles Darwin and others to form the Jamaica Committee to push for the prosecution of George Eyre. Thomas Carlyle formed a rival committee for the defence, with supporters including Charles Dickens and John Ruskin.

Carlyle’s argument in the Occasional Discourse is, strictly speaking, made not in favour of slavery, merely of compelling people to work. However Carlyle was certainly not averse to the idea; “Quashee, if he will not help in bringing out the spices, will get himself made a slave again (which state will be a little less ugly than his present one), and with beneficent whip, since other methods avail not, will be compelled to work.”

A nice quote from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations that captures this egalitarian view of early Economists is,

The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they came to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance.

Further readings:

  • In addition to Carlyle’s essay as linked above there are a series of modern essays examining the racial context in which the term the Dismal Science first arose in the book of essays How the Dismal Science got its Name by David Levy, this was my own introduction to the topic. A good book, but dense.
  • A contemporary report from The Spectator on the Jamaica Affair.
  • For more on Britain’s anti-slavery movement, one of the world’s first international humanitarian rights campaigns, try Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hothschild. Britain did not just ban slavery within its own borders (and colonies), it actively protested the trading of slaves by other countries, and by the end was patrolling the waters off Zanzibar to blockade the shipping of slaves to the Arabic Peninsula.
  • Hard Times by Charles Dickens, a book he dedicated to Thomas Carlyle, argues against a narrow conception of behaving in a rationalist utilitarian fashion in which all actions should be based in facts while imagination and compassion are foreign concepts.
  • What happened to the egalitarian views of the earlier Economists? Try The “Vanity of the Philosopher”: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics by David Levy and Sandra Pearl. As with the other Levy book mentioned, this is not light reading.

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