Chances are, you’ve heard economics referred to as “the dismal science.” That unflattering description is glib and catchy; it is also 100 percent wrong. Let me set the record straight and explain why economics—far from being dismal—is cause for hope, joy, cheer, and optimism.
Thomas Carlyle, a 19th-century Scottish essayist, coined the phrase “the dismal science.” Carlyle was reacting to grim predictions made by the classical economists David Ricardo (1772-1823) and Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). Ricardo posited an “iron law of wages” that sentenced laborers to a life of poverty at the margin of survival. Malthus became the intellectual forbear of today’s gloomy environmentalists by asserting that the human population tended to increase geometrically while the means of sustenance would grow only arithmetically, thereby, like Ricardo, condemning humankind to a poor, tenuous life.
Yes, those theories were dismal. Thankfully, though, they were utterly demolished by subsequent events. In country after country, populations and standards of living have multiplied since the days of Ricardo and Malthus. The classical economists failed to foresee such future phenomena as widespread middle-class affluence and people being defined as “poor” despite having cars, air conditioners, and cell phones (not to mention indoor plumbing, a reliable supply of clean water, and other conveniences that most people lacked in 1800).
Let’s not be too harsh in judging Ricardo and Malthus for their lack of foresight. Who, in 1800, could have foreseen the marvelous growth of productivity and wealth that would transform the world over the next two centuries? To do so would have been to envision a state of affairs without precedent, entirely outside their scope of experience.
What was “dismal” to Carlyle was not economic science, but economic error. Would it be fair to dub aeronautics a “dismal science” on the basis of the many failed attempts at manned flight in the pre-Wright brothers era?
The fact is that “economics,” as a distinct science, was still in its embryonic stage when Carlyle wrote. Economics had not emerged as a distinct field of study, and there were no “economists.” Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy. Ricardo was a businessman, investor, and politician. Malthus was a preacher. The first chair in “political economy” (notice: NOT even “economics” yet) wasn’t established until 1825 at Oxford University.