The Fruits of Civilization (13-1) The Dismal Science

The Dismal Science

A man willing to work, and unable to find work, is perhaps the saddest sight that fortune’s inequality exhibits under this Sun. ~ Thomas Carlyle

Economics was called the “dismal science” by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle in the mid-19th century. Carlyle held to Calvinist values even though he had lost his Christian faith. Carlyle’s pejorative referred to:

“finding the secret of this Universe in ‘supply and demand,’ and reducing the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone.”

The phrase “dismal science” first appeared in Carlyle’s 1849 tract entitled Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, arguing for the reintroduction of slavery as a way to regulate the labor market in the West Indies. Slavery had been outlawed throughout the British Empire in the early 1800s, even as it continued unchecked in practice.

The Negro Question went beyond black people to an overarching theme: the freedom of men, and particularly its impossibility. Infant mortality among the working class in England at the time was around 50%; the same as for Southern slaves in America. People lived on the verge of starvation. Famine severely struck Ireland at the time from the potato blight. Albeit classified as free, poor white British folk lived the lives of slaves. While the British ruling class turned a blind eye to poverty at home, they condemned slavery as part of a political trend in Europe.

Why, then, should not groups of superior men be able to justify their enslavement, exploitation, or even genocide of inferior human groups on factual and moral grounds akin to those we now rely on to justify our treatment of the animals we harness as beasts of burden, that we butcher for food and clothing, or that we destroy as disease-bearing pests or as dangerous predators? ~ American philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler