Malthus and the “Dismal Science”

9 May 2006 at 11:45 am 1 comment

| Peter Klein |

I too imagine that Williamson's critics will be delighted by the association with Malthus.

As a footnote, David Levy and Sandra Peart have done interesting revisionist work claiming that Malthus actually wasn't the target of Carlyle's famous quip.

Everyone knows that economics is the dismal science. And almost everyone knows that it was given this description by Thomas Carlyle, who was inspired to coin the phrase by T. R. Malthus's gloomy prediction that population would always grow faster than food, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.

While this story is well-known, it is also wrong, so wrong that it is hard to imagine a story that is farther from the truth. At the most trivial level, Carlyle's target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus's predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact — that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty — that led Carlyle to label economics "the dismal science."

See the full thing here. And take that, economist-bashers!

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Ephemera, Myths and Realities. Tags: .

Malthus and the Most Cited Economist in the World Citation Impact of Entrepreneurship Research

1 Comment Add your own

  • [...] Several posts below allude to arguments by Jeffrey Pfeffer, Sumantra Ghoshal, and others that economic models and concepts (agency problems, transaction costs, opportunism, and the like) are taking management theory in the wrong direction and are harmful to management practice. A subtext of these arguments is that economists are ideologically biased toward the free market, against community and informal social ties, toward cynical and even "reactionary" views of human nature, and so on. (Even if we're not actually dismal.) [...]

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