Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 4 No. 4 (Fall 1990)


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Retrospectives: A Dismal Romantic

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Persky, Joseph. 1990. "Retrospectives: A Dismal Romantic." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 4(4): 165-172.

DOI: 10.1257/jep.4.4.165


Economists like to think of their discipline as queen of the social sciences. Unfortunately, our vocation is more likely to be berated as "the dismal science." This witticism has a checkered history. In the popular mind, economists are viewed as "dismal" largely because of our acute sensitivity to budget constraints and opportunity costs. Within the profession, the expression is often linked to the pessimistic demographics of Thomas Malthus. But the epithet "dismal science" was far more than gentle fun at the expense of the Reverend Malthus. Instead, it was a rallying cry of a mid-19th century attack on liberal political economy. The term originated from an odd jumble of romanticism, reaction and racism with which the flamboyant social critic Thomas Carlyle sought to discredit both democratic government and the market system. His attack on political economy was incidental to the larger enterprise.

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Persky, Joseph (U IL, Chicago)


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