Economics: the Cheerful Science

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.

The classical economists contributed greatly to our understanding of markets, the coordinating function of prices (the “invisible hand”), the division of labor, the need for freedom, and a very light hand for government—but they still hadn’t discovered the foundational principles of economics. They were still in the thrall of such persistent errors as “the labor theory of value.”

“Economics” as a modern science wasn’t “born” until the 1870s, when the neoclassical school emerged as a result of finally figuring out what “value” was. There is no “economic science” without understanding value any more than you can have chemical science without understanding valences or valid arithmetic without zero.

Since Carl Menger’s brilliant discovery and articulation of the “subjective theory of value” in 1871, economic science has flourished, culminating logically in Ludwig von Mises’ general theory of human action, called praxeology. Mises used the science of economics/praxeology to prove a priori that socialism literally could not be viable, and that if the goal of a wealthy society is one’s goal, then private property, limited government, and free markets are the means to achieve that goal. In the decades since Mises explained how the world works, history has confirmed the validity of his theories.

Mises’ economic science has unlocked the secrets of wealth creation. We know which policies work and which are counterproductive. We now have the economic knowledge to unlock humankind’s potential for eliminating chronic poverty and coexisting and collaborating in a world characterized by peace and abundance.

Why, then, is there so much “dismal” news on the economic front today? Because political agendas and powerful special interests trample economic principles for their own selfish purposes, thereby thwarting the amazing economic potential that economic science makes available to us.

Since 1995, the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal have published an Index of Economic Freedom, an examination of 10 political conditions that affect wealth creation. More freedom, as measured by this index, correlates significantly with economic growth. The recently released 2012 edition shows that the United States has fallen to the 10th-freest economy in the world. It is no coincidence that our economic growth has stagnated as economic activity has become less free.

This bad news has a silver lining: We know what we need to do to return to prosperity. Economic science will work in our favor—if only we adhere to its inexorable principles and get the oppressive burden of Big Government and failed political ideologies off our backs.

The dismal clouds on today’s horizon are a toxic mixture of moral corruption, political power-grabbing, and economic error. Economic truth is the sunlight that illuminates the way to a bright and glorious future. Thank God for this cheerful science.

Dr. Mark Hendrickson


Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson, an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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  • Joe DeVet

    What’s a nice economics essay like this doing in a place like this, which calls itself “Catholic Exchange?”  Thought this blog was about religion.

    Well, we do have a body of social teachings of the Church.  A key concept of this body of teaching is the “preferential option for the poor.”  This option must include spiritual and religious values, of course, but also includes concern for the poor’s material well-being.

    Here’s where a free-market economy comes in.  If we really want to help the poor’s material well-being, in a way that promotes their human dignity, we must advocate for economic practices which create wealth and opportunity for all.  At the same time, prudence calls us to reject well-intentioned but counterproductive measures which interfere with the effective workings of the economy.  Because when there is economic trouble, we rich (anyone who identifies as “middle class” or higher) are inconvenienced.  But the poor suffer real deprivation.

    When we see how the free economy of the US has overcome poverty on a grand scale, we should be very skeptical about well-intentioned but anti-market initiatives, which in the end will do more harm than good, and harm the poor disproportionately.  Obamacare is an example of such a toxic program.

  • Maria T. Fernandez

    I find you article fascinating. How can we change the forces that are making this country lose its position in the free world/