Who Is Dismal Now?
Economics was dubbed the "dismal science" in the 19th
reasons that have been largely forgotten or suppressed.
It may be that the name stuck because economics is, at its
core, anti-utopian. The notion of scarcity is the foundation
of economics, so economists see costs everywhere. They keep
reminding people that there is no such thing as a free
lunch, which is often an unwelcome message. Or maybe the
name has stuck because some people are unsettled with the
central role that the assumption of self-interest plays in
economics. It is difficult to raise a crop of idealism from
fields of self-interest, and to some, this is a dismal
However, there is an optimistic side to economics that
suggests the term "dismal science" is inappropriate.
Economists focus on market exchange and in exchange both
buyer and seller emerge better off than they were before.
Their focus on exchange makes economists ready and even
eager to see interactions as positive-sum. In a positive-sum
interaction there is a net gain because winnings exceed
losses. Certainly a way of viewing the world that sees
people constantly acting to improve their situation is not
In contrast, many social scientists outside of economics
make heavy use of power models to interpret the world, and
one can make a strong case that this is a dismal way to view
reality. Power models tend to see interactions as zero-sum,
which means that any winning is balanced by a loss. If one
person improves his situation, it must come at the expense
of another whose situation has become worse. Power models
tend to emphasize exploiters and victims, so look for them
when you see discussions making heavy use of these
categories. They are common in discussions of politics,
gender, race, and poverty.
One reason those who use power models are not dubbed
"dismal scientists" is that they are often utopian, (though
utopianism is not a necessary part of any power model). Karl
Marx, the most famous user of a power model, is an example.
He saw the world as a struggle between the owners of capital
and workers. The former had power and exploited the latter.
The exploitation would stop when workers violently rose up
to expropriate the expropriators. You might expect that,
after the revolution, the workers that had seized power
would use to exploit others; this outcome is logical in
terms of power models. However, Marx said that power would
not be transferred in this case, but would cease to exist,
and a world of peace and harmony, a utopia, would come into
Marx labeled his utopian view of socialism as "scientific
socialism" and labeled as "utopian socialism" the views of
his contemporary socialists who were trying to establish
socialism by experiment, that is, by science. This bizarre
labeling has stuck and people use it without reflecting on
its absurdity. Once a term comes into every day use, people
just accept it. For example, have you ever noticed the
absurdity of the term "underprivileged?" One can be
unprivileged or non-privileged, but it is logically
impossible to be underprivileged. This conservatism of
language is probably the main reason economics, which is no
more dismal than many other fields of study, is still known
as the "dismal science."
1The idea of comparative advantage also has
very optimistic insights. It says that diversity, rather
than being the source of conflict, can lead to greater
production and cooperation and that even those with low
productivity can play a useful role in society.