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Economics - The Dismal Science


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This is a small selection of some of the economists who have shaped the subject.

The Dismal Prophecies of Malthus

One of the first economists to proffer his theory was T. Malthus. Malthus is chiefly remembered for his essay on population. In this essay, Malthus argued the human race was doomed because the population was increasing at a faster rate than our capacity to grow food. In many ways Malthus was one of the earliest proponents of “The End Is Nigh” syndrome, and unsurprisingly it was Malthus who claimed for economics the label “The Dismal Science”. Fortunately, Malthus displayed a trait that many later economists would share - he was wrong. The population didn’t starve. In fact during the nineteenth century the forces of capitalism flourished creating unprecedented wealth- at least for those who owned the means of production.

Adam Smith - The Invisible Hand

One of Capitalism’s strongest exponents was the economist Adam Smith. In his book, The Wealth of Nations, Smith claimed that if people followed their own self interest, then these individual acts of selfishness would have the remarkable effect of leading to the greatest overall benefit for society. This is the basic principle of the book, although Adam Smith did take 1,260 pages to say it (unfortunately, very few economists have ever learnt the art of being concise). Adam Smith has thus become synonymous with support for free market economics. However, many people forget he was rather a modest Scottish intellectual who became chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University (Smith’s other major work was about charity and ethics but it is for his articulation of free market economics that he is chiefly remembered). His seemingly paradoxical argument about the free market has remained at the centre of all major debates in economics. Is an unbridled free market really the best economic system? Nevertheless, even the most ardent free market economist cannot ignore the fact that capitalism creates inequality and in the nineteenth century this inequality was painfully evident. Thus, many economists came along to challenge the free market ideologies of Adam Smith.

Karl Marx - The Revolutionary Economist

Whether deliberately or not Karl Marx was destined to play a major role in world history. Basically, Karl Marx was of the opinion that the inequality of capitalism would inevitably lead to a revolution by the oppressed workers and the formation of a Communist state. In fact Karl Marx went to extraordinary lengths to explain this principle. His most important work, Das Kapital, could make claim to be one of the most boring books ever written (perhaps only beaten by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). However in F.Engels, Marx had a companion who was able to help romanticise the ideals of Communism. But despite the various attractions of Marxism, it never really took hold in the US and Western Europe.

About the Author

Richard Pettinger studied Politics and Economics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. He now works as an economics teacher in Oxford. He enjoys writing essays on Economic and he edits an Economics Blog focused on UK and US economies:

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2007-04-01 23:49:27 in Economic Articles

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