Essays in Honor of Keith B. Griffin
Edited by James K. Boyce, Stephen Cullenberg, Prasanta K. Pattanaik and Robert Pollin
A Witness of Two Revolutions
Keith B. Griffin1 Two revolutions Economics is sometimes called the ‘dismal science’, particularly by its critics. It was Thomas Carlyle, the British essayist and historian, who first described economics as ‘dismal’, and the phrase subsequently was taken out of context and used to call the attention of the general public to one of the principal conclusions of economic doctrine at that time, namely the impossibility of sustained improvement in the standard of living of the majority of humankind.2 Temporary improvements were possible, for example as a result of technical change, but ultimately the expansion of the population would drive living standards back to a subsistence level and the economy would enter a stationary state. I have always believed that Carlyle’s description was inaccurate and that economics provides us with powerful tools not only to understand the world but also to change it for the better. Indeed I became an economist because I had a passionate interest in issues related to poverty and inequality and thought that economics might help me to do something positive about them. Forty years later, the interest is unabated and the conviction that economics is far from ‘dismal’ is undiminished. Economics did not suddenly emerge as a fully formed, independent science (whether dismal or not) around the time Carlyle was writing in the nineteenth century. On the contrary, it grew out of the humanities, and its early association with moral philosophy and political theory was particularly close. Indeed these roots can still be seen in Oxford...
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