Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol For Our Time

 

Brilliant article on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by Jerry Bowyer at Forbes:

What was Dickens really doing when he wrote A Christmas Carol? Answer: He was weighing in on one of the central economic debates of his time, the one that raged between Thomas Malthus and one of the disciples of Adam Smith.

Malthus famously argued that in a world in which economies grew arithmetically and population grew geometrically, mass want would be inevitable. His Essay on Population created a school of thought which continues to this day under the banners of Zero Population Growth and Sustainability. The threat of a “population bomb” under which my generation lived was Paul Ehrlich’s modern rehashing of the Malthusian argument about the inability of productivity to keep pace with, let alone exceed, population growth.

Jean Baptiste Say, Smith’s most influential disciple, argued on the other hand, as had his mentor, that the gains from global population growth, spread over vast expanses of trading, trigger gains from a division of labor which exceed those ever thought possible before the rise of the market order.

Guess whose ideas Charles Dickens put into the mouth of his antagonist Ebenezer Scrooge.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation? … If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Interesting, isn’t it? Later in the story, the Ghost of Christmas Present reminds Scrooge of his earlier words and then adds about Tiny Tim:

“What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.”

Interesting also, that Ehrlich was not an economist, agronomist or even demographer but rather an etymologist, an expert in insect biology. Malthusianism is, indeed, the philosophy of the bug heap, of man as devouring swarm rather than ennobling angel.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is the key to understanding Dickens’ political and economic philosophy. He is the symbol of abundance. He literally and figuratively holds a cornucopia, a horn of plenty. While he wears a scabbard at his side, it is bereft of sword and neglected in care. Peace and plenty. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

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