Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.” “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
That phrase–surplus population–is what first tipped me off to Dickens’ philosophical agenda. He’s taking aim at the father of the zero-growth philosophy, Thomas Malthus. Malthus’ ideas were still current in British intellectual life at the time A Christmas Carol was written. Malthus, himself, had joined the surplus generation only nine years before. But his ideas have proved more durable.
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.”
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.
When Scrooge asks him how many brothers he has, the ghost replies “More than 1,800.” When Scrooge declares that this is a ‘tremendous family to provide for,” the ghost rises in anger. And then he takes Scrooge where? To the university economics department? To the socialist meeting house? No, he takes Scrooge to the market, and shows him the abundance there, especially the fruits (sometimes literal) of foreign trade:
“There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Friars… There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, … there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, … there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.”
Onions from Spain, grapes from the Mediterranean and citrus from the equatorial regions. How else could one eat oranges in England in winter? At the end of their Christmas feast, the poor Cratchits eat, yes, oranges. How else, other than through international trade, could the poor afford oranges? Surely, Christmas Present, and his creator Mr. Dickens, and his teacher Mr. Say, are true disciples of Mr. Smith.
Ironically, this made Scrooge a much less wealthy man than he could have been. He was a miser, not an entrepreneur, because his economic philosophy was a miserly one, not an entrepreneurial one. Look at Scrooge’s mentor Fezziwig, who had two apprentices and dozens of employees.
By contrast Scrooge, even as an old man, had no apprentices and only one employee, a low wage and low skilled one at that. Where was Scrooge’s ambition? What was his plan for expansion?
Michael Dell is reported to have started his dream with an image of a large building filled with employees with a flagpole outside. But Scrooge didn’t even update his Scrooge and Marley sign upon the death of his partner seven years after the event, preferring to let rust simply erase the latter’s name. What entrepreneur thinks that way? Scrooge and Marley is basically a collection agency micro-business, whose proprietor did not even make the Forbes 15 List of Wealthiest Fictional Characters.
When Scrooge’s nephew Fred presses his uncle to reveal the cause of their alienation, Scrooge exclaims “Why did you marry?” This is not a change of subject; it is another bitter fruit of the old man’s anti-natal philosophy. Small wonder then, that after Scrooge’s conversion he spends Christmas day with his nephew’s family and cheerfully watches Topper court Fred’s wife’s “plump sister.”
If Scrooge has modern counterparts, they’re more likely to be found among those sad, self-sterilizing minimizers of carbon footprints than in the circles of supply-side entrepreneurs. Who, after all, could claim to a smaller carbon footprint than the man who tried to heat his office with a single piece of coal?
The debate between Say and Malthus, between Scrooge and the Ghosts, continues to this day. Is the market economy a source of abundance or shortage? Is each new little boy or a girl mostly mouth, or mostly mind? Is it a Say/(Julian) Simon/Forbes/Wanniski/Gilder world, or is it a Keynes/Ehrlich/Krugman/Gore world?
Malthus taught the world to fear new people. An amateur economist, he created a theoretical model which allegedly proved that mass starvation was an inevitable result of population growth. Populations grow, he said, geometrically, but wealth only grows arithmetically. In other words, new people create more new people, but new food doesn’t create new food.
Malthus’ influence, unfortunately, grew geometrically and not arithmetically. His ideas provided fodder for Darwin, and Darwin’s lesser mutations used the model to argue for the value of mass human extinction.
Hitler’s hard eugenics and Sanger’s (founder of Planned Parenthood) softer one, both owed a great debt of gratitude to Thomas Malthus. So do the zero-growth, sustainable-growth, right-to-die, duty-to-die, life boat bio-ethicists who dominate so much of our intellectual discussion. Malthus turned out to be, ironically, right in some sense. His prediction of mass death has taken place; not because he was right, but because he was believed.
In other words Malthusianism is a grizzly form of economic self-fulfilling prophecy. Dickens, I think, saw that first. Ebenezer Scrooge was clearly a Malthusian. When he turns away an opportunity for alms giving, he uses the zero growth rationale. When he meets the Ghost of Christmas Present, he reiterates it:
“You have never seen the like of me before!” exclaimed the Spirit.
“Never,” Scrooge made answer to it.
“Have never walked forth with the younger members of my family; meaning (for I am very young) my elder brothers born in these later years?” pursued the Phantom.
“I don’t think I have,” said Scrooge. “I am afraid I have not. Have you had many brothers, Spirit?”
“More than eighteen hundred,” said the Ghost.
“A tremendous family to provide for!” muttered Scrooge.
At this, the Ghost rose in indignation. Scrooge cowers and submits. Then the ghost raises his torch (in the shape of a cornucopia) and leads Scrooge to the public market, brimming with food from all around the world. Dickens especially emphasizes the fruits of trade: almonds, Spanish onions and oranges (in winter, no less). The message is clear: Use your eyes, man, just look around and see that the dirge-ists of the day are wrong. England, even with its poor classes, is a prosperous society. The world is abundant. Rest is possible. So is generosity.
Scrooge’s philosophy is not one based on the evidence; he ignores the evidence. He keeps setting aside the evidence of his senses with reference to the secular philosophy of his time. When he sees a spirit, he says that it’s just a piece of undigested beef causing him to hallucinate. He denies the realm of the spirit until it becomes simply undeniable.
Scrooge is in need of all of this “reclamation” (to quote the Ghost of Christmas Past) partly because he grew up in an atmosphere of want. Dickens makes a point of describing not just the emotional deprivation of Scrooge’s early life (made clear in all of the movies) but also the material deprivation of the boarding school in which he spent his formative years (not portrayed in film versions). “There was an earthy savor in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candlelight, and not too much to eat.” Note that hunger specifically is mentioned.
Already an old man, when the story was set in the first half of the 18th century, Scrooge would have grown up before the triumph of the Smithian ideas and the repeal of the hunger-inducing, protectionist “corn laws.” The psychology of the story is mixed with the economics and history of it.
Scrooge was a man whose present was distorted by his past. The old order, of monopoly and protection and tariff and hunger, gave him a nearly indelible sense of the inherent scarcity of the world. The only thing which rendered Malthus’ ideas plausible to so many people was the shortage associated with command economies. Scrooge, the boy, because a victim of that, believed that want was an ontological necessity, rather than a tragic by-product of state planning.
Scrooge is not following reason; he’s following trauma. His mother died when he was young. He was sent to a boarding home where he and the other children were poorly fed. By the time he was brought back from exile to his home (which his sister said is ‘like heaven’), the damage to his core personality was done.
Dickens’ message is clear enough: The Malthusians of his day did not need evidence (which they ignored every day in the marketplace) or reason. They needed conversion. They needed healing. They needed to be reminded on the day where the world celebrates the birth of a child whom Rome and Herod try to assign to the role of ‘surplus population,’ that the frightened men who rule the world in the name of scarcity should not be followed, but saved.
Post Script: As I put the final touches on the edit of the article above, with my play list running background music, Isaac Watts’ Joy to the World just started playing. Written about a generation before Malthus was born, it captures what Malthus missed, because of his obsessive theological focus on the cursed state of mankind. He was a minister and he built his philosophy on the curse found in the book of Genesis, “cursed is the ground for your sake; in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to you…” But the story doesn’t end with a curse, with thorns and thistles. It moves forward to Christmas. This is why A Christmas Carol is a CHRISTMAS carol, why Dickens’ most clear rebuke to Malthus and stagnation is set at Christmas, because Christmas is the reversal of the curse which Malthus could not see past.
Joy to the World , the Lord is come!Let earth receive her King…
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
I wish I had written this myself. But, I didn’t.
This was published on December 24, 2012. The original is here.
I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas!