"Political Economy Is a Mere Skeleton Unless.": [1] What Can Social Economists Learn from Charles Dickens?

By Henderson, James P. | Review of Social Economy, June 2000 | Go to article overview

"Political Economy Is a Mere Skeleton Unless.": [1] What Can Social Economists Learn from Charles Dickens?


Henderson, James P., Review of Social Economy


Abstract Charles Dickens was a reformer who sought to reform economic conditions. Convinced that the reforms proposed by the economists of his day would not benefit those victimized by the Industrial Revolution, he also sought to reform economics. Dickens' prime targets were McCulloch, Malthus, and Nassau Senior. Reviewing Dickens's efforts at social reform, Chesterton made the distinction between pessimistic reformers, who describe how bad people are under bad conditions, and optimistic reformers, who describes how good people are under bad conditions. The author draws similar parallels between mainstream economists and social economists.

Keywords: Charles Dickens, McCulloch, Malthus, Nassau Senior, social economists, reform

I. INTRODUCTION

This article is about reform and reformers. It is about reforming economic conditions and reforming economics. Thus it is about social economics. Charles Dickens was a reformer who sought to reform economic conditions. Convinced that the reforms proposed by the economists of his day would not benefit those victimized by the Industrial Revolution, he also sought to reform economics.

Dickens challenged economists both in his fiction and in his journalism. In a letter to Charles Knight, Dickens summarized his charges against political economists: My satire is against those who see figures and averages, and nothing else--the representatives of the wickedest and most enormous vice of this time--the men who, through long years to come, will do more damage to the real useful truths of political economy, than I could do (if I tried) in my whole life...

(Dickens to Charles Knight, 30 December 1854, Letters, 7: 492)

One of Dickens prime targets was J. R. McCulloch whose Principles of Political Economy (1825) was the most popular economics book before John Stuart Mill's Principles was published in 1848. McCulloch also published several collections of "figures and averages"--the most popular of which was his A Descriptive and Statistical Account of the British Empire (1837). In Dickens' novel, Hard Times, McCulloch is satirized as "Mr. M'Choakumchild". His distaste for McCulloch and his work is revealed in his private correspondence. In one letter Dickens remarked that a piece submitted for his magazine Household Words was "dreadfully dull. . . I should have thought the greater part of it by McCulloch..." (Dickens to W. H. Wills, 5 August 1853, Letters, 7:126.). In another letter, Dickens sneers at "that Great Mogul of imposters, Master M'Culloch" (Dickens to John Forster, 12-14 August 1855, ibid.: 687).

McCulloch was not the only economist whose writings Dickens disliked. His book, Oliver Twist, was an assault on the effects of the Poor Law Reform of 1834. That law was authored by Nassau Senior and Edwin Chadwick. Like many other writers, Dickens found The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus's Essay on Population (1803), particularly repugnant.

Let us begin with two of his famous Christmas tales, both of which are concerned with England's poor and criticize the work of McCulloch, Senior, and Malthus.

II. DICKENS'S FICTION

In both A Christmas Carol and The Chimes, Dickens "resolved to make it a plea for the poor". (See John Forster, I, Book IV, part V: 386-387. See also Letters, 4: 200, 203-205, 208-212). He was "bent on striking a blow for the poor" (ibid.). Dickens assured a friend that he had "great faith in the poor" and he pledged:

To the best of my ability I always endeavour to present them in a favourable light to the rich; and I shall never cease, I hope, until I die, to advocate their being made as happy and as wise as the circumstances of their condition, in its utmost improvement, will admit of their becoming.

(Dickens to J. V. Staples, 3 April 1844, Letters, 4: 95, footnote 2)

In 1843, Dickens was appalled by the findings in "The Second Report of the Children's Employment Commission". …

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