Charles Dickon’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a reading tradition for many during the joyful Christmas season. It reminds us of timeless principles about the value of the person, the family, honesty, goodwill and the true worth of money. Our friend Mr Scrooge also offers insights into our unfortunate human tendency to be self-seeking, urging us to struggle against it. His name has even become a part of our everyday language – to be a ‘scrooge’.
I must admit though that I have never thought about the story in a demographic sense before. However, a columnist from Forbes has made just such an analysis, identifying that present within its pages is Adam Smith’s belief that more people and children do not mean less for everyone. He draws attention to lines such as these:
“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.”
The column argues that Dickens is explicitly criticising the father of zero-growth population philosophy, Thomas Malthus, by having the stingy Scrooge give voice to his ideas – ideas of surplus population and greed for himself. More recently these ideas have been opined by Paul Ehrlich’s ‘population bomb’ theory and argument that productivity cannot keep pace with population growth. The column states further that:
Malthus’ ideas were still current in British intellectual life at the time A Christmas Carol was written… [He] famously argued that in a world in which economies grew arithmetically and population grew geometrically, mass want would be inevitable.
Jean Baptiste Say, [Adam] 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.
Among other observations, it then goes on to analyse the Ghost of Christmas Present as a symbol of abundance and one key to understanding Dickens’ own political and economic philosophy. The ghosts, as they transform Scrooge, offer a much more human approach:
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.”
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 [further illustrating the truth of Adam Smith’s market theory briefly detailed above, rather than Malthus’ rather cynical one]:
“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.”
I hope your Christmas table can be described in such opulent terms! And if not, you can take heart from this story that it is the people in our life that matter most in any case. For those who read ‘A Christmas Carol’ every Christmas, you will know well Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s defence of Christmas which argues that it is the “only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they were really fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys”. Now as you read this old Christmas favourite, you may do so noticing even more notable layers of demographic meaning among its pages.