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'A Christmas Carol' Offers Critique Of What Was Then A New Social Science: Economics


"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens is a redemption story. Of course, it tells a story of three Christmas spirits who teach the miser Ebenezer Scrooge the true meaning of the holiday. It's a heartwarming reminder of the importance of generosity. But Dickens also had another lesson in mind when the story was published in 1843. Keith Romer, with our Planet Money podcast, says this holiday classic is a pointed critique of what was then a pretty new social science called economics.

KEITH ROMER, BYLINE: "A Christmas Carol" takes place during the Industrial Revolution. The story is deeply preoccupied with questions of wealth and poverty and with a then-brand-new social science that purported to be able to answer those questions - political economy, economics.


ROMER: I recently visited Branford High School in Branford, Conn., to watch its staged adaptation of "A Christmas Carol." It turns out, even if your Ebenezer Scrooge is a teenager, asking for donations to Christmas charities still a bit of a nonstarter.

ADAM JACKSON: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) My taxes go to support the prisons and the workhouses. Those that are badly off must go there.

ALEXIS BROWN: (As character) But so many cannot go there.

HANNAH BLOOMQUIST: (As character) And they'd rather die first.

ADAM: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) If they would rather die, then they'd better do so at once and decrease the surplus population.

ROMER: Dickens biographer Michael Slater says that last phrase, surplus population - that is the key to understanding the fight Dickens is picking with economics.

MICHAEL SLATER: Well, that's a reference to the Reverend Malthus.

ROMER: In 1798, the Reverend Thomas Malthus had published "An Essay On The Principle Of Population."

SLATER: And Dickens loathed Malthus. Malthus is one of his great sort of enemies.

ROMER: Malthus had a bleak view of things. He thought that population was always going to grow faster than the economy's capacity to produce enough food for everyone. The extra starving people - they were the surplus population.

ROBERT MAYHEW: So he's known as a prophet of doom.

ROMER: That's Malthus scholar Robert Mayhew. The way he sees it, there is a second dig at Malthus embedded in "A Christmas Carol," one built around the character of Tiny Tim.

ALEXIS ASSELTA: (As Tiny Tim) God bless us, everyone.

ROMER: Yes, that Tiny Tim, the son of Scrooge's underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit. In a vision, a Christmas spirit shows Scrooge that, if he isn't more generous to Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim is going to die.

Is Tiny Tim a part of the surplus population?

MAYHEW: I assume that Dickens' main point is that, in a cold utilitarian calculus, Tiny Tim is surplus population.

ROMER: Dickens' target wasn't just Thomas Malthus, either. It was all the political economists who were trying to describe human behavior as if it were governed by natural laws. Dickens biographer Michael Slater.

SLATER: He just hated questions to do with humanity being dealt with in a sort of coldly scientific mathematical sort of way. He was all for the heart rather than the head as it were.

ROMER: Malthus, by the way, ended up being wrong. At almost the exact moment he published his book, in 1798, the Industrial Revolution took off, and the British economy began to figure out how to supply enough food - and everything else - for lots of Bob Cratchits. In "A Christmas Carol," Tiny Tim lives because Scrooge is kinder to Tiny Tim's father, Bob Cratchit.

ADAM: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) A merry Christmas, Bob, my good fellow. I shall raise your salary and endeavor to assist you with your struggling family.

ROMER: In Dickens' version, the improvement in Bob Cratchit's life is caused by Scrooge's change of heart. But, for the more coldly scientific-minded of that time, the Bob Cratchits of the world might have been helped more by things that political economists love - increased competition for labor, rising productivity and a different kind of Christmas miracle, the steam engine.

ALEXIS A: (As Tiny Tim) God bless us, everyone.

ROMER: For NPR News, I'm Keith Romer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Keith Romer has been a contributing reporter for Planet Money since 2015. He has reported stories on risk-pooling among poker players, whether it's legal to write a spin-off of the children's book Goodnight Moon and the time one man cornered the American market in onions. Sometimes on the show, he sings.