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Malthus and Scrooge

Jerry Bowyer

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"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.

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.

Dickens, I think, saw it 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.

Read the entire article on the Forbes Magazine website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 06-Jan-2009



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