December 20, 2010

Charles Dickens defends the right to earn a living

By Charles Dickens defends the right to earn a living

Author: Timothy Sandefur

Charles Dickens wasn’t a big fan of economic liberty; in fact, he’s probably the most effective propagandist against capitalism in the history of the English language. His portrayal of the Industrial Revolution makes it look like a time of blight and misery, when in reality, standards of living were reaching unprecedented highs, and the lives of London factory workers, miserable as they no doubt were by today’s standards, were vastly better than anything previous generations had known. (For more on this, check out Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost.)

Still, there’s an interesting, often overlooked passage in A Christmas Carol that we’d do well to remember.

While Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present are traveling through London, Scrooge pauses to upbraid the Ghost for enacting Sunday-closure laws that deprive the poor of 1/7th of their earning potential, and the Ghost replies, Don’t blame me—that’s stupid government interference!

“Spirit?” said Scrooge, after a moment’s thought, “I wonder you, of all the beings in the many worlds about us, should desire to cramp these people's opportunities of innocent enjoyment.”

“I!” cried the Spirit.

“You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day on which they can be said to dine at all,” said Scrooge. “Wouldn’t you?”

“I!” cried the Spirit.

“You seek to close these places on the Seventh Day,” said Scrooge. “And it comes to the same thing.”

“I seek!” exclaimed the Spirit.

“Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family,” said Scrooge.

“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all out kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

Sadly, government today still frequently enacts laws that deprive immigrants, inner city residents, members of minority groups, and others with little political influence, of the economic opportunity they need. Licensing laws, minimum wages, and other laws make it harder for the poor to find jobs–and all in the name of the same misguided humanitarianism that Dickens wisely denounced.

What to read next