The poor should die!
A Turkish girl got her 15 minutes of fame last week, at least in Turkey. A YouTube video with her driving her father’s Porsche and stating that “she wouldn’t say all the poor should die because people would get jealous” went viral.
I would hate to disappoint her, but she is hardly the first person to have made this argument. “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.”
Economic historian James Henderson argues, in his aptly-titled 2000 paper “What can social scientists learn from Charles Dickens?” that “A Christmas Carol” was an attack on Thomas Malthus. Although he had done his share to decrease it nine years before, in 1834, Malthus had coined the term “surplus population,” and his ideas were still widely popular.
The institutions Scrooge he is referring to are jails and workhouses, which were basically prisons where men and women were segregated and put to work under harsh conditions in return for a bed and, to quote Dickens, “three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays.” No wonder Oliver Twist begged, “please sir, I want some more,” as depicted on a tea towel in the home of my friend Esther’s father Jamie – an avid Dickens fan.
Although they existed before, workhouses were essentially a product of the Poor Law of 1834, which was based on Malthus’ idea that the population was bound to grow faster than food supply. Moreover, as the poor became richer, they would have larger families and so would hit the food barrier sooner.
A direct result of this line of thinking was that charity might actually increase suffering. This conclusion originally appalled good Christians brought up to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Malthus’ argument was nevertheless so popular that that the Poor Law, which curbed poverty relief significantly, passed with virtually no opposition.
Malthus was proven wrong in Dickens’ lifetime. He could not foresee that food supply would grow as well thanks to productivity gains. Or that, as French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, Adam Smith’s most influential disciple and a contemporary of Malthus, argued, the gains from division of labor and trade would bring about a surge in living standards.
More recently, entomologist and ecologist Paul Ehrlich argued in his 1968 bestseller “The Population Bomb” that overpopulation would cause scarcity, with billions dying and many countries breaking up. None of that happened, and Ehrlich lost a famous bet with economist Julian Simon on a prediction of his theories.
I would not claim that today’s poor have it easy. As French economist Thomas Piketty showed in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the ratio of wealth to income has been rising in developed countries, threatening a regression to the early 19th century, when fortunes were inherited rather than earned.
But even if inequality rose to levels comparable to that era, the poorest today would still be much better off than their counterparts two centuries ago. And although two out of three Turkish children are under severe material deprivation, none starve. Sorry, Porsche girl!