A Christmas Carol: Do-Gooders in Dickensian Times

How overbearing government regulation prevents charity and cheer

Outside of the gospels, A Christmas Carol is probably the most famous Christmas story on earth. Dickens not only wrote a wildly imaginative story filled with wonderful characters, but he infused in it a plea for tolerance and generosity.

Not surprisingly, when most people think of this timeless novella, they recall Charles Dickens’s reflections on Christmas spirit and the true meaning of the holiday. But this story can shed light on important economic principles as well.

Purportedly written in a frenzied six weeks, A Christmas Carol was Dickens’s emotional response to the treatment of the poor. When reading this book (or almost anything by Dickens for that matter), the dismal socioeconomic landscape of England is vividly depicted. Indeed, in Dickens’s portrayals of the poor, particularly the urban poor, people are often living grim, gloomy, and destitute lives. What’s more, he expresses his discontent with treatment of the poor pointedly and without restraint, and for good reason.

As the era of mass industry dawned in Europe and people migrated from rural areas to cities, the number of desperately poor and homeless people increased dramatically. It would have been bad enough if this new destitute class had merely been ignored. Instead, some of the government remedies to “fix” the problem ended up looking more like persecution of the poor.

Noting the steep increase in the nation’s number of poor people, British government officials quickly enacted legislation to ease the public burden of poverty, the most prominent example being the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This legislation claimed to assist the poor—at that time known by the charming Malthusian label of the “surplus population”—by funneling government relief into what were called “workhouses.”

These establishments were notorious for conditions so undesirable that only the truly destitute would seek relief there, and as Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “many would rather die” than endure them. The laws were intended to encourage poor people to stay off the streets and go out to find work, but it had no effect: because the workhouses were so unbearable, poor people decided they would rather be anyplace but there.

The Poor Laws weren’t the only example of government regulation aggravating the problem. During Dickensian times, some bakeries would allow the poor to use their ovens on Sundays, since they were closed for the Sabbath. But legislation repeatedly targeted this practice in the name of preserving religious observance.

Dickens invokes this in A Christmas Carol when the main character of the story, the literature’s most famous miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, speaks with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Scrooge suggests that the spirit should prevent the poor from eating on the Sabbath, saying that the law prohibiting sharing ovens “has been done in your name.” The ghost responds in righteous anger at the implication and says that while there are some who pass laws like these “in our name,” Scrooge should “charge their doings on them, not us.”

Not only does this demonstrate Dickens’s personal disdain for those who do morally reprehensible things in the name of religion, but it also shows the effect government overregulation has on those who try to help their less fortunate neighbors.

This act of shutting down ovens seems counterproductive and even barbaric, but is it really that different than some government policies today? Consider the widespread prohibitions on providing food for homeless people. Many government regulations prevent people from providing poorer individuals with food, sometimes requiring licenses in the name of safety. In one ghastly case, Missouri health authorities went so far as to pour bleach on food meant for homeless individuals. Dickens would undoubtedly be appalled, but almost certainly not surprised.

While this overregulation seems to be well-intentioned, it hurts poor people by removing their access to charity, and it thwarts those who want to help them.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from A Christmas Carol is the underlying principle of voluntary charity. Government regulation may interfere with charitable acts, but through the transformation of Scrooge, Dickens shows that individuals have great power to improve the lives of others.

Christmas is a reminder that are all charged to help one another and treat those in need as people, or as Dickens put it, “fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Christmastime should remind us that when government fails, it is the responsibility of individuals to help those in need.