In England, in the middle of the nineteenth century (a.k.a. Victorian times) Charles Dickens was totally fed up with Utilitarianism and Political Economy.
Whoa, don't panic! Shmoop to the what-on-earth-is-that-big-capitalized-word rescue! Political Economy is just what they called economics back in the day, and Utilitarianism is the idea that we should set up society to do the greatest good for the most number of people. It sounds good when we say it like that, but how can anyone tell what the greatest good is? And what happens to the people who aren't part of that "greatest number"? Utilitarian thinkers were threatening to slowly but surely replace older Judeo-Christian ideas of morality with more statistically based explanations of what people should do for themselves, for one another, and for society.
Now there is definitely some dispute about how far the economists really wanted to take their theories. Some, like David Ricardo, just hung back and decided that economics was descriptive. It was like saying, "Wait, we're not telling you how to live your life. We're just making observations about how many people do this and that, so the government can use those numbers for better governing." On the other hand, other economists, like Harriet Martineau, were pretty psyched to make their ideas proscriptive – they really did want to go around and tell everybody what do to and how to do it.
Dickens, meanwhile, didn't really care about the internal fighting of the economists. He was totally against their whole deal in general. He strongly believed that people are individuals and their lives and choices can't be explained by math or logic alone. Also, he was deeply committed to the idea of acting for the sake of others. Self-sacrifice, altruism, generosity, and compassion were all high on his must-do list. He believed that these behaviors would be lost in an economic system that claims that people should act only according to their self-interest.
So, in 1854, to point out the dangers of the popular economic theories in his day, Dickens wrote the novel Hard Times. It's about a brother and a sister raised totally on the principles of economic theory (or at least economic theory the way Dickens understood it). And guess what? Not so surprisingly, their lives turn out pretty horrible. (But you'll have to read the book to find out what happens – we don't want to spoil the ending for you.) Dickens seems to say, "Economics is going to mess everyone up!" But the same thing that makes writing fiction awesome (you get to make everything happen how you want it to happen) is what makes it easy to criticize. When this novel came out, many people loved it. But at the same time, lots of pro-economics, pro-industrialization, pro-business people started to nitpick all the little mistakes Dickens had made about how factories really work and what economic theories actually look like.
What these nitpickers weren't paying attention to, though, is something that we don't really get to experience anymore – the way that people originally read the novel. It was originally published serially in Dickens's social commentary magazine, Household Words. Every week, a new issue of Household Words would come out. The very first thing in it was the latest installment of Hard Times, talking about the general crummy-ness of things. And right after this first section, the rest of the magazine was socially-conscious journalism, documenting this same crummy-ness in real-life England. It was basically the nineteenth century version of watching episodes of The Wire while streaming NPR.
Why Should I Care?
Okay, quick. Get out your wallet. Now open it. What do you see? We see… some receipts… gum wrappers… more receipts… ooh, a reminder note to get deodorant! Glad we found that. Know what we're not glad about, though? What's missing: cash-o-la, baby. Nope. There's more dryer lint than dinero in there. How about you?
What's that? You don't do the Carlton dance every time you open your wallet or log in to your bank account? Well, don't fret old chum. You're in good company, as in the 99% of us who don't have elevators in our six-car garages, who have never flown on a private jet, those of us who truly value the Taco Bell value menu (mmmm, MexiMelt…). Basically, you are one of billions of people around the world who have to worry about money.
Now, there are plenty of long-winded theories, and tweed-jacketed economists out there who love to talk about big, economic forces and political decisions and yadda yadda yadda. What matters to us, though, is why we had to save up for a whole year just to get new brakes on our 1996 Ford Fiesta (we love you, Grape Ape!).
Now, they say that money can't buy happiness, but it sure solves a lot of problems. And those problems are precisely what Dickens was aiming to portray in Hard Times. It's not about charts and graphs and info-graphics on the news. It's about the people who are affected by the day-to-day realities of that giant term, "the economy"—as in the (spoiler alert!) falling-in-a-rich-factory-owner's-hole-and-dying kind of realities. Poor Stephen…
So, for those of you who are broke as a joke, you might find shared comfort in knowing that, throughout history, folks have suffered due to economic hardship. You might even be inspired to improve the conditions of the neediest among us, to raise your own voice (like Dickens, or this guy) to work for a future in which everyone, someday, might afford their own chance at happiness.