The Victorian Economic Sensibility

I’m glad that Michelle Vachris has taken us to the 19th century, with her thinking on Mark Twain, and that Maria Paganelli has provided us with more support for the nuanced thinking allowed for a novelist. Their work conveniently allows me to prod gently at the single part of Ross Emmett’s essay that makes me nervous.

I think that he’s found a much more likely and more immediate source for Gordon Tullock’s thinking about the transformation in economic thought after Adam Smith. I also think that he is, on the whole, right that “the nineteenth century was the heyday for romance about politics, at least among the English literati.”

There is a great deal of romance in Victorian writing about politics But as Paganelli reminds us, literary productions frequently capture a complexity that can be easily lost in theoretical constructs. Tyler Cowen has suggested elsewhere that a novel is a model. A novel is a model, however, that allows for the inclusion of all sorts of variables that would make mathematical models impossibly messy, but that make literature interesting and rich. T.S. Eliot put it like this, “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

That complex amalgamation of experiences, attitudes, and understandings means that whenever someone points to the romantic view that many Victorian novelists seem to have about politics, I am compelled to bring up counterexamples.

My favorite counterexample to accusations of Victorian romance about politics and economics is Charles Dickens. He’s my favorite example because he is, of course, every economist’s least favorite novelist. The portrait of the grasping businessman Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” and the attack on industrialization in Hard Times are fairly good reasons to think of Dickens as a prime example of the kind of Victorian romanticization to which public choice theory is a useful antidote.

But Dickens wrote a lot of novels. I’ve argued elsewhere that his Christmas tale, “The Chimes” makes a useful pairing with “A Christmas Carol” as a way of providing a more complex view of Dickensian economic through. I’d suggest that Little Dorrit might prove equally instructive for those who object to Hard Times.

When we think of Little Dorrit we think of its portrayal of the Marshalsea—London’s notorious debtor’s prison—and its account of the financial chicanery of Mr. Merdle, upon whose demise (by his own hand, out of shame at being exposed), it is discovered that:

Numbers of men in every profession and trade would be blighted by his insolvency; old people who had been in easy circumstances all their lives would have no place of repentance for their trust in him but the workhouse; legions of women and children would have their whole future desolated by the hand of this mighty scoundrel. Every partaker of his magnificent feasts would be seen to have been a sharer in the plunder of innumerable homes; every servile worshipper of riches who had helped to set him on his pedestal, would have done better to worship the Devil point-blank. …. (He) was simply the greatest forger and thief that had every cheated the gallows.

Just for the record, it does not seem to me that hatred of graft and corruption is an anti-market or anti-business stance. People who value and appreciate free markets and honest business should despise those who corrupt them, just as people who love their religion should despise those who bastardize its teachings. That said, I am certainly not going to make the claim that Dickens’s portrait of Mr. Merdle—the Bernie Madoff of 19th century London—is in any way representative of the kind of nuanced public choice sensibility I’m looking for. But Mr. Merdle is not the only character in Little Dorrit.

An important foil to Merdle and his criminal misuse of funds is Dan Doyce. Doyce “is a smith and engineer. He is not in a large way, but he is well known as a very ingenious man. A dozen years ago, he perfects an invention (involving a very curious secret process) of great importance to his country and his fellow- creatures. I won’t say how much money it cost him, or how many years of his life he had been about it, but he brought it to perfection a dozen years ago.” Doyce is, in other words, an independent businessman, an inventor, and an entrepreneur. Notice that Dickens is very careful to specify both the enormous utility of Doyce’s invention and the cost of the time, intelligence, money, and energy he has invested in it. Doyce’s invention, we are told repeatedly throughout the novel, will be of great benefit to England, if he can only get a patent and put it into production.

However, in order to do this, Doyce must get past Parliament and the infamous Circumlocution Office:

[T]he trials (for patents) were made in the presence of a board of six, of whom two ancient members were too blind to see it, two other ancient members were too deaf to hear it, one other ancient member was too lame to get near it, and the final ancient member was too pig-headed to look at it. …How the Circumlocution Office, in course of time, took up the business as if it were a brand new thing of yesterday, which had never been heard of before; muddled the business, addled the business, tossed the business in a wet blanket. How the impertinences, ignorances, and insults went through the multiplication table. How there was a reference of the invention to three Barnacles and a Stiltstalking, who knew nothing about it; into whose heads nothing could be hammered about it; who got bored about it, and reported physical impossibilities about it. How the Circumlocution Office, in a Minute, number eight thousand seven hundred and forty, ‘saw no reason to reverse the decision at which my lords had arrived.’ How the Circumlocution Office, being reminded that my lords had arrived at no decision, shelved the business.

Dickens makes it very clear to his readers, as he takes us through Doyce’s rough but accurate accounting methods and business practices, that the problems Doyce faces in achieving his patent and in being allowed to produce his invention and profit from his own innovation are not due to any failing on Doyce’s part. He does everything right. He is hampered only as a result of an ossified government structure, a crew of bureaucrats who are too stupid to recognize a good thing when they see it, and an endlessly circumlocutory process. I do not think Buchanan or Tullock could have written a more effective description of government waste and inefficiency.

(George Orwell’s observation about Dickens and politics is well worth noting here. He writes that Dickens, “…despises politics, does not believe that any good can come out of Parliament—he had been a Parliamentary shorthand writer, which was no doubt a disillusioning experience.”)

Doyce takes the only possible action. He shrugs. He packs up his invention and the considerable intellectual capital contained in his innovative brain, and heads for “other countries.” The result of this move (a fine example of the need for international labor mobility) is that at the end of the novel Meagle is able to tell us, “Don’t talk about happiness until you see Dan. I assure you, Dan is directing works and executing labours over yonder, that it would make your hair stand on end to look at. He’s no public offender, bless you, now! He’s medalled and ribboned, and starred and crossed, and I don’t-know-what all’d like a born nobleman. But we mustn’t talk about that over here. …Britannia is a Britannia in the manger—won’t give her children such distinctions herself, and won’t allow them to be seen when they are given by other countries.”

And Little Dorrit is not the only major Victorian novel to consider politics without romance. Trollope’s Palliser novels—especially Phineas Finn—are important here, as well. I also suspect that the Victorian potboiler novel would be a productive source.

Finally, a question for the group as a whole. Are the Victorians any more of a highpoint for the romanticization of politics than the post WWII era? Should we be looking much later for writers who are thoroughly in love with the political?

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Shakespeare’s Inner Economist by Sarah Skwire

    Sarah Skwire looks at the implicit economics of Shakespeare’s plays, in which self-interested politicians vie with one other for advantage. These plays, particularly the histories, reflect a keen awareness of the uses of politics for personal advantage, and of the incentives that work on state agents just like they work on the rest of us. Skwire argues that Shakespeare falsifies the notion that the economic way of thinking was an 18th-century construction, and that premodern people did not think about costs and benefits in the same ways that we now do.

Response Essays

  • Romanticizing Politics by Ross Emmett

    Ross Emmett agrees with Sarah Skwire that literature can be informative about public choice, and that pre- and early modern authors often showed more understanding of the problems of political economy than later critics might suppose. He proposes some origins for Gordon Tullock’s curious assertion that premodern authors had a romantic view of politics. These include a change in historical ideas about political economy that was first described by Frank Knight, as well as a litany of 19th- and early 20th-century English-language authors including Arnold Toynbee, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, and George Bernard Shaw, all of whom did much to romanticize our ideas about politics.

  • Adam Smith’s Public Choice Economics by Maria Pia Paganelli

    Maria Pia Paganelli examines the theme of rent seeking in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Why was it, Smith asked, that businessmen were the most likely to ask for government favors, and why had they demanded – and received – an expensive and dangerous empire? The reason was simple self-interest, he concluded, combined with the unequal distribution of costs and benefits these measures entailed. Although hints of public choice can be found earlier, it’s with good reason that Smith is seen as an important figure.

  • Mark Twain, Meet Gordon Tullock by Michelle Vachris

    Michelle Vachris argues that Gordon Tullock did make a good point when he characterized premodern political economists’ thinking as romantic. The paradigm of the bad legislator in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, for example, was not a self-interested or venal official, but rather the “man of system” who wished to achieve a particular plan of society. Literature, though, may have been more sophisticated; Vachris looks to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner for several examples of public choice-like thinking in the nineteenth century.

The Conversation