The Dickensian 2011 myth

Ian Hislop very nearly told us (When Bankers Were Good, BBC2) that Dickensian bankers were more moral than our own. A couple of literati on the Today show  (BBC Radio 4, 7 December 2011) did actually say how awful and Dickensian our times are. (The inequality! The homeless!) So which is it?

It is helpful to say that England in Dickens’s time had the highest real wages ever known by this or most other countries. (It’s a mixed picture as this paper is good at discussing.) Awful things happened, and especially to poor people. Indeed, our own times are a walk in the park compared: but then our own times are pleasanter (at least in material terms) for nearly everyone, nearly all the time, than they have ever been.

It is frankly absurd to say that the material well-being of our times bears comparison with that of Victorian England.

Ian Hislop’s thesis was a muddle. He had the bold premise that Victorian bankers were morally superior to our own. There’s something to be said for the seriousness and moral purpose Victorians showed (and my own interest in a professional renaissance is based on that sort of thought). But he ran out of steam quite quickly: as he pointed out, there were bankruptcies, pure greed, nastiness, and instability in the Victorian financial world, and indeed they had greater and worse consequences than the venalities of some of our own capitalists. Hislop’s ending was about right: we could do with more of the best of the Victorian spirit.

And of course, the big problem of Hislop’s thesis is that the modern affluent pay far, far rates of tax than ever the Victorians gave away in philanthropy. And it is of course a problem of socialism that it makes virtue compulsory and that runs contradictory risks. On the one hand, compulsion robs virtue of its moral quality. On the other, compulsion makes virtue invisible.

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Publication date

07 December 2011