Society and Mr. Micawber

“And here is Mr. Micawber without any suitable position or employment. Where does that responsibility rest? Clearly on society. Then I would make a fact so disgraceful known, and boldly challenge society to set it right.”—Mrs. Micawber in David Copperfield

Mrs. Micawber is speaking to young Copperfield about the repeated failures of her daydreaming husband who spends all his time discussing jobs he will never have or, if he gets them, he will be unable to keep. While Dickens often waxed sentimental about the poor there was nevertheless an undertone of hard realism, as one sees in his salutary depiction of Mrs. Jellyby (in Bleak House) who neglects her children to pursue extravagant philanthropic works.

Unfortunately it has become commonplace, not only among secular “do-gooders” but even many orthodox-minded Christians, to espouse welfare state solutions to poverty and strike a pose of “social justice.” After two decades of having to struggle in the world and provide for a family, my sense of collective guilt is definitely jaded.

To give one example, I recently read about a Christian lawyer who successfully defended the establishment of a homeless shelter in a middle class neighborhood.  If an individual wants to work among the homeless, that is laudable. But how can one’s “charity” involve a lack of consideration for others? My guess is that as with many “social welfare” advocates he is not living with the consequences of his policies.

Preaching about “social justice” provides a cheap emotional uplift. There is an apt line from Sherlock Holmes: “Those public charities are a screen to cover… private iniquities” (The Problem of Thor Bridge). For this reason I generally dislike highly-publicized forms of benevolence. I am suspect of their motives and even, at times, their results. We arguably have more homelessness now than ever before, not due to our undeniably high standard of living, but our low standards of accountability. Micawberism has become institutionalized.

See my earlier post on David Copperfield.

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