Trickle Down

This is not, of course a new idea; even in Thatcher’s and Reagan’s time. Reading some of the rationales offered for it after Kwasi Kwarteng’s recent non-budget, reminded me of a lecture I gave to my university History students fifty years ago, which sought to explain how the theory was presented to the British people two hundred years ago.

By ‘people’ I mean the working classes of Britain, who were assumed to be mere children in these matters; which explains the patronizing style of the little story I’m about to retail. Some of this neo-liberal propaganda came in the form of simple tales like this, for the plebs. They were distributed among peasants and factory-workers free, tucked into the baskets of food and religious literature – the equivalent of today’s food banks – that were taken round to their hovels by charitable middle-class women. One, printed in 1817, was entitled Village Politics, Addressed to all the Mechanics, Journeymen, and Labourers, in Great Britain, by Will Chip, a Country Carpenter. In that case ‘Will Chip’ was a lie from the start; its real author was one Hannah More, a prolific and very middle-class religious propagandist, who probably wouldn’t have known one end of a chisel from the other if it had been stuck in her hand. Another was by a woman called Mrs Jane Marcet; from whose sizeable literary oeuvre this little story from 1833 comes.

It goes like this. John Hopkins, a poor labourer with a large family, starts getting bolshie ideas. Here I am, he says, half starving, while my landlord rides about in a rich carriage; isn’t it the rich who, by their extravagance, deprive us poor working people of bread? So he persuades a fairy – who happens to be nearby – to wave her magic wand and abolish all luxuries. When John gets home, however, he gets a nasty shock. Firstly, all his luxuries have disappeared: his pipe, his snuff, and so on. What is worse, and more telling, he finds all his friends and relatives thrown out of work: the nearby silk factory has had to close down, all the fine carriages have been have been turned into wagons, carts and ploughs, so carriage-makers are unemployed, and cartwrights as well, because there are now more carts than are needed. And John himself is dismissed from his job as a farm labourer, because his landlord’s farm is now too big for his new non-luxurious style of living, so he is going to let most of it go uncultivated. ‘I am now living on the produce of less than half of my estate’, he explains, ‘so why take the trouble to cultivate more, as there are no luxuries to purchase?’

In despair, John gets the fairy to change everything back to the way it was before. ‘Immediately’ – the story goes on – ‘the stately mansion rose from the lowly cottage; the heavy teams began to prance and snort… but most of all was it delightful to see the turned-off workmen running to their looms and their spindles; the young girls and old women enchanted to regain possession of their lost lace-cushions, on which they depended for a livelihood, and everything offering a prospect of wealth and happiness…’

‘John’, concludes Mrs Marcet, ‘grew wise by this lesson; and whenever anyone complained of the hardness of the times, and laid it to the score of the rich, took it upon himself to prove that the poor were gainers, not losers, by luxuries… “Why then,” he said, “after all, the rich and the poor have but one and the same interest – that is very strange! I had always thought they had been as wide apart as the east is from the west! But now I am convinced that the comforts of the poor are derived from the riches of the rich!”’ End of story.

That is surely ‘trickle down’ in essence. It goes way back, as a means of justifying inequality, in the interests – of course – of the rich. It’s interesting to see it returning so blatantly today, under Truss and Kwarteng, and after it has been so thoroughly discredited by most economists. When I delivered that lecture in 1969, we – I and my students – all assumed it was just history, inconceivable in that more enlightened, social democratic age. But you never can tell, in the present deeply reactionary times.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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4 Responses to Trickle Down

  1. What an ingenious little story. Was there an attempt to counter this fairy tale at the time it was being promoted, one year before the birth of Marx?

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  2. mickc says:

    Not sure it is based on “trickle down”.

    The Guardian’s William Keegan believes it is more like Barber’s “dash for growth” and I agree. Obviously, that didn’t end well, but there were strong headwinds in the shape of the oil crisis, precipitated by the US dollar becoming a fiat currency and the Arab Israel war.

    Today’s headwinds have already become apparent, although there may be many more eg the current Cold War turning hot. We shall see.

    Meanwhile Starmer is wittering on about more green energy. Brilliant! Absolutely the last thing most people want to hear when they’re worried about being cold…

    Oh, and the Labour Conference opened by singing the National Anthem…it is a Socialist party, for god’s sake…

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  3. andrewrosthorn2074 says:

    Needle sharp, the surgical intervention in debate that historians do better than journalists.

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