Micawber principle

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From the Dickens character Wilkins Micawber, noted for his inability to work his way out of poverty. Two of his enunciations have become elevated to "principles":

  • "Something will turn up."
  • "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery."


Micawber principle (plural Micawber principles)

  1. The claim that something good will turn up, especially when used to justify optimism.
    • 1863 Dec, “Mr. E. M. Grace”, in Baily's magazine of sports and pastimes, page 208:
      Acting on the Micawber principle of always expecting 'something to turn up,' he is ever on the watch, and the way that at times 'he gets to a catch' is wonderful.
    • 1887 November 9, Parliamentary Debates: New Zealand. Parliament. House of Representatives, page 282:
      Now, the Colonial Treasurer proposes to deal with that deficit very much in the same way that private individuals deal with inconvenient liabilities—that is to say, by having recourse to paper, on the Micawber principle, with a "Thank God, that's done with!"
    • 1977 April, Avram Davidson, “Manatee Gal Ain't You Coming Out Tonight”, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction:
      The Micawber Principle was weaker down here than up in the capital. But still and all: something might turn up.
    • 2011, Anatole Kaletsky, Capitalism 4.0: The Birth of a New Economy in the Aftermath of Crisis, PublicAffairs, page 29:
      In such extreme conditions, the Micawber Principle that “something will turn up” to save the system is the only reasonable basis for action by businesses and investors, even if no one can predict exactly what deus ex machina will appear to save the day.
  2. The claim that financial surplus is success and debt is failure.
    • 1985, David A. Dyker, The Future of the Soviet Economic Planning System[1], Croom Helm:
      The Micawber principle is clearly basically an aspect of the crude growth maximisation approach. The underlying idea is that underfulfilment, even by a fraction, should be perceived as something essentially shameful.
    • 1992, Jack Rabin, Handbook of Public Budgeting, CRC Press, page 57:
      The Micawber principle—it is not the level of income and outgo but their relationship that matters—is essential to budgeting.
    • 2012, Frank Trentmann, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Consumption, OUP, page 35:
      The Micawber Principle has value as financial advice, but as a historical argument it is deeply mistaken. Contra Micawber, income has not always placed an absolute, binding limit on consumption.