‘Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.’

Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

31 December 2014

Year-End Update

Before sending 2014 on its way and welcoming with hopeful anticipation the new year, here is a round-up of some essays posted in recent months:

  • Will America follow Canada’s economic fight against impertinent obstructions? — on the lessons Canada (and other Commonwealth countries) can teach the United States on the inverse relationship between economic growth and state interventions, whether in the form of taxation policy, regulations, or government debt;
  • Market independence or business as usual? — following Republican gains in the November U.S. mid-term elections, will the GOP adhere to constitutionally limited government of enumerated powers or will Washington politics be ‘business as usual’, pursuing bureaucratic aggrandisement, crony capitalism, and fiat money policies? This essay was published courtesy of the Institute of Economic Affairs;
  • Ethan Frome’s winter of discontent — on the role of winter in Edith Wharton’s novella, infusing the family of one Massachusetts community with physical and spiritual bleakness; and
  • Scrooge: a Christmas capitalist-icon — why the skinflint is the hero of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, illustrating the sources of wealth for community well-being and the distinctions between public welfare and private charity.

If any of these essays catch your fancy, please share them with your friends and colleagues. DMI needs encouragement to flourish and seek out new research and publishing opportunities!

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#DMI_Reads Update — Reading has been sporadic since the last update; but apart from dipping into the works of William Graham Sumner (Yale sociologist from the early 1900s, who wrote on politics and economics), and the fictional works of Edith Wharton and Charles Dickens (mentioned above), I began the autumn with a Downeast classic and ushered in the winter months with three fine works in political economy:

  • Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1896) — a lovely summer sojourn in a Maine coastal community. Curiously, Edith Wharton found Jewett’s perspective unrealistically pleasant and an incentive to write Ethan Frome;
  • Roger Koppl’s From Crisis to Confidence: Macroeconomics after the Crash (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 2014) — an analysis of why Western growth continues to lag, despite many countries’ recovery from recessionary woes;

  • Dwight Lee and Richard McKenzie’s Failure and Progress: The Bright Side of the Dismal Science (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1993) — a contemporary classic in public choice economics and capitalist theory, important for its examination of the role of present failure for future success and of the dynamic nature of the marketplace, influenced by market competition and political competition; and
  • Christopher Snowdon’s Selfishness, Greed and Capitalism: Debunking Myths about the Free Market (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 2014) — a marvellous debunking of progressive liberal myths concerning self-interest, ‘perfect knowledge’, GDP, and levels of poverty.

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It only remains to remind you to follow DMI on Twitter and on Facebook, and to wish all my readers good health and good fortune in 2015!

25 December 2014

Scrooge: a Christmas capitalist-icon

Ebenezer Scrooge has been appropriated by the political left as the poster-child of all that is wrong with capitalist society;1 he is, in the words of an employee’s wife, ‘an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man (91)’.

Yet we should read him as the hero — for such he is — of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, a capitalist icon worthy of emulation. His one moral failing is no fault of capitalism and, true enough, the path toward his redemption lies through it.

As the vehicle of Scrooge’s transformation is fueled by ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, so does the chronology of capitalism — where the satisfaction of present wants depends on past economic decisions — lead to future prosperity and well-being.

Self-interest

Scrooge’s behaviour in his personal affairs has become the literary personification of greed and selfishness; yet in his public affairs, where self-interest motivates his actions, Scrooge is a benefactor of the common good. Scrooge would not succeed unless he served a public need; his wealth is proof that others benefit from his attention to business. ‘His wealth is of no use to him,’ his nephew Fred mistakenly believes; ‘He don’t do any good with it (98).’ For, if he failed to take an interest in the needs of others — hardly a definition of selfishness — Scrooge would be among the poor who seek aid and comfort.

Nevertheless, the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s sometime associate, damns their all-consuming entrepreneurial zeal: ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business (30)’. But their money-lending venture, far from being an impediment to societal improvement, was an aid to prosperity and well-being, enabling others their own ‘self-interested’ opportunity to offer their goods and services in the marketplace, and themselves prosper in the bargain.

The establishment of Scrooge & Marley, like every profitable enterprise patronised by consumers (whose wants and needs are satisfied), promoted the interests of mankind. Michael Levin, CUNY professor of philosophy, limns the any number of ways Scrooge’s self-interest is a boon to his community and its present and future desires. It (along with voluntary exchange and the division of labour) was among the hallmarks of capitalist culture wherein Western civilisation blossomed, according to Adam Smith’s creed. ‘But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren,’ he wrote, ‘and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only.’

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens. Even a beggar does not depend upon it entirely.2

No less than Scrooge’s final reformation is the outcome of self-interest. Before, its negative effects are directed solely against him, as his nephew witnesses:

‘I am sorry for him; I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself always. Here he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us.’ (98)

Afterwards, shown by the Christmas ghosts how he disavowed the bonds of friendship he once cherished in his youth, and the bitter end to which his obsessions, unaltered, will lead him, Scrooge vows to alter his life and ‘honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year (134).’ His alteration enriches his own life and the lives around him.

‘Why, bless my soul!’ cried Fred, ‘who’s that?’

‘It’s I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred?’

Let him in! It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier… Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness! (144-45)

‘Failure and Progress’

Indeed, it may be said that in employing the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, Dickens unknowingly evoked the importance of time to capitalism, of present investment for future gain, distinguishing long-term consequences from short-term expediency, good or ill.3

Scrooge earns his living as a money-lender; from the state of his enterprise we can surmise that many to whom he lends succeed and profit. Yet it must no doubt also be the case that others fail and thus face unpleasant financial repercussions. Dickens insinuates that such hard practice is among Scrooge’s sins, but this confuses the ethical underpinning of capitalism with private morals.

Resources are scarce, whether they be in the form of equipment, skilled labour, or capital investment. Businesses that succeed by satisfying society’s needs turn these scarce resources to good use; those that succumb, waste them and deprive society of material gain. Turning a blind eye to this inescapable reality results in society’s loss, even for those who fail in the marketplace. Success for one group enables succour and the promise of future success for the less fortunate. As Dwight Lee and Richard McKenzie write in Failure and Progress:

The pervasive failures of many people could be more than balanced by pervasive successes of other people who produce better products at lower costs and prices. Individuals who fail are at the same time gaining from the system that induces people to compete and therefore to fail as well as succeed. In practical terms, that means that the business people who fail may actually be experiencing a higher level of well-being because of the economic system that permits their failure.4

(In the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim, Scrooge conducts an hostile take-over of his employer’s firm; yet if old Mr Fezziwig cannot compete in a progressive world, Scrooge’s management will ensure that scarce resources are not wasted but put to more effective use as directed by consumers, promising employment and success instead of a shuttered shop. The film also illustrates the many debtors who rejoice at Scrooge’s passing, yet this only means that the limited funds available for enterprise are not put to the disposal of more promising business ventures.)

Charity

In his neglect of private charity, Scrooge may fairly be the object of opprobrium. Like many to-day, he relies on the government’s public welfare, ‘the workhouses’ and ‘the prisons’, ‘the Treadmill and the Poor Law’ (13), to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Government welfare is conflated with ‘charity’, a linguistic error that confuses private and public roles, subjecting one to undeserved commendation and the other to shameful neglect.

Scrooge mistakes the welfare provisions he supported through taxation as effective means of assisting the poor. Public Choice economics demonstrates that the political arm of redistribution often has ulterior and self-serving motives; while Lee and McKenzie argue convincingly that we should not expect the poor to exploit political competition any better than market competition. Moreover, the investment of time and care exemplifying the ‘personal touch’ translates into charity having a greater chance of changing lives for the better than impersonal, bureaucratic welfare schemes.

Proponents of welfare, meanwhile, compound the problem with their naïve faith in state-run philanthropy. ‘Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society’, wrote Frédéric Bastiat in The Law. ‘As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.’5

It is worth noting that the solicitors for the poor who approach Scrooge for assistance are in full knowledge of the limitations of state institutions, confessing that ‘they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,’ in avoidance of which ‘many would rather die (14).’ It is Scrooge’s capitalist acumen that will permit him to be, not a scourge to society and its destitute, but their patron.

But there is something more profound at work than Scrooge learning that public welfare is no match for private charity. The lesson that the Christmas ghosts impress upon him is that, while business has its proper sphere, man does not live by commerce alone — his acquaintances (such as they are) merely cultivated for their business connexions.

Scrooge’s cramped existence can only be alleviated by rediscovering his lost humanity — ‘he had been revolving in his mind a change of life … and hoped he saw his new-born resolutions carried out (116)’ — abandoned when he forgot that capitalism was the means for happiness, not its realisation. Scrooge’s dilemma of self-interest is well-summarised by Howard Baetjer:

…the opportunity cost of his ceaseless accumulation of assets is the far greater wealth in “psychic income”—pleasure—that he forgoes. No doubt Scrooge is doing what he perceives to be in his self-interest—each of us is homo economicus to that extent—but as the ghosts show Scrooge, he is making catastrophic mistakes.6

For although Scrooge will rise to be a great benefactor of his community, the greatest beneficiary will be Scrooge himself.

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So, it is well-nigh time for defenders of free markets and true economic progress to claim Ebenezer Scrooge as one of their own, rescuing him from progressive liberals who denigrate his services on behalf of the common good. They are the heirs of the children ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’ (see 107), whose sentimental obfuscation of capitalism’s mixture of failure and progress result in material deprivation when there could be plenty.

Both should remember Margaret Thatcher’s justly famous maxim, ‘No-one would remember the good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money as well.’ And, along with nephew Fred, we should toast his accomplishments as an icon of capitalist bounty:

A merry Christmas and a happy New Year to the old man, whatever he is! Uncle Scrooge! (104)

ENDNOTES

1. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol [1843], Arthur Rackham, illus. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1915). All quotations in the essay are taken from this edition.

2. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations [1776], R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner, eds., Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, Vol. 2a (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981), I.ii.2.

3. See Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson [1946] (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008), 5: ‘…the whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

4. Dwight R. Lee and Richard B. McKenzie, Failure and Progress: The Bright Side of the Dismal Science (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1993), 27.

5. Frédéric Bastiat, The Law [1850], Dean Russell, trans. (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 2001), 46.

6. Howard Baetjer Jr., ‘Ebenezer Scrooge and the Free Society’, The Freeman, 38:12 (December 1988): 470.

08 December 2014

Ethan Frome’s winter of discontent

Fascinated as I am by the writing career of Edith Wharton, when The Austin Chronicle announced that her novel, Ethan Frome, was to be its book club’s December pick, it seemed an ideal opportunity to read it. This short essay records some of my first impressions.

Ethan Frome is a sad tale;1 and yet, if we read ‘to know that we are not alone’, we finish the novel with a deeper awareness of life’s sublime vicissitudes and are grateful its troubles belong to another. From the beginning, the ‘starkness’ of Ethan’s existence is laid bare.

I had come in the degenerate day of trolley, bicycle and rural delivery, when communication was easy between the scattered mountain villages, and the bigger towns in the valleys, such as Bettsbridge and Shadd’s Falls, had libraries, theatres and Y.M.C.A. halls to which the youth of the hills could descend for recreation. But when winter shut down on Starkfield, and the village lay under a sheet of snow perpetually renewed from the pale skies, I began to see what life there—or rather its negation—must have been in Ethan Frome’s young manhood (7-8).

The frigid landscape of Ethan Frome is far more than a backdrop against which events unfold. It is a major player in its own right; harsh, daunting, unforgiving — and compelling. ‘Why now?’ asks The Austen Chronicle about taking up Ethan Frome. ‘Because the recent cold snap got us thinking about our favorite freezing-temp love stories.’

But unlike the world of Nancy Mitford, love does not thrive in the cold climate of Starkfield for the Frome clan.2 Indeed, if their frustrated emotional lives were to be represented by any season of the year, it is winter at its worst, when it portrays life’s termination in death — especially when that death is the loss of hope. The desolateness of winter pervades Ethan Frome.

Day by day, after the December snows were over, a blazing blue sky poured down torrents of light and air on the white landscape, which gave them back in an intenser glitter. One would have supposed that such an atmosphere must quicken the emotions as well as the blood; but it seemed to produce no change except that of retarding still more the sluggish pulse of Starkfield. When I had been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the devoted village, and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter. Twenty years earlier the means of resistance must have been far fewer, and the enemy in command of almost all the lines of access between the beleaguered villages; and, considering these things, I felt the sinister force of [the] phrase: “Most of the smart ones get away.” But if that were the case, how could any combination of obstacles have hindered the flight of a man like Ethan Frome? (8-9)

For Ethan’s obstacles were many, a legion of soul-destroying disappointments: a promising engineering career cut short by a father’s sickness; unrelenting duties on an unprepossessing farm and mill; a mother’s lingering dementia and an unhappy marriage, thusly ill-contracted.

After the funeral, when he saw her preparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay there with him. He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter… (70)

Even the prospect of abandoning Starkfield for a modicum of contentment comes to naught by his wife Zeena’s social inadequacies, as ‘Ethan learned the impossibility of transplanting her. She chose to look down on Starkfield, but she could not have lived in a place which looked down on her.’ The outside world, too, conspires against him. ‘Even Bettsbridge or Shadd’s Falls would not have been sufficiently aware of her, and in the greater cities which attracted Ethan she would have suffered a complete loss of identity (71-72).’

Only the arrival of his wife’s destitute cousin, Mattie Silver, sent to Starkfield to aid Zeena in her perpetual discomfort — ‘[w]hen she came to take care of his mother she had seemed to Ethan like the very genius of health, but he soon saw that her skill as a nurse had been acquired by the absorbed observation of her own symptoms (72)’ — offers him moments of respite, ‘a “feel” of spring in the air (149)’, that fleetingly relieves his sadness, then heightens it, and with a stroke makes it permanent.

The climax of the story is swift; its repercussions, like most bad ends, plays out for decades. His usually self-absorbed wife, newly curious of an unsuspecting-Ethan’s attentions elsewhere, pronounces the cousin’s care inadequate; she hires a new girl to tend to the household and turns an ill-prepared Mattie out to fend for herself. In a fit of desperation Ethan and Mattie, both facing unpalatable futures, opt for a careening sled and a well-placed elm to bring them lasting rest, but fate has other plans: they survive the ‘smash-up’ — she an invalid, he badly crippled — with the cruel irony that Zeena must now serve as nurse-maid to both.

It is in these vicissitudes where Ethan Frome is as immemorial as human nature and the four seasons; sadly, Ethan and his family know only one. Edith Wharton believed that at its heart was a bare, uncompromising moral as timeless as the bedrock upon which the village sat. In an introduction written for a 1922 edition, she explained:

the theme of my tale was not one on which many variations could be played. It must be treated as starkly and summarily as life had always presented itself to my protagonists; any attempt to elaborate and complicate their sentiments would necessarily have falsified the whole. They were, in truth, these figures, my granite outcroppings; but half-emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate (ii).

Unlike the momentarily victorious House of York, for Ethan Frome there is no hope that ‘now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer’.3 His winter lasts year-round; his disappointments are continuous, cemented by the attempted ‘escape’ that fateful February night, which not only ensnared him in its perpetual gloom, but his wife and her cousin, too — misfortune and grief compounded. Only death, on its own terms and in its own time, will bring relief.

They turned in at the gate and passed under the shaded knoll where, enclosed in a low fence, the Frome grave-stones slanted at crazy angles through the snow. Ethan looked at them curiously. For years that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom. “We never got away—how should you?” seemed to be written on every headstone; and whenever he went in or out of his gate he thought with a shiver: “I shall just go on living here till I join them (50-51).”

For me, Ethan Frome is a novel of winter to be read in winter, when the nearness of freezing cold and blanketing snow makes the reality of Starkfield more emphatic. Even the rare occasions when love does break the surface (to acknowledge The Austin Chronicle’s enthusiasm), it must flail against the chill of broken humanity which, in the end, masters it. For me, Ethan Frome will always remind of a place where ‘[a] mournful peace hung on the fields, as though they felt the relaxing grasp of the cold and stretched themselves in their long winter sleep (79).’

ENDNOTES

1. Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome [1911] (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922). All quotations in the essay are taken from this edition.

2. An allusion to Love in a Cold Climate.

3. See Shakespeare’s Richard III, I.i.1-2.