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.