David R. Henderson  

Krugman Misstates Dickens's Point

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Anyway, instead of praising Scrooge for his principled stand against the welfare state, Charles Dickens makes him out to be some kind of bad guy. How leftist is that?
This is from Paul Krugman's column, "The Humbug Express," in the New York Times, December 23. Krugman has misstated the point of Charles Dickens's classic, A Christmas Carol. The Scrooge whom Krugman and I dislike at the beginning of the story is the Scrooge who actually defended the welfare state and, because he thought it was working so effectively, refused to give his own money to charity. The Scrooge whom I (and, I assume, Paul Krugman) like at the end of the story is the one who gives his own money to charity.

When two portly gentlemen approach him on Christmas Eve to make a contribution to help "the Poor and Destitute," the following dialogue ensues"

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

Here's what I write in "The Lesson of Ebenezer Scrooge:"
The treadmill, poor law, and union workhouses to which Scrooge refers were all punitive government ways of either helping the poor or of giving the poor an incentive not to be poor. So, for example, anyone finding himself in poverty could enter a workhouse where he would work hard and receive some small amount of food in return. The two men who ask Scrooge for aid are not asking for higher amounts of food to be handed out by government agencies. Instead, they are asking for private, voluntary charity to those they deem worthy.

I also point out (now referring to the Alistair Sim movie version:
In my favorite scene in the movie, Scrooge dances around in his nightshirt like a kid in a candy store, celebrating his power to change. And what is the change? Does he say, "Oh, boy, now I'll support a politician who will tax me, as well as other people less rich than me, to help poor people?" Of course not. An author or a movie producer who tried to set up such a scene would have produced a much less compelling novel or movie. Scrooge is excited because now he can change, now he can get pleasure from helping others who are worse off. In other words, the lesson of A Christmas Carol is the importance of being generous, not the importance of supporting higher taxes on oneself and others.

So here's my modest suggestion. Next time you hear someone advocating a coercively financed government program to help those in need, call him a "Scrooge." I guarantee that you'll catch him off guard. Moreover, he'll likely ask why you called him that. Then you can tell him the truth about Ebenezer Scrooge and A Christmas Carol.

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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Robin Hanson writes:

A good point - props. :)

John Goodman writes:

David, you are trying to use rational thought to parse what is clearly an irrational, emotional diatrabe in the New York Times this morning.

The sad thing is that there are a whole lot of Hollywood types who think that Krugman's rantings are "economics." Too bad the Europeans gave him a Nobel Prize because they liked his Bush bashing.

David R. Henderson writes:

@John Goodman,
Maybe, but what's interesting to me is how many people, not just on the left, share Krugman's view of A Christmas Carol. Merry Christmas, by the way.

Tristan Band writes:

@David Henderson,
Indeed, most on the Right usually have this attitude as well. This isn't surprising, as Scrooge essentially was a stand-in for Tory indifference. Many vulgar libertarians do as well, being unable to confuse welfare transfers with charity and mutual aid.

@John Goodman,
I wouldn't dignify those "Hollywood types" with political significance. They are the American aristocracy, and hold political views that are fashionable. Every movie star was a Reaganite when Reagan was in ascension. This also casts some doubt on Arriana Huffington's seriousness as a political figure; she always promoted whatever was culturally popular. I don't think she had any "principled epiphany"; she just jumped on whatever was trendy.

To both: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Tristan Band writes:

I meant to say, "unable to tell the difference"

Thomas Bayes writes:

Thank you David. My blood boiled this morning when I read the Krugman column, and I wanted to send an email to some of my favorite bloggers asking them to rebut that nonsense. In addition to Krugman's unconvincing interpretation of A Christmas Carol, he also used the column to push his tired claim that we have not had an expansion of government in recent years.

I made this comment on Steve Landsburg's blog when he aptly discredited Krugman’s claim that we had not seen a recent surge in government spending, and I'll make it again here: Paul Krugman's influence has far exceeded his ability to lead honest and sensible discussions about economic policy.

Merry Christmas.

Pandaemoni writes:

It is hard to get the sense in reading A Christmas Carol, that Dickens was a solid libertarian. It wasn't, after all, "Hey, if Scrooge wants to help the poor and crippled, that's great, but it's his choice." It was that if Scrooge any anyone else with wealth refuses to help the poor, they are bad human beings and deserve the unhappiness they are sure to meet.

Scrooge wasn't just opting to help the Crachits and that is the end of it, the sense was that he was wrong if he chose to keep his own money. I point out that no credit was given to Scrooge for providing Bob Crachit with job. Instead, Scrooge was painted as a bad man for not paying Crachit enough or offering enough in the way fringe benefits (like extra coal for the fire). No credit was given either for the value Scrooge added to the world around him through his business.

The sense was that because he was wealthy, he was obligated to help, and any other choice will lead to some form of punishment (There are no details of Jacob Marley's afterlife, but he was wrapped in chains and desperate to save Scrooge from whatever fate befell him.)

I do agree that Dickens likely had little faith in governmental solutions to poverty and want, which is not surprising given the harsh solutions that governments preferred in those days. The goal of what welfare existed in England at that time was almost to punish those suffering from privation alongside what often seems to have been the bare minimum amount of aid that could keep the needy going. It is entirely possible that his disdain for government would have extended to modern times as well (and less harsh/more generous welfare systems), but I think it is an open question.

I do agree that it's a mistake to read Dickens as himself having embraced collectivism, but I am not convinced whether or not he would have embraced more modern collectivist programs. That question is just not clearly answered in any of the texts I've read.

Mike Lorrey writes:

Sorry but you make far too much logical sense to be listened to. Krugman and his ilk command the bully pulpit, the media channels, and the talking heads propagandizing big government, repeating the lie so frequently that everyone believes it.

To quote Claire Wolfe, "It is too late to work within the system and too early to start shooting the bastards."

Jim Preston writes:

How disappointing to see Krugman's silly column followed up by an equally silly blog post. Scrooge is a ridiculous caricature of the hard-headed businessman that is every bit as eye-rolling as Bob Cratchit's hard-scrabble nobility. A Christmas Carol isn't a political or literary work. It is a holiday ghost story for children that really serves to remind us annually to be more decent and generous, especially to those less fortunate.

It is a reminder for liberals to remember that generosity begins with the individual, and for conservatives to remember that, as Jacob Marley put it, "the betterment of mankind" is ultimate aim of business, not the efficient flow of unregulated capital. The choice isn't between social safety nets and individual generosity, just a reminder that we must have both.

Troy Camplin writes:

Commented on this over at Austrian Economics and Literature:


On a related note:

Despite the heartwarming way in which "A Christmas Carol" touches readers, Dickens was no champion of the poor and downtrodden.

David Levy and Sandra Peart have written extensively on the surprising and uncomfortably pro-slavery sentiments of Charles Dickens in their series "The Secret History of the Dismal Science" on Econlib. Two revealing selections from their series that discuss Dickens's views are:
Part II. Brotherhood, Trade, and the Negro Question, discussing Dickens's Bleak House,
Part IV. Paternalism, Hierarchy, and Markets with a more general overview.

The conflicting ways one can still read Dickens attest to his accurately and appealingly reflecting the times in which he lived. That he may have had personal axes to grind in the background is clear. That the same conflicts live on in the modern world--over 160 years later--is also clear. That Dickens succeeded as an author and reporter in appealing to many groups, generations, and social classes is an extraordinary feat about enduring controversies.

ben writes:

in the 'A Christmas Carol' version Scrooge is shown in a bad light because he refuses to make a loan to Mr Fezzwig. Scrooge refuses the loan saying he would be throwing good money after bad. I thought this criticism was unfair because if Scrooge didn't make the loan to Mr Fezzwig he could have made the loan to someone else who would have been less likely to default. It looks like a case where the immediate and obvious: Mr Fezzwig not getting a loan is unfairly taking priority over the unseen: someone else not getting a loan.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Why call him a Scrooge, David?

Its true that Scrooge did not oppose the welfare state - but that wasn't the difference between him and the people collecting money. They supported a welfare state too. The difference was that they wanted to supplement it with charity and he didn't.

Krugman's interpretation of the story is wrong. But your solution is wrong too - you can't just assume that people who want a welfare state (perhaps because they think there are too many real Scrooges in the world) don't want private charity as well.

And what of the people who oppose the welfare state? Well we never came across such a person in Dickens' novel.

Paul writes:

Thank you. I read "A Christmas Carol" every year and you are spot on.

rick writes:

I gave at the office. Bah Humbug.

Joe Teicher writes:

You don't actually have to support the welfare state to make the argument that Scrooge did on Christmas eve. The welfare state exists, and it distributes vastly more of my output to the poor than I would like. Therefore, I'm certainly not going to give additional money to the same worthless d-bags. If the welfare state didn't exist then I might give a much smaller percentage of my money to charity to help the truly unfortunate, but nowhere near what the government takes now.

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