David R. Henderson  

Two Takes on Ebenezer Scrooge

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One of my favorite movies to watch this time of year is the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol. Watching it many times and then, finally, actually reading the Charles Dickens story, has led me to a view that is at odds with that of many people I talk to. Yet I think I'm being faithful to the story. I've written about it here.

Here's the gist of my case:

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.

After turning them down, Scrooge goes home and to bed. In the middle of the night he sees, in turn, the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. He sees how he has turned gradually from a loving brother into a bitter, stingy old man. He also sees how unmourned he will be in death if he fails to be generous, with himself and others, in life. When Scrooge wakes up, he realizes that indeed he can change. 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.

Indeed, the modern Scrooge, instead of asking, "Are there no prisons?" would ask, "Is there no Medicaid? Are there no food stamps?" The modern Scrooges, in short, are those who advocate government programs for the poor rather than charity for the poor.


One example of a modern Scrooge is Seth Rogen. In testimony before a U.S. Senate Committee earlier this year, he talked movingly about his mother-in-law's Alzheimer's disease at a fairly early age and told how that had prompted to act by setting up a private charity. This is like Scrooge at the end of the movie, the Scrooge who celebrates the fact that he has the wherewithal and the desire to help those less fortunate. See here at about the 3:00 point.

But then Rogen actually asks Senator Harkin to have the government act so that he doesn't have to. See here at about the 5:45 point. Rogen wants to be the Scrooge in the early part of the movie, having government take care of it so that he doesn't have to bother.

For another viewpoint, check out this libertarian law professor's defense of Scrooge.




COMMENTS (7 to date)
Ken from Ohio writes:

For those interested in the economic analysis of "A Christmas Carol", check out Charles P Hendersons paper "Political Economy is just a Skeleton.....", and the first chapter of Sylvia Nasar's book "Grand Pursuit".

The claim is made that Dickens is providing a refutation of Malthusian economics. Very interesting and very convincing.

For a fun Christmas time read there's a new paper by two elves, writing from near the North Pole (Sweden), who've been eavesdropping on a conversation between Santa and his CEA (Christmas Economic Advisers).

Inspired by what they call 'The First Joel' Waldfogel's Dead Weight Loss of Christmas 1993 paper, Laura and Anna survey the literature on what's naughty and nice in Christmas economics. Among the findings; Yes, Mommy really has been kissing Santa Claus.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Patrick R. Sullivan-That economists would even entertain the idea that Christmas constituted a "welfare loss" shows pretty much everything that's wrong with the profession today.

James writes:

The whole Christmas dead weight loss story only works because of the assumption that utility is strictly a function of goods. In fact, I might have a preference ordering like (1) receiving a necktie from my kid (2) reading some book I would buy with the cost of the tie (3) having that tie after buying it from the store on my own. The standard dead weight analysis only works by making simplifying assumptions that eliminate any possibility of distinguishing (1) from (3).

This is a common feature to most bad economics: the interesting or counteritutive result is derived from the simplifying assumptions which deviate from reality, rather then from the parts of the model which reflect reality.

Chris Thomas writes:

Here's Roderick Long's similarly critical take on old Ebeneezer:

http://www.freenation.org/a/f12l1.html

mike davis writes:

We shouldn’t be looking at A Christmas Carol through the lens of The Wealth of Nations. We should view it through the lens of A Theory of Moral Sentiments. Dickens didn’t invent Scrooge to show us how we can make the world a better place. Dickens invented Scrooge to show us how we can lead richer lives.

Smith tells us that “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.”

Further on he tells us that

“In this consists the difference between the character of a miser and that of a person of exact economy and assiduity. The one is anxious about small matters for their own sake; the other attends to them only in consequence of the scheme of life which he has laid down to himself.”

A Christmas Carol and A Theory of Moral Sentiments pose a huge challenge to the kind of economics that most of us do. A well-formed human is certainly not a narrow maximizer of the sort described in micro textbooks (Mcloskey’s Max-U). But he’s not a pure altruist either. We’re pack animals and we care a lot about how we fit into the pack. We need to think about that when we think about economics.

Chris Wegener writes:

I'm pretty sure that Dickens was very much concerned with the poor and vulnerable.

Dickens as leading Social Commentator

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