By Ryan McMaken*
In the past, a few brave iconoclasts have taken exception to the treatment Ebenezer Scrooge of A Christmas Carol has received from his critics.
While a fictional character created by Charles Dickens, Scrooge has become, in the minds of many, a representative of the imagined miserly financiers who serve as caricatures of capitalists everywhere.
This has led some defenders of markets to step in and offer a defense of Scrooge.
Butler Shaffer writes that Scrooge is one of “the true heroes of the time of which [Dickens] wrote, namely, the industrialists and financiers who created that most liberating epoch in human history: the Industrial Revolution.”
And Michael Levin avers: “Dickens doesn’t mention Scrooge’s satisfied customers, but there must have been plenty of them for Scrooge to have gotten so rich.”
Levin sensibly points out that so long as Scrooge wasn’t in the business of using violence, everyone remained free to refuse to do business with him. Since Dickens gives us no reason to suspect that Scrooge did ever actually rob anyone, we can conclude that everyone who did business with him did so voluntarily.
However, if we’re going to look on every non-coercive act as morally neutral or as even laudable — and employ that standard to evaluate Scrooge’s actions — then we also ought to extend the same courtesy to all of Scrooge’s detractors. When Scrooge’s associates engage in non-violent attempts to convince Scrooge to be more charitable — if we are to be consistent — we can’t judge those actions to be any more unsavory than Scrooge’s many non-violent business dealings.
After all, no human being in A Christmas Carol forces Scrooge to do anything. Some people — such as Scrooge’s nephew Fred — engage him in conversations that Scrooge finds unpleasant. Scrooge tells those people to go away and they do. Some men ask him for a charitable donation. Scrooge refuses, and he is free to do so. While it is acknowledged that Scrooge pays taxes to the British state, no one in the story advocates for higher tax rates, or demands that Scrooge pay more in taxes. Taxation is not presented as the solution to the central problems of the story.
If this were the case, of course, things would be different. We would then be forced to defend Scrooge from the grasping hand of the state and its cheerleaders. But A Christmas Carol is not a fable about the need for a social democratic paradise. The central problem of the story lies not in convincing Scrooge to give up the pursuits of a businessman. There are numerous businessmen in the story portrayed as good men. Scrooge’s nephew is a apparently a middle-class businessman, and is hardly a member of the proletariat. Scrooge’s former employer Fezziwig is portrayed as a hero. The reader is not led to believe that Scrooge ought to be forced by the state to disband his firm and open up a homeless shelter instead. On the contrary, the story’s narrative is driven by attempts to convince Scrooge to voluntarily embrace the spirit of Christmas, for his own sake as much as anyone else’s. Moreover, those who attempt to push Scrooge in this direction never employ anything other than non-violent social pressure.
Scrooge Doesn’t Understand How Wages Work
At the one point where Scrooge overtly claims he is being coerced — when he says Cratchit’s paid day off is akin to “picking a man’s pocket” — Scrooge is either lying or deluding himself. In no way whatsoever is Cratchit picking Scrooge’s pocket. Scrooge is free to terminate Cratchit at any time and pay him nothing at all. Scrooge is free to hire someone else to do Cratchit’s job.
Scrooge, however, voluntarily agrees to give Cratchit the day off. In spite of his whining about paying Cratchit too much, Scrooge’s actual actions suggest that Scrooge realizes that Cratchit is probably not all that easy to replace after all.
If Scrooge really believes that his pocket is being picked, then he is far less observant and intelligent than his defenders give him credit for.
The only characters in the story that might be described as forcing Scrooge to do anything are the supernatural creatures who reveal facts — facts that Scrooge never disputes as inaccurate — about Christmases, past, present, and future.
Supernatural creatures, however, don’t lend themselves to the social-science tools we have for analysis. It’s best here to just fall back on the reasoning of Scrooge himself who assures us that such beings are more likely the result of “a slight disorder of the stomach.” They’re “an undigested bit of beef … a fragment of an underdone potato.” There is “more of gravy than of grave” about these spirits.
Thus, if Scrooge imagines that he’s been coerced into traveling the netherworld to see “shadows” of other Christmases, we really ought to take Scrooge’s advice and assume these are more likely simply the figments of Scrooge’s imagination. Does not Scrooge wake up in his own bed after all these alleged adventures with spirits?
Thus, in the end, what we do find is that Scrooge has not been subjected to violence or coercion by those who encourage him to take a more favorable view toward Christmas.
Scrooge’s Bruised Ego
What does convince Scrooge to celebrate Christmas is his own active imagination — which is blamed on these spirits — which shows to Scrooge that he could effect positive changes in his world by voluntarily giving away some of his money. Secondly, Scrooge is disturbed by the realization that he is deeply unpopular and will not be missed when he dies. Whether it’s a dream or some sort or delirium, Scrooge imagines that unless he does something new, he will be quickly forgotten upon his death. His ego is deeply wounded when he “sees” his nephew’s Christmas party where the revelers have fun at Scrooge’s expense.
Scrooge is horrified by this realization, and contrary to his protests that he is above matters such as popular opinion, it turns out that Scrooge actually desires public acceptance and appreciation a great deal. His lofty attitude toward his fellow Londoners, it turns out, is just an act to hide his pitiable cravings for social approval.
When Scrooge does finally change his tune on Christmas, it’s not due to any new law, any new tax, or anything he has been forced to do. No, Scrooge is instead motivated by a desire for popularity, human companionship, and by the pricking of his conscience in regards to the poverty of families such as those of Bob Cratchit.
Other motivations are possible as well, of course. It could be that Scrooge realized the apparent silliness of a very old man with no heirs continuing to save a large percentage of his earnings as if he still had decades to live.
But whatever the reason, the fact remains that when Christmas morning arrived, Scrooge was perfectly free to carry on as he always had. He was still free to fire Bob Cratchit, make no charitable donations, and continue to save money at a rapid rate.
On the other hand, if Scrooge did change his mind based on the actions of others, we can only conclude these actions where the rhetorical efforts employed by Scrooge’s nephew Fred, by Bob Cratchit, and by the men from the widows-and-orphans fund. None of these men employed coercion or deception, and thus, we cannot say that Scrooge requires a “defense” from these people at all. As a taxpayer, he remains a victim of the state, of course. But that hardly sets him apart from countless other Englishmen of the time, many of whom were presumably still willing to make merry on Christmas.
About the author:
*Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
This article was published by the MISES Institute