The Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens, is one of the classics of literature. This short story has been made into plays and motion pictures. God only knows how many people have either read Dickens’ own work or have seen the work performed onstage or on the screen.
But someone needs to speak in defense of Ebenezer Scrooge. I guess that would be me. There are some very serious philosophical issues inculcated into willing minds whenever this story is told. Most of them are wrong and send the entirely wrong message about free enterprise and capitalism.
The general philosophy of the story is that Scrooge was a moneygrubber, and somehow had become wealthy through less-than-honorable means. The “Narrator” in the story calls him a “tight-fisted, squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” Not that you’d be prejudiced by that litany of malevolence……
Ebenezer Scrooge was the surviving partner in a private accounting firm called Scrooge & Marley. Marley had died on Christmas Eve seven years before, but Scrooge had retained the company name nonetheless. The story says Scrooge was “Marley’s sole executor at his death seven years ago, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.”
The story says Scrooge & Marley was “a counting house.” In that day, it meant “a-counting,” a firm that handled the financial books of others for a fee. So apparently Scrooge’s firm provided a valuable service in the free market…a service that other individuals and businesses were willing to pay for. He didn’t derive his income from taxing others at the point of a gun. He committed no fraud or force to gain customers.
Mr. Scrooge, whose name now practically defines a penny-pinching cheapskate, also carefully controlled the costs of doing business. He kept the temperature in the office very low in winter. He kept a small coal fire in his own office, but discouraged employees from dipping into the coal chute. Yet curiously, the story actually states that he “iced the office in the dogdays.” Can it be that Scrooge liked to be cool year ‘round? The office belonged to him. He had every right to control the temperature in his own office.
The story only identifies one employee, a man named Bob Cratchit. Bob is described as a man with a family, sitting at his desk six days a week, doing his work for fifteen shillings per week. There is no intimation in the story that Cratchit was working as a slave or indentured servant. Yet Ebenezer Scrooge is blamed for this man’s financial situation. No one forced Bob Cratchit to work at Scrooge & Marley, and every day that he worked there, he did so voluntarily. He was entirely free to take his accounting skills into the open marketplace and determine if his abilities were worth more money to another employer. He was even free to place his own talent and capital at risk like Scrooge had done and become self-employed.
The writer conveniently omitted that labor is only one component of a finished product or service, and was never intended to be what is now commonly known as “a living wage.” If a person can adjust their expenses to equal or below the amount of money they are paid to exchange their time for money, then the labor cost can be that “living wage.” Otherwise, one must either work more hours or earn more per hour to attain a higher standard of living. But you’ll never hear that message in “A Christmas Carol.”
Next we are introduced to Scrooge’s philosophy on celebrating Christmas. His nephew greets him warmly with a “Merry Christmas!” Scrooge responds:
What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in them through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.
Is he wrong, or is he a prophet? Today, a large percentage of Americans pay for Christmas with their credit cards, borrowing money from the future to pay for today’s luxuries. They work for wages, but American savings rates are near zero, so they are no richer than last year. They trade their irreplaceable time for wages as the years tick off. Where is Scrooge wrong in his assessment of Christmas celebrants?
Next we see an exchange between Scrooge and two do-gooders who come to the office looking for charitable donations. The conversation is as follows:
Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years; He died seven years ago, this very night.
We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner.
(At the ominous word `liberality,’ Scrooge frowns, and shakes his head.)
At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.
Are there no prisons?
Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?
They are. Still, I wish I could say they were not.
The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?
GENTLEMAN #1 & #2
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. I’m very glad to hear it.
Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude, a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?’
You wish to be anonymous?
I wish to be left alone. Since you ask me what I wish, Gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.
Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.
If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that.
But you might know it,’ observed the gentleman.
It’s not my business. It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!
(Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew.)
Let’s pause to learn from this attempt at a shakedown.
The very existence of Christmas…both in the Dickensian era and today…promotes a desire for the giving and receiving of gifts. And that has nothing to do with Jesus. Merchandising is King of Kings in December. With that desire comes the feeling of “Want” described by Gentleman #2., particularly among those who have not. Everyone knows and feels the ubiquitous pressure on everyone to give gifts, even if you cannot afford to do so. Those who do not wish to participate in the expression of so-called “Christian cheer” may not be moved to part with their Abundance to provide the Poor with food, drink and warmth in this particular method of coercion.
As Scrooge reveals, he already supports the institutions that care for the needy. He either gives his own money voluntarily to the debtor’s prisons, the Union workhouses, the Treadmill…or money is exacted from him by taxation for the operations of these institutions. But Gentleman #2 argues that “many can’t go there…some would rather die (than go there). That is a choice made by an individual based upon haughty pride, not true need. Scrooge states that he does not accept the premise offered by #2 that anyone would rather die than go to the poor house, and that he is busy enough minding his own business. And thus ends this part of the story.
When he is with the Ghost of Christmas Past, he sees himself in a conversation with his lost love. Belle, his lady love, leaves him because of his dedication to Gain. His retort:
”This is the even-handed dealing of the world. There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth.”
Is it any different today? Look at the headlines coming out of Washington today. The DC criminals wish to punish the wealthy for accumulating wealth, while it works to lighten the tax burden on the poor and middle class. Belle must have been a closet Socialist, since she had no respect for Scrooge’s work ethic. And, in her defense, we might say that Scrooge spent too much time at the office. But wealthy people don’t get wealthy acting like wage-earners. They put their time and capital at risk, and reap financial rewards. Belle would not have had a philosophical problem spending Ebenezer’s money if she had married him.
When Scrooge is with the Ghost of Christmas Present, the Ghost states plainly that if Cratchit’s situation does not improve, Tiny Tim will die. But ol’ Spooky lays the blame at the feet of Scrooge, not the boy’s own father! As we mentioned before, Bob Cratchit had other options to working for Scrooge. Mrs. Cratchit gets mad when Bob raises a glass in toast to Scrooge…like it’s his fault they are poor. Then Bob tells about his son Peter, who is trying to get a job that pays five shillings and sixpence a week, and about daughter Martha, who is an apprentice to a hatmaker. These two children are apparently contributing their incomes to the family, as they should. But Scrooge is not to blame for their predicaments…they alone are responsible for their lives.
In another scene, Scrooge’s nephew Fred, says: “His wealth is of no use to him. He don’t do any good with it. He don’t make himself comfortable with it. He hasn’t the satisfaction of thinking — ha, ha, ha. — that he is ever going to benefit us with it.” Ever hear a more exacting expression of a mentality of entitlement? According to the author, Scrooge has some duty to spread the wealth that HE earned.
When the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come appears, Scrooge sees himself dead lying under a sheet while the Laundress, the Cleaning Lady (Charwoman) and “Old Joe” ransack Scrooge’s house and steal what belongings they can carry off. Dickens makes no assertion that this is theft.
So, after Scrooge is tortured by Marley and the three Ghosts, he finally gives up to the overwhelming societal pressure inflicted upon him. He says…“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
Poor Ebenezer Scrooge! Earned his wealth honorably, spent his wealth carefully, saved his wealth frugally. Yet that wasn’t enough for Charles Dickens. Scrooge had to be strong-armed into the Christmas spirit. Scrooge had to be forced into the mold that Western Civilization tries to push all of us through. And with the annual telling of ”A Christmas Carol,” every new generation is assaulted with the same litany of lies about Christmas and Free Enterprise.
So it is with a doffed hat to Ebenezer Scrooge that I say to you all…
Christmas? Bah Humbug!!
© Copyright 2010, Russell D. Longcore. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.