Family, Work, Community: Did Ebenezer Scrooge Dream a Better Life for Himself?
Family, Work, Community: Did Ebenezer Scrooge Dream a Better Life for Himself?
Reflections on watching George C. Scott in Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”
by Gregory Rehmke
Consider Charles Dicken’s Ebenezer Scrooge, as brought to life by George C. Scott in the video from the 1990s. George C. Scott plays Scrooge as a competent businessman who finds both Christmas and philanthropy a waste of time and money. His eyes are opened through a series of nightmarish dreams. The book and various movie versions are offered today as indictments of greed and business, and the joys of family, Christmas, and giving to those less fortunate.
We can look at this classic story through our own pro-market lenses and see more to the story than do the majority who misunderstand capitalism and the role of markets and prices. And we can write our own last chapter to the story that lets Scrooge life a happier life without compromising his business principles.
I would argue that a better, though less dramatic, interpretation of the story is simply that people, especially successful businesspeople, can get too wrapped up in their work, and lose touch with the rest of their lives. Engagement in civil society brings many unexpected and hard to quantify pleasures. And even in the most anti-business take on “A Christmas Carol” it is Scrooge’s private philanthropy, not the state, that tries to help the poor.
The story begins with Scrooge successful in business but having let his personal and social world fade. He long ago let his love relationship drift away and deep down regrets it. After a difficult childhood, he gradually gained a kind of comfort in solitude and emotional isolation. As usual in movies, nothing positive is said or implied about his work. No glimmer of understanding that he must be providing a valuable service in order to stay in business and make profits. But we can agree that this can happen. Focused businessmen like Scrooge can lose track of their social life and find themselves years later wealthy but alone.
Second, the story features an interesting, if subtle, attack on government welfare. Scrooge is asked to donate to a relief fund. He answers that he pays taxes for just such purposes. Why don’t the homeless go to existing poor houses, or to prisons he asks? The private-relief fund-raisers ask him if he has ever seen the government relief houses. Scrooge answer no. He is being very reasonable and so are they.
If there were no tax-supported relief houses he could not have used them as an excuse to avoid considering privately-support relief institutions. He might still have said “Bah, Humbug,” or been tempted to free-ride on donations of others. But he would understand the logic of the free-rider problem and the difficulty it presented.
Few of us enjoy dealing with beggars on the street. Scrooge could well have been drawn into private relief just to keep beggars off the street and out of his way. But to do that he would have had to invest in enterprises that help create jobs or help the unfortunate or unwise to get back on their feet. Or he might have chosen to invest in for-profit firms to provide job training. That way he would have plenty of business cards advertising job-training services to put in the cups of beggars. In this way he could have helped the needy and profited as an investor in such services at the same time. (I suspect such a job-training enterprise wouldn’t quite satisfy our desire to see the “Christmas Spirit” displayed in holiday TV specials).
[What my great-great-grandfather, Dr. Thomas Guthrie, did was to help start the Ragged Schools for Children in Scotland and England. He went to the Scrooges of his day (the 1840s) and convinced them to contribute. There were 192 Ragged Schools in operation at its peak with 20,000 destitute students a year attending. An estimated 300,000 attended overall, from 1840s to 1880s. The government ran the Ragged Schools out of business, unfortunatley. Glimpse this fascinating story here: http://www.infed.org/walking/wa-shaft.htm]
Because Scrooge feels he has already discharged his part in dealing with the problem of helping the poor and disadvantaged (thanks to state intervention in philanthropy) he loses touch with that part of the world. He doesn’t bother looking into the management and operation of poor houses because he supports them through taxes, and he knows he wouldn’t be able to withhold his taxes if he found them badly managed.
Had he been able to choose among private alternatives he would have had an incentive to investigate how his support was used. (He doesn’t do much investigation after being saved in the video version however–he just gives a big donation to the private relief effort he refused the day before. But he will surely take an acute interest in that private relief project after donating a huge sum to it. He would be personally embarrassed if the relief effort he supported turned out to be ill-managed or a fraud.
Scrooge, with tax-supported philanthropy, loses the opportunity to be drawn into civil society activities that might have opened up his life (thus he might have been less in need of spiritual shock-therapy). His very skeptical eye would be a service for private charities as he seems to understand that good intentions matter less than good results. I expect he would be a better trustee of a private charity than his “do-gooder” nephew, for example. George C. Scott’s Scrooge notes with disapproval his nephew’s offer to overpay Cratchit’s son. Scrooge appears to understand that overpaying for a young person’s first job can have negative consequences. It breaks the connection between a person’s productivity and their pay. It confuses charity with wages both in the mind of the employee and employer.
Another observation from the movie: early on, at the exchange, when Scrooge holds out for a higher price for the corn in his warehouse, is he hurting the poor? The businessmen who claim so wish to buy Scrooge’s corn at lower prices. Were they really planning to pass on these lower prices to the poor, or just to pocket gains from below market prices themselves? (Needless to say, there is no narrater to explain to the audience that turmoil and shortages would be caused by setting corn prices below market-clearing levels.)
How did Scrooge happen to have the corn in his warehouse in the first place? Economists will know that he is performing a service by warehousing corn and releasing it when demand is strong. But in the movie he is just presented as being greedy and pushing prices higher, thus hurting the poor. Actually he has already helped the poor by puchasing corn early, pushing prices slightly up and encouraging conservation early.
Many articles have been written of the economics of A Christmas Carol. But some I think hit a sour note by attacking Cratchit as incompetent and painting the early Scrooge as a hero. We have the luxury of writing our own last chapter to the story, one where Scrooge gains some friends, socializes some, and continues to run his business profitably. In our free-market final chapter, Scrooge can take an active interest both in supporting well-run and effective charities, and in agitating for government to shut down its poorly-run poor houses.
After his conversion, Scrooge gives Cratchit a raise, doubling his salary. Does that mean he was just exploiting him earlier? Or that Cratchit was not particularly competent? No, I think the raise can be seen as a very reasonable decision, part of Scrooge’s change of heart, that he wishes to give Cratchit more responsibility at the firm. Scrooge met his own mortality in his dreams that night. He dreamed himself standing before his own grave. Mortality creeps up quietly on all of us, perhaps especially on busy and successful businessmen. With no board of directors to push Scrooge for a “succession plan” for the firm of Scrooge & Marley, he had avoided the issue.
My point is that he didn’t pay Marley more earlier because he hadn’t delegated enough responsibility to him to allow him to be worth more. Now he has had a change of heart. The higher pay would go hand in hand with higher productivity from Cratchit that could naturally follow more delegated authority. (It could be that Cratchit is incompetent, but nothing indicates bad work habits in the movie, apart perhaps from showing up late to work one day–but that could be blamed on the overlarge and unexpected turkey Scrooge himself donated the day before.) The audience, unfortunately, sees only the apparently arbitrary nature of pay. Bosses can apparently double someone’s pay if only spirits scare the hell out of them in nightmares. Something politicians and labor unions have tried to do ever since.
So, I think it’s movie well worth watching… as long as the audience has the time (and the inclination) to be attentive during my 30 minute economics lecture following.
The DVD of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott is available online and via NetFlix.