Krugman Misstates Dickens's Point
By David Henderson
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.