Two Takes on Ebenezer Scrooge
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.