A few weeks ago, one of the moderators on the “I bet Ludwig von Mises can get more fans than John Maynard Keynes” Facebook page, posted the following analysis of Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge:
So, an alternative take on A Christmas Carol [...] is that it’s actually a thinly veiled, trenchant critique of the corrosive effects of welfare statism and instead argues for, and celebrates individual [acts] of charitable giving.
Recall that in the beginning of the Dickens novel, Scrooge disparages individual charity because, he reasons, “are their no prisons, are there no workhouses?” – [suggesting] that since he’s already having a portion of his wealth forcibly extracted for these programs that address the effects of poverty, there is no need for him to be individually charitable. Dickens no doubt was observing this change in attitude in many as government welfare programs were set up. Not only does welfare statism encourage passivity and victimhood in it’s recipients, it provides a (cheap) moral excuse for the more well-off amongst us to avoid extending true acts of charity towards others…. leaving aside from the fact that welfare statism in the end impoverishes us all.
I think it’s pretty clear that Dickens was not using A Christmas Carol to critique the state’s welfare programs and promote private charity in its place. This doesn’t detract at all though from the fact that such intervention would tend to distort voluntary contributions to charities. Those who are concerned for the poor needn’t worry that in a free society the impoverished would go without.
First, it’s not clear there would be such poverty in a free society. This is not to suggest that an umhampered market would mean an end to all wants, but it’s erroneous to assume the same level of poverty would exist absent the state. Many of the poor are made so because of distortions such as price inflation, minimum wage laws, and myriad barriers to entry. It’s evident that a free market is more conducive to rising standards of living for the masses, so there would no doubt be less poverty for a free society to address.
But assuming there is still a sizeable poor population, private charities need not fear running out of resources.
Murray Rothbard notes in Man, Economy and State that “one of the most popular objections to the free society” is that “‘it leaves people free to starve.’” He then quips that ”from the fact that this objection is so widespread, we can easily conclude that there will be enough charitable people in the society to present these unfortunates with gifts.”
As for alternate perspectives on the classic Christmas story from Dickens, Michael Levin’s “Scrooge Defended” is my favorite. In it we see Scrooge, who is sadly painted as the villain, for what he truly is: a great benefactor of society.
Scrooge apparently lends money, and to discover the good he does one need only inquire of the borrowers. Here is a homeowner with a new roof, and there a merchant able to finance a shipment of tea, bringing profit to himself and happiness to tea drinkers, all thanks to Scrooge.
Dickens doesn’t mention Scrooge’s satisfied customers, but there must have been plenty of them for Scrooge to have gotten so rich.
Despite his surly disposition, Scrooge might be one of my favorite characters. It’s a shame he wasn’t given better treatment before his hauntings by those three ne’er-do-well apparitions.