The Problem With Scrooge


Some time ago I came across an interesting article/thought experiment which considered Ebenezer Scrooge within the categories of the then blossoming Occupy Wall Street movement. The essence of this article- Scrooge: The First 1 Percenter– was this:

Scrooge, before he became “enlightened,” was already doing more to help his fellow man than any of the other main characters we meet in A Christmas Carol. Moreover, by giving away a substantial portion of his accumulated fortune, he drastically reduced his ability to do even more good in the world. (Jim Lacey, Scrooge: The First 1 Percenter)

The argument runs as such: By virtue of being successful in business and by reinvesting most of his profits back into his business and the economy, Scrooge helped to sculpt the economic engine of industrial-revolution era Britain which helped to lift millions out of abject poverty and into a burgeoning middle class. Or, as the author puts it:

This and other infrastructure improvements sparked a commercial revolution that within a generation would see a dramatic improvement in the conditions of the poor and middle class… More than anything else, Scrooge’s investments created jobs… In doing so, he and others like him created a virtuous circle that not only increased their wealth, but also greatly benefited society. (ibid.)

The result of Scrooge’s (and other like him) singular focus on business and creating wealth for themselves is this:

It was only when industrialization began to make society as a whole richer that a majority of persons were able to start thinking about and caring for the more helpless among us.

It is this final result that should be laid at the feet of Scrooge. His investments began a period of growth and prosperity that, within a generation of when we assume he died, had doubled life expectancies, improved the lot of the poor, greatly increased the size of the middle class, paid for a military establishment that enforced the Pax Britannica, and propelled us into the modern age. Scrooge and the 1 percenters who followed him have enriched our lives to the point where our poor live better than medieval kings. (ibid.)

So much for the benefits of Scrooge’s business acumen; what of the initial critique, that Scrooge’s unfettered generosity in the end actually reduced his ability to do more good? Is it possible that Scrooge’s benevolence was actually something which unintentionally hurt the poor? Our author thinks so:

Unfortunately for society, however, and particularly for the many thousands whose jobs Scrooge’s investments had underwritten, his transfer of funds to less productive causes undoubtedly cost them dearly. (ibid.)

Upon reading this article for the first time, I have to admit that at first blush it has some measure of truth to it. As someone who thinks that commerce conducted within free-ish markets has indeed helped to improve the material lot of much of the world, there is a sort of insidious appeal within this reading of A Christmas Carol. I would also deem myself a fan of capitalism, at least in as far as one can be considered a ‘fan’ of that which one deems to be the least inadequate economic reality, which is hopefully a matter of damning by faint praise.

As I thought more about the argument, however, I began to see that by applying the categories of the Occupy movement, the author seems to unintentionally perceive the relation of man to wealth in precisely the same terms, the only difference being arguing from the other end. Ultimately, an incorrect view of the relation of man to wealth underscores the very real problem with Scrooge.

One temptation in the modern world in the wake of both the Industrial and the Technological revolution is to imagine that these realities (and now we think primarily in terms of the latter) can ultimately form the solution to the ills which plague man even today. After all, technology has had, if nothing else, an impressive track record in regards to results. We have seen our technological level increase at a dizzying pace over the last hundred years, and perhaps even more so over the past fifty. After all, anyone who can think back to their first personal computer can easily realize that their throwaway smart phone is leagues beyond in capability and innovation.

The difficulty, however, is that technology is an amoral thing, whereas man most certainly is not. Thus, it is somewhat surprising, though perhaps not unexpected,  that we would expect that a technological approach to solving human problems will necessarily lead to solutions. As this makes its way into politics it tends towards the technocratic, and it is easy to fall into the notion that we can engineer away the human problems that greet us in every sphere of life.

Scrooge’s initial lack of charity seems to implicitly believe this, for when confronted with the chance to give personally he falls back onto the structures of society meant to benefit the poor (or at least to keep them out of sight and out of mind:)

“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…”

“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“Both very busy, sir…”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge.  “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.”

Scrooge is content with the technocratic solution, to trust that the structures in society that either benefit or ‘take care of’ the poor and unfortunate will do their job, whatever that may be. He sees his ‘contribution’ to these establishments (both through his taxes and through his investments in society as a whole) as essentially his means of supporting the poor, even though he would actually be loathe to consider himself charitable. At the very least, he cannot escape this obligation placed on him by society (through means already mentioned), and even though he thinks they cost too much as it is, he finds something of a moral ‘out’ in regards to his concern for his fellow man in that he is already contributing; why give more when there are structures in place to help or otherwise manage those less fortunate?

At bottom, Scrooge is simply unwilling to come into contact with those whom the establishments he supports are for, and thus places his confidence (as grudgingly as it is given) in the social structures to do what he will not. This, rather than any actual pecuniary consideration, is the dark wound in his heart, the measly lump of coal which has replaced his soul. Being a man of business, it is far easier for him to let the gears of commerce rumble along, carrying society upon it.

And why not? As the article states, it is men like him who built the economic powerhouse of his time, which would eventually enable millions to escape the clutches of poverty. Why should he not take an essentially technocratic approach, believing that business and planning and all the technocratic structures of the modern world can bring an end to human misery?

And if this is so, is not Scrooge actually being even more of a Scrooge by giving away everything to benefit one family, rather than reinvesting his profits back into his business and the economy and thus indirectly helping far more?

As should hopefully be obvious by now, this article essentially ends up espousing precisely the same approach to money as the Occupy movement, even though the author would probably consider himself diametrically opposed. And true, the viewpoints are opposed, but they proceed along the same initial premise, that in which economics is a zero-sum game. As terms like ‘1-Percenter’ make clear, for Scrooge to have X amount of money necessarily entails that the 99 percent don’t. The author of this article ultimately argues the same, for if Scrooge gives X amount of money away, that is an amount of money that cannot be reinvested back into the economy. Two opposite approaches, but both sharing the same underlying view of man and wealth.

The ironic aspect of using Scrooge as a foil for this economic argument is that he wonderfully encompasses both approaches, both within the story (given his technocratic approach to helping the poor) and by applying a historical veneer to him. But since I am not trying to make an economic argument, the real problem with Scrooge is that he has no love for his fellow man, no matter how much he contributes to society.

The base difficulty with this article is that even though Scrooge’s action may have a net benefit to those less fortunate in society due to the reasons already expressed, a true love for one’s neighbor in the end must be one that is personal. Dickens, being a writer, understood that all human problems, no matter how they come to be (whether socially, structurally, etc.), are ultimately by definition personal problems and can only be met by personal means. Pope Benedict XVI had this to say in relation to humanity’s quest to create a more just society:

Justice can never make love superfluous. Beyond justice, man will always need love, which is the only thing that gives justice a soul. In a world so wounded as the one we find in our day, there is really no need to demonstrate what I have said here. The world is waiting for the testimony of that Christian love which our faith inspires in us. In our world, which is often so dark, what sines together with this love is the light of God. (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est)

Thus, the problem with Scrooge and thus the problem with technocratic approaches to curing man’s ills is that man by his very constitution is in need of love, and that is something that technocratic structures can never supply since they are essentially devoid of a soul. The author of this article seems to view markets in a similar way to which Scrooge viewed the workhouses and other systems for the poor, as something which will in and of itself do good. While it may be true that capitalistic approaches to economics have improved the lots of untold numbers of people, markets are not themselves an entity, and thus are as amoral as any other technocratic structure. Since man is a moral creature, the systems and such that we put into place in society are only as good (or as evil) as the people who work and exist within them.

In other words, the personal can never be removed from the equation without completely losing the ability to love, which at bottom is man’s most pressing need. This is the lesson that Dickens- who himself was aware of the horrors of poverty in his own day- understood, and which is why Scrooge’s transformation cannot be understood in the limited zero-sum game that too many economic approaches predicate of him or his situation. Scrooge himself found love and was able to give love to Bob and his family, which would no doubt have ramifications that cannot be placed into an spreadsheet. The ghost Marley sums up the lesson that Scrooge finally learned before it was too late:

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  “Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

For Scrooge, in the end it is not his taxes or his investments or any other structure which saves Tiny Tim, but rather his willingness to give of himself in love, to reach out with a personal and human touch into a desperate situation and do something about it. His other ‘contributions’ may have had a net positive effect, but they were without a soul. Here he finds his again in the act of caritas, and becomes a true Ebenezer (rock of help) for the Cratchet family instead of a Scrooge.

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