Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is hardly a treatise on economics. But it does embody an attitude toward wealth and poverty, toward rich and poor, a conception of the human race as a fellowship of sinners heading toward eternity, “fellow-passengers to the grave,” as Dickens called us, which bespeaks the ethics of medieval Christendom rather than the utilitarian and often brutal outlook characteristic of the capitalist world. Christopher Dawson wrote that
Protestantism had shown a strong tendency to develop an economic mentality of its own. Calvin himself had been the first to break completely with the Catholic tradition regarding usury, and his followers, who combined moral rigorism with individualism, regarded economic success as a sign of God’s favor towards the industry of the saints and insisted far more on the sinfulness of idleness than on the duty of charity. In the lands where these ideals had free play—Holland, Great Britain, above all New England, a new type of character was produced, canny, methodical and laborious; men who lived not for enjoyment but for work, who spent little and gained much, and who looked on themselves as unfaithful stewards before God, if they neglected any opportunity of honest gain.1
Nowhere else, perhaps, can we find this “new type of character,” the man who is “canny, methodical and laborious, who lives “not for enjoyment but for work,” so well embodied as in the eventually redeemed hero of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge indeed was “canny, methodical and laborious.” In reply to the plea on behalf of the poor by the two men collecting funds for charity, Scrooge replies
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly.”
Scrooge reluctantly allows his clerk, Bob Cratchit, the day off for Christmas, on which feast he apparently was intending to work himself. On Christmas Eve, after “his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern,” he spends part of his evening “with his banker’s-book,” going over his accounts evidently, not ceasing work even when he had left his office.
Scrooge lived “not for enjoyment but for work”—”a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” is how Dickens describes him. Only after his redemption is he astonished by the pleasure he gains just by walking around London and observing his fellowmen. “He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness.”
Yet so much has the mentality we see in Scrooge triumphed in the modern world, especially in countries historically Protestant in culture, that apparently sane and responsible adults have offered justifications for Scrooge, indeed, celebrated him as an honorable and worthy citizen. Let us look at a few of these defenses of Ebenezer Scrooge—that is, the unrepentant, unconverted Ebenezer Scrooge—offered in recent years by his defenders.
“He is industrious, conscientious and hard working. He shoulders more than his share of the load and even works holidays when other less conscientious workers take time off.” Yes, indeed, he lived to work, since for those of this new persuasion, this new point of view that superseded the Christian morality of the Middle Ages, work, money—that is what life is about. But surely something more can be said on behalf of such a strong work ethic, on behalf of one who “lived not for enjoyment but for work [and] who spent little and gained much.” Well, someone has tried to do so, how successfully I leave others to judge.
In this whole world there is nobody more generous than the miser—the man who could deplete the world’s resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide.
How exactly is a miser generous? “What could be more generous than keeping your lamps unlit and your plate unfilled, leaving more fuel for others to burn and more food for others to eat.” Except, of course, Scrooge does not really do so, for the others who need fuel and food need also some means for buying those goods and Scrooge certainly does very little to supply that! Even he recognizes that the fifteen shillings a week that he pays Bob Cratchit is barely enough to live on, and he keeps not just his own office, but that of his clerk, ice-cold.
But, no, no, our Scrooge defenders rush forward with more justifications. Bob Cratchit underpaid and exploited? Surely, not.
The fact is, if Cratchit’s skills were worth more to anyone than the fifteen shillings Scrooge pays him weekly, there would be someone glad to offer it to him. Since no one has, and since Cratchit’s profit-maximizing boss is hardly a man to pay for nothing, Cratchit must be worth exactly his present wages. No doubt Cratchit needs—i.e., wants—more, to support his family and care for Tiny Tim. But Scrooge did not force Cratchit to father children he is having difficulty supporting. If Cratchit had children while suspecting he would be unable to afford them, he, not Scrooge, is responsible for their plight. And if Cratchit didn’t know how expensive they would be, why must Scrooge assume the burden of Cratchit’s misjudgment?
After all, remember it’s every man for himself, isn’t it? Cratchit is a mere factor of production, a tool, a cost item in a ledger book, something which should, and often can, be purchased at the lowest possible price. He is not a man, not one of our “fellow-passengers to the grave.” What is most sad about all this is that it’s not merely fringe libertarians who will assure that us that “if Cratchit’s skills were worth more to anyone … there would be someone glad to offer it to him,” but mainstream economists who hold chairs at famous universities and win famous prizes. “How Markets Determine Incomes” is what the late Paul Samuelson, Nobel prize winner, calls his chapter on wages.2 “Wages are really only the price of labor…. Moreover, the prices of factors of production are primarily set by the interaction between supply and demand for different factors—just as the prices of goods are largely determined by the supply and demand for goods.” Ah, yes, “if Cratchit’s skills were worth more to anyone … there would be someone glad to offer it to him,” but, poor fellow, he was just a loser, and his family too. Maybe they should join those who ought simply to die and “decrease the surplus population,” as Scrooge says of the poor.
But, wait, am I not being too hard on old Scrooge? Am I not exhibiting ignorance of the laws of economics? Consider this,
Scrooge’s first employer, good old Fezziwig, was a lot freer with a guinea—he throws his employees a Christmas party. What the Ghost of Christmas past does not explain is how Fezziwig afforded it. Did he attempt to pass the added costs to his customers? Or did young Scrooge pay for it anyway by working for marginally lower wages?
Oh, I see, do I? No possible way for Fezziwig to pay for Christmas festivities except by gouging his customers or his employees. Never to be considered that he just might have taken the expense out of his own pocket. What, our defenders of Scrooge object! Would Fezziwig, doubtless a rational and “profit-maximizing boss,” reduce his own income when he could squeeze someone else? Certainly not that! Does not Samuelson himself assure us,
There is one rule that gives correct answers to all investment decisions: Calculate the present value resulting from each possible decision. Then always act so as to maximize present value. In this way you will have more wealth to spend whenever and however you like.3
Funny, how that old guy, the Apostle Paul could write something like this.
…if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall in temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.4
Oh, well, he lived a long time ago, as did the thinkers of the Middle Ages, back when Catholics had the quaint idea that morality extended to our economic conduct, before everyone was reduced to the status of a mere profit-maximizer for whom the best decision is always one that results in “more wealth to spend whenever and however you like.”
This is what the modern world created by the ideology of Protestantism and Enlightenment rationalism has given us. I am ashamed that there are any Catholics who have been deceived by this, but, sadly, it is true.
Christmas, however, is coming. Let us pray for them, let us pray equally for ourselves, all of us “fellow-passengers to the grave,” after which we will be judged, not on how much we have maximized our profits or the amount of wealth we have “to spend whenever and however” we like, but on such criteria as giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, and clothes to the naked. And that is what Christmas is about, about the Son of God who came poor and naked into this world, not to maximize his profit, but to suffer and die for the sake of us poor sinners. “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”