It’s finally happened. The libertarians are seriously, with a straight face and their usual sarcastic smugness, defending Ebenezer Scrooge as a humanitarian hero. And not after the ghosts of Christmas visit him, either.
Don’t get me wrong; the libertarians and I do have some common ground. Some. But this sort of position just underlines the absurdity of some of their central tenets. And oh, yeah: if you disagree with this pro-Scrooge thesis, you’re a communist.
The article I’m referring to is The Case for Ebenezer by Butler Shaffer. Now, anyone who’s talked to a libertarian will recognize some of this rhetoric; by being rich, Scrooge was funneling money with his investments to people who need it most, and so on. But this guy goes way over the edge. He’s not just praising investment, which is fine and good as far as it goes; he’s praising greed, explicitly.
The first little gem of the article proper (the part that’s not in italics) is as follows:
His case comes down to just two points:  my client has managed to become very rich, and,  he insists on keeping his money for himself.
One wonders if Mr. Shaffer has ever actually read A Christmas Carol. Wasn’t Scrooge’s vice not that he was rich, or even that he wanted to remain rich, but rather that he underpaid his assistant to the point of inhumanity and had no concern for the sufferings of his fellow men? That he’d happily let the entirety of the English poor starve to death in order to decrease the surplus population?
The next brilliant argument brought by Shaffer in favor of Scrooge is that Dickens was rather cruel to give him such an unpleasant name. It’s Scrooge, after all. Doesn’t that just drip greed and villainy? Yes, it’s truly insightful. I’m not sure that any kind of response could be brought to such an argument. Never mind that choosing descriptive names for characters is a common literary tactic, and Dickens can hardly be criticized for doing so in his own work. Next Shaffer will become very incensed at Nathaniel Hawthorne for naming the villainous medicine man “Chillingsworth.”
There follows another enlightening argument:
The case against Ebenezer Scrooge is nothing more than a well-orchestrated, vicious conspiracy to extort from my client as much of his money as can be acquired through terror, threats of his death, and other appeals to fear.
Yes! Marley warning Scrooge that his greed and callous inhumanity, his total disregard for the well being of the poor and even of his own employee’s family, may lead to punishment in Hell is clearly a “vicious conspiracy to extort” Scrooge’s money. It’s certainly not an attempt to help Scrooge overcome his greed and avoid the punishments that Marley himself suffers in the world to come. Nothing like that.
More brilliance follows. Bob Cratchett, for example, is just a big whiny loser, a “groveling, ergophobic, humanoid sponge”:
Cratchett has worked for an allegedly substandard level of pay–whatever that may mean–for my client for many years. Why? Why did he not quit? Why didn’t he go to work for some other employer[?]
It apparently never occurs to Shaffer that there might not have been any other employers who could offer a higher wage, and that Cratchett was therefore forced to accept Scrooge’s abuse and low wages for years lest he thrust himself and his family into the uncertainty of unemployment—which was, let us remember, even more uncertain in those times than it is in ours. Shaffer’s response to this argument is simply to assert the contrary: no, there must have been other things for Cratchett to do, and since he didn’t, he must have been getting exactly the wages that he deserved, even if those wages were insufficient to support his family in anything but borderline poverty. He even says that Cratchett should have gone to school and gotten some training to make himself worth more money! Yes! After he works his twelve-hour day in Scrooge’s office, he should go find a school that’s still open at seven o’clock in the evening in Victorian England and train for another job, and still perform well enough for Scrooge during the day that he doesn’t get fired! And if he doesn’t, it’s not because he prudently decided he couldn’t do it and would like to see his family for what precious little time he can each day, it’s because he’s lazy and incompetent!
This is typical libertarian denial; the poor are poor because they deserve it, not because things are set up the way they are, and this is universally true with no exceptions. If you deny it, they just say that their rectitude is perfectly obvious “[t]o anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of economics.” Since you disagree, you don’t have even the most rudimentary understanding of economics. See? Libertarianism can’t be defeated!
We begin to understand where libertarians generally go wrong when Shaffer identifies what Dickens (and the entirety of the sensible part of Western tradition) identifies as the source of greed:
Dickens expresses the dreary sentiment of “original sin”–an idea central to all collectivist thinking–which presumes individual self-interest to be a source of social misery rather than the fount of human well-being.
The notion of original sin, and that it causes men to care more for themselves than for others, is clearly a communist idea with no basis in reality. Truly, original sin should just be called “self-interest.” Every sensible person cares for himself before anyone else; this isn’t greed, it’s just “self-interest,” and it, rather than the salvation offered by Christ, is “the fount of human well-being.” So saith Shaffer, keeper of divine revelation.
There’s more to this insipid little article, but it all amounts to this: greed isn’t a vice, it’s good and should be called “self-interest.” Now, no one would deny that a man must take care of himself and see to it that he procures the necessities for himself, Christians last of all. But Christians also identify, correctly, that “the desire of money is the root of all evils; which some coveting have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows” (I Tim. 6:10).* This desire to acquire more and more for oneself is a vice according to the Christian tradition, and must be fought, not honored. Yet this article praises the desire to constantly increase one’s own wealth, and even at least condones the desire not to give any of it away, ever, without the expectation of significant returns. This may be (and is) excellent libertarianism; unfortunately, it is very poor Christianity.
The lesson of A Christmas Carol is that the rich should give freely of themselves, just as the poor should; that constantly accumulating more and more money is not the route to happiness; and that greed must give way to charity if one can hope for happiness in this world or the next. Libertarians may not like it, but Christ does, and that’s what He taught.
Christians must, by their religion, love the post-ghost Scrooge and heartily condemn the pre-ghost one. Dickens was right; Scrooge may have had a lot of money, but he was a poor man. The sooner libertarians learn such things, the happier they and the rest of the planet will be.
Praise be to Christ the King!
* Yes, that translation is (mostly) correct. The Clementine Vulgate (available at The Clementine Vulgate Project), guaranteed by the Council of Trent to contain no error, renders the passage as follows: “Radix enim omnium malorum est cupiditas: quam quidam appetentes erraverunt a fide, et inseruerunt se doloribus multis.” This translates literally to “For the root of all evils is desire; how much indeed do those desiring wander from the faith, and plant for themselves many pains.” Even more than the desire for money, then, desire itself is the root of all evils.