Was Ebenezer Scrooge right in purely economic terms?

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9 December
10:33
December
2016

It depends on which Scrooge you mean – the pre-ghost Scrooge or the post-ghost Scrooge. 

The answer, surprising as it may seem, is that both were right (but in different ways). Let’s take the pre-ghost Scrooge: In Chapter 1 of A Christmas Carol, two “gentlemen” come to Scrooge asking for (in essence) a hand-out for the economically vulnerable. Scrooge responds that he pays his taxes – which is, of course, more than many business folk might be able to say – and therefore it is the establishment’s job to use the tax money to alleviate poverty. In this he is, of course, perfectly correct. 

"Pre-ghost Scrooge is right. It is not his responsibility to make up for the failings of the state."

The economist Milton Friedman assures us it is the responsibility of business to make profit – end of story! It is, so Freidman notes in his 1962 book ‘Capitalism and Freedom’, the responsibility of government to ensure that people operating in the market, including profit making businesses, will behave in such a way as to improve overall wellbeing. We see it is the state which has the ultimate responsibility to create an economy and a society from which all will benefit – yet poverty exists. 

Pre-ghost Scrooge is right. It is not his responsibility to make up for the failings of the state. However, he is wrong in thinking, as he does, that if the state fails to address economic exclusion, he bears no responsibility to try to put things right. The post-ghost Scrooge is rather more generous, at least to the family of his employee, Cratchit, and those who were lucky enough to have made his acquaintance. It might be worth considering, before we go on, why it is that Scrooge was wealthy and Cratchit poor. 

They both no doubt work equally hard –Scrooge was a harsh master. They were both, no doubt, good at their job – Scrooge would not keep Cratchit otherwise. The difference between them comes down to the inequality of power. Scrooge has capital, Cratchit has not. Thus Scrooge can appropriate the fruits of Cratchit’s labour paying the minimum out of the value that Cratchit creates, while hoarding the surplus. They say, “If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, if you teach him to fish, he will never be hungry again”; Cratchit knows how to“fish” (how to earn his living) but Scrooge controls access to the river. Therefore Scrooge has the right to take almost all of Cratchit’s “catch”, leaving him only the minimum necessary to survive.

"The post-ghost Scrooge is rather more generous, at least to the family of his employee, Cratchit, and those who were lucky enough to have made his acquaintance."

The post-ghost Scrooge continues to enjoy the privileges which accrue to him arising from this power imbalance, but now he is a bit more generous with giving back some of the surplus Cratchit creates (during the Christmas season, at any rate). This is a step in the right direction, but it does not address the underlying problem of economic exclusion. We can but hope post-ghost Scrooge uses his influence to induce politicians to address the imbalances of power which give rise to poverty in the first place. 

The ultimate resolution to this problem is that we ought to ensure the state does its job in tackling economic exclusion so that the Cratchits of this world are not forced to rely on the charity of the powerful. The powerful, in the meantime, ought to work on their charity, just in case the state cannot solve the problem on its own. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, "God Bless Us, Every One!” because it is going to take every one of us to address this problem. 

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