Columnists, Mike Rosen, National

Rosen: Sticking up for Scrooge

In keeping with the free market perspective of Complete Colorado, I thought I’d build on a column I wrote a quarter-century ago coming to the defense of Ebenezer Scrooge. Now, I’ve had my heart warmed by Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as often as anyone. I shed a tear for Tiny Tim through his humble beginnings as a chipper young lad unbowed by a bad leg and took joy at his later fame, when he sang “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” on the old Johnny Carson Show, where he also married Miss Vickie on air. Dickens spun a great tale, indeed, which has rekindled the Christmas spirit in many a hardened heart.

Unfortunately, it’s been at the expense, unfairly, of the good name and reputation of Mr. Scrooge. The gentleman was even maligned by Walt Disney who did him the foulest of indignities when he gave his name to a stingy, curmudgeonly cartoon duck, the uncle of Donald. After 150 years of scorn for Ebenezer, Dr. Michael Levin, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, courageously came forward to make the case for Scrooge in an article in The Ludwig Von Mises Institute’s The Free Market magazine. I’ll join forces with Dr. Levin in seconding and supplementing his arguments.

For openers, take Bob Cratchit, whom Dickens depicts as pitifully underpaid. If Cratchit’s skills were valued more to anyone than the fifteen shillings a week he was paid by Scrooge, some other employer would be glad to pay him more. Since no one has made that offer, and since Scrooge is justifiably seeking a profit in a competitive market, why should he pay Cratchit more than the value he adds to Scrooge’s firm? It would appear that he’s being paid the market-clearing price for his labor, where supply and demand is equilibrated. If Cratchit’s skills are, in fact, worth more than this, it’s he who is to blame for not marketing himself to other employers more effectively. Scrooge should not be faulted for Cratchit’s lack of ambition.

Cratchit’s desire for a pay increase was based strictly on his “need.” Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was published in 1843. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848. So, it’s unlikely that Cratchit was an early adherent of Marxism. And it wasn’t until 1875 that Marx literally expressed his credo of, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The economic shortcomings of this theory in running a company would be instinctively obvious to a sensible businessman like Scrooge. Paying employees on the basis of need rather than merit encourages complacency and entitlement while failing to reward better effort and higher productivity from other employees. Subsidizing “need” is the province of government, not business.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that Cratchit had difficulty supporting his family. But they are his responsibility. Scrooge has no duty to assume the financial burden of Cratchit’s misjudgment about family planning, having more children than he could afford.

When a delegation of townsmen visited Scrooge soliciting a donation for the poor, there was nothing outrageous in his asking if “the workhouses were still in operation.” After all, he was already supporting the needy with his taxes. It wasn’t unreasonable to inquire about how his money was being spent. When the townsmen replied that many of the poor would prefer death to the workhouse, Scrooge remarked, “the greater will be the number of people who seek alternatives (to work), the fewer there will be who engage in productive labor. If society expects anyone to work, work had better be a lot more attractive than idleness.”

One could note that President Bill Clinton apparently believed likewise when he signed a welfare reform bill in 1995 that imposed a work requirement for those on public assistance.

Then, there’s Scrooge’s spendthrift nephew, Freddy, who condescendingly said of his uncle, “His wealth is of no use to him. He doesn’t do any good with it.” Weak on fundamental economics, young Fred didn’t understand that Scrooge served a vital function as a financial intermediary. As Dr. Levin explains, “To discover the good he does one need only inquire of his borrowers. Here is a homeowner with a new roof, there a merchant able to finance a shipment of tea, bringing profit to himself and happiness to tea drinkers, all thanks to Scrooge’s satisfied customers, but there must have been plenty of them for Scrooge to have gotten so rich.”

And he did it the old-fashioned way: he earned it. Merry Christmas, Ebenezer, and humbug to his detractors.

Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.

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