Saturday, December 25, 2010

Ebenezer Scrooge's Transformation from Welfare Statist to Charitable Giver

For Christmas, David Henderson gives us a lesson about Ebenezer Scrooge in the Freeman. I learned about it from Henderson's EconLog response to Krugman on Scrooge. Krugman gets the story about as wrong as one could imagine in his NYT piece.

Indeed, Charles Dickens' views on society and economics have been misunderstood for a long time. He is often portrayed as an anti-capitalist writer, but when I read Oliver Twist, I was surprised to read a story in which the government-run orphanages were presented as terrible, the criminal underclass as despicable, and in which the hero of the piece (beside Oliver Twist, of course) was a wealthy businessman. That book, at least, is anti-government programs and pro-market.

And of course David Henderson is correct about Scrooge's attitude. Scrooge argues that because the government has welfare, there's certainly no need for him to be personally charitable. Dickens no doubt was observing this change in attitude as government welfare programs were set up. Scrooge's attitude is thus the natural consequence. He does not feel the need to be generous, because others are being generous on his behalf -- with his tax dollars. His attitude: they give with my money, why should I give more? He doesn't seem to object to the presence of welfare programs, but he certainly considers them sufficient.

This attitude is in fact prevalent among supporters of the welfare state. Supporters of the welfare state have been shown to be the least charitable; those who oppose the welfare state the most charitable -- with their own money (which is the only way one can in fact be charitable). It is a shame that too many people cannot tell the difference between charity and government welfare programs. It's the kind of confusion that creates such gross misinterpretations of such great works of literature.


  1. my thoughts here:

  2. I would argue that there is a difference between Krugman's gross misunderstanding of the story and Henderson's rhetorical point.

    Naturally, it would be better to undertake a full-fledged economic analysis of A Christmas Carol. I think it would do Dickens' works a lot of good to be reconsidered and reanalyzed from a non-Marxist perspective.

  3. What is the Marxist analysis of Dickens? I'm not sure he even gets into Marxist issues in the Christmas Carol - probably in other ones.

    I think Krugman's is about as bad as Henderson's. Krugman got it right that a general aversion to helping the poor is highlighted by Dickens. Henderson got the public/private distinction right. Krugman completely botched the public/private distinction and Henderson completely botched any explanation of why a supporter of the welfare state is Scrooge and not, say, the donation seekers knocking at his door.

    Take the other things into account - the donation-seekers' concern for inequality (and Scrooge's lack of concern), Scrooge's lack of concern for people having trouble with their mortgages (who would Austrians side with on that issue?), and a variety of other things and Henderson's contention that Scrooge is more akin to welfare supporters is absolutely ridiculous. It's the kind of confusion that creates such gross misinterpretations of such great works of literature.

  4. It is the Marxist literary scholars who are doing the analysis of the situation and characters' thoughts and actions, and not the Marxist content of Dickens which is at issue in a Marxist analysis. Dickens is not a Marxist, and so does not raise Marxist issues in A Christmas Carol. It is the Marxists theorists who read Marxist themes into Dickens, seeing his depiction of poverty as supporting their world view. My point is that when I read Dickens, whatever else he is doing, he is not pro-working class, and he is certainly not pro-government welfare.

    Scrooge does not express a general aversion to helping the poor -- Scrooge rather expresses distain at providing private help when public help is available. So Krugman is wrong. As I said above, Henderson is making a rhetorical point there at the end -- one which he doesn't explain, but which probably requires knowledge of the fact that study after study has shown that supporters of the welfare state are the least personally charitable, while opponents of the welfare state are the most personally charitable. This doesn't mean there aren't exceptions to this, but they are truly exceptions. Those who are supporters of the welfare state and are not personally charitable are, thus, truly Scrooges (Henderson's argument). The exceptions would be the donation-seekers, who are trying to supplement the welfare state (but not replace it).

    As for the issues of inequality and equality, as I said, there is much more one could work out with the story and analyze -- many complexities worth looking at. But Henderson (who is not a literary theorist, and is not doing a full-fledged analysis of A Christmas Carol) is only looking at this one passage, and trying to make sense of his refusal to donate. I would argue that his comments are a great launching-off point for a full analysis of A Christmas Carol, but are hardly sufficient for a full understanding of the work.

  5. I had never realized there were so many Marxists doing literary analysis. I didn't think there were that many Marxists still around anymore.

    You do realize those statistics are highly questionable, right? And NONE of those statistics conclude that liberals don't make private donations or are opposed to private donations - only that they make marginally less donations than conservatives. That small but consistent difference is largely the cause of two things: conservatives are more religious (so it really has more to do with religiosity than opposition to welfare), and conservatives are wealthier (so lower marginal propensities to consume and thus higher donation rates).

    Even then you're demonstrating a complete misunderstanding of the statistics - its not an "exception" for a liberal to donate. That is the usual circumstance. They just donate slightly less on average.

    The exception is someone like Scrooge - who does support welfare but doesn't donate. The donation seekers are your typical liberal welfare state supporter. And as I said before, Dickens doesn't even conceive of a character that actually opposes welfare in this story.

    My point about inequality, by the way, came from exactly the same passage that Henderson was quoting from.

  6. The English departments may be the last bastions of Marxism in the U.S., but Marxism is the economics of the English departments to be sure.

    I'm not sure where you're getting your statistics on relative wealth, but we'll leave that aside. If you compare Congressional Republicans to Congressional Demcorats, it holds up even more -- and much mroe starkly. Waiters around the D.C. area famously can't stand to wait on Democrats, because they are known to be horrible tippers. So Scrooge is not the exception among the wealthier welfare supporters and welfare opponents.

    Dickens doesn't have to provide the reader with every possible world view. He just has to provide those world views necessary for the story. But what Scrooge says is very telling. One must pay attention to that argument and make sense of it in relation to the rest of the story.

  7. Troy - you dismiss studies on the actual American population and some of the confounding variables, and instead give me an anecdote about Congressional tippers? Are you serious?

    And the point remains - nobody has ever argued that welfare supporters DON'T give to charity. Just that they give, but that they give slightly less. I noted several confounding variables which a lot of other people have noted as well that explains a lot of the relationship. But even aside from those, the piont is not that welfare supporters don't donate - it's that they donate somewhat (but statistically significantly) less.

    Scrooge didn't donate any. He refused to donate on principle. That is not typical of anyone - liberal or conservative or libertarian.

    The typical liberal is like the donation seeker - supportive of public welfare, and also donating some private money.

    re: One must pay attention to that argument and make sense of it in relation to the rest of the story

    I agree - my concern is that you're not.

  8. It makes more sense to compare apples to apples, which is why I argued that we need to compare wealthy people like Scrooge to other wealthy people. Congresspeople are a logical group to compare, as their votes demonstrate more clearly their support. It is unlikely that you would find anyone in Congress arguing that they won't donate on principle (that would be political suicide), but their actual behavior suggests what they would do if it weren't politically expedient. Also, one must consider the fact that Scrooge is working as an allegorical character -- he's an extreme version of a common attitude.

    My concern is that you don't really understand how literature works. One doesn't have to create characters of every type to make a point; and the extremes of a character are often designed to bring into high relief certain attitudes. You don't seem to understand that Scrooge is an allegorical character whose extreme behaviors are designed to emphasize certain attitudes. Scrooge is more than that, as are the other characters -- they are more complex overall, which is what makes them interesting -- but that doesn't take away from his allegorical nature. Trying to compare Scrooge to the average supporter of welfare is silly. Scrooge highlights why there are differences in charitable support between supporters and opponents of government-supplied welfare. This is one of the things literature does.