Thursday, December 21, 2006

Santa Scrooge

Last night, Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol was on TV. I watched, mostly because Patrick Stewart played Ebenezer Scrooge, but while watching I was reminded of a common economic mistake.

Scrooge is portrayed as a villian in the story because he has no love for Christmas and only cares about money. Perhaps the greatest victim is Bob Cratchit and his family, who barely scrape out a living trying to keep from starving on Bob's lowely salary. The spirits that visit the businessman late at night convince him that caring only for money will be the moral death of him and he will be forced to wander the world in ghostly chains for all eternity after he dies as punishment. To save himself from this ghastly fate, he must embrace the "Christmas spirit," which he does with full force at the end of the story.

Yet woven beneath this tale of Christmas goodwill is an economic lesson, if you are willing to see it. Charity is a fickle mistress. By their nature, people often donate in certain times of the year, Christmas being one of them, yet the poor and homeless need things all year around. Are the starving more hungry in December than January? Are the diseased more infected while choristers sing than when the streets are silent? Of course not. Charity flies in and out based on the random fancy of others. I have nothing against it--people should do what they wish with their own earnings. But to condemn a man because he is not charitable at a time when everyone else empties their pockets lacks an understanding of everyday needs of the needy. Indeed, if Scrooge was generous only during the holiday (but the same other times) I doubt the Spirits would have seen a need to visit him.

And here is the great lesson in this classic (at least the movie version) because Scrooge understood giving far more than they. Upon his epithany of virtue, he proclaimed he would have the Christmas spirit in him all year around. Not once a year for a day or a week but all the time. Incidently, Bob Cratchit also understood this for on his family's Christmas dinner (before Ebenezer's revelation) he toasted his wretched boss because he is the one that pays his salary (once again) all year around.

And this is a great lesson of the morality of trade. Capitalism and the pursuit of profit gives a reliable reason for people to ensure their fellow strangers survive. Charity, while seemingly more moral, is contingent on the daily fluxuating depth of another person's humanity. A man who eats a feast in one month and starves in all others will probably die. But the same man who dines modestly every day of the year will survive and prosper. Charity has its place but if you want to ensure the continued prospertiy for the most people, Tiny Tim better make sure God blesses capitalism, too.

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