Monday, November 23, 2009

Ebenezer Scrooge: just a misunderstood libertarian

Alternate title: We are all Bob Cratchit now (from Balloon Juice)

Spot had forgotten about these tender Christmas tidings from the Ludwig von Mies Institute:

scrooge So let's look without preconceptions at Scrooge's allegedly underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit. The fact is, if Cratchit's skills were worth more to anyone than the fifteen shillings Scrooge pays him weekly, there would be someone glad to offer it to him. Since no one has, and since Cratchit's profit-maximizing boss is hardly a man to pay for nothing, Cratchit must be worth exactly his present wages.

No doubt Cratchit needs—i.e., wants—more, to support his family and care for Tiny Tim. But Scrooge did not force Cratchit to father children he is having difficulty supporting. If Cratchit had children while suspecting he would be unable to afford them, he, not Scrooge, is responsible for their plight. And if Cratchit didn't know how expensive they would be, why must Scrooge assume the burden of Cratchit's misjudgment?

As for that one lump of coal Scrooge allows him, it bears emphasis that Cratchit has not been chained to his chilly desk. If he stays there, he shows by his behavior that he prefers his present wages-plus-comfort package to any other he has found, or supposes himself likely to find. Actions speak louder than grumbling, and the reader can hardly complain about what Cratchit evidently finds satisfactory.

The author, Michel Levin, really gives the full apologia treatment to ol’ Eb:

More notorious even than his miserly ways are Scrooge's cynical words. "Are there no prisons," he jibes when solicited for charity, "and the Union workhouses?" Terrible, right? Lacking in compassion?

Not necessarily. As Scrooge observes, he supports those institutions with his taxes. Already forced to help those who can't or won't help themselves, it is not unreasonable for him to balk at volunteering additional funds for their extra comfort.

Scrooge is skeptical that many would prefer death to the workhouse, and he is unmoved by talk of the workhouse's cheerlessness. He is right to be unmoved, for society's provisions for the poor must be, well, Dickensian. The more pleasant the alternatives to gainful employment, the greater will be the number of people who seek these alternatives, and 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.

Levin says that we must not forget all the good that Scrooge does:

The biggest of the Big Lies about Scrooge is the pointlessness of his pursuit of money. "Wealth is of no use to him. He doesn't do any good with it," opines ruddy nephew Fred.

Wrong on both counts. Scrooge apparently lends money, and to discover the good he does one need only inquire of the borrowers. Here is a homeowner with a new roof, and there a merchant able to finance a shipment of tea, bringing profit to himself and happiness to tea drinkers, all thanks to Scrooge.

A misunderstood fellow, indeed! We’re really lucky that Mr. Levin could find the time to debunk the lies about a fictional character in a fictional story. This is truly productive work.

One has to ask, though, if the strict social Darwinism of libertarianism is so great, why do we need sheltered libertarian workshops for libertarians like Michael Levin?

It is a puzzle.

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