Public Comment

The Spirit of Scrooge

By Caroline Hamilton, Ph.D.
Tuesday December 21, 2010 - 10:23:00 PM

Everyone knows the story of “A Christmas Carol”: the grouchy old man who dismisses Christmas greetings with “Bah, humbug!,” his hard-working clerk Bob Cratchit, cheerful, crippled Tiny Tim, the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. This is a good time to reread the story, available for free from Project Gutenberg. “A Christmas Carol” is remarkably pertinent not only to the season but to the contemporary political climate. 

Scrooge is a businessman who works in a counting house in the City, London’s financial district. His former partner, Jacob Marley, died seven years ago, so Scrooge’s only companionship is that of his clerk, who works by the inadequate heat of a single glowing coal. The story begins on Christmas Eve. When a gentleman stops by to solicit a charitable donation, Scrooge answers that he “cannot afford to make idle people merry” and inquires whether the prisons and the workhouses are still in operation. He then sums up his personal philosophy: “it is enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.” 

Surely Rand Paul and Bernard Goldberg would agree. 

Later that night, the ghost of Jacob Marley pays a call on Scrooge. Marley carries a long, heavy chain made up of cash-boxes, ledgers, heavy purses, keys, deeds, and padlocks—the tools of his earthly trade. “In life” Jacob tells him, “my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole.” Now he is now condemned to wander and bear witness to the misery of the world. He wants to save Scrooge from sharing the same fate. 

Scrooge is mystified by Jacob’s metaphysical punishment and his vague allusions to opportunities lost. “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.” 

“Business!” cried the Ghost. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.” 

Before Marley vanishes, Scrooge briefly glimpses a host of other phantoms, including businessmen he used to know, one of them with a “monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle.” Dickens’s condemnation of greed, selfishness, and self-righteous indifference could not be less subtle. 

If you have read this far, and you are an admirer of Ayn Rand, you may be reeling in shock: Charles Dickens was a Socialist! In fact, “A Christmas Carol” was published in 1843, some five years before “The Communist Manifesto.” And unlike his London contemporary, Karl Marx, Dickens did not envision or advocate systemic change. Marx read Dickens; Dickens probably did not read Marx. 

Certain national pundits have successfully tapped into an infantile strain of selfishness in the American people. They have aroused old childhood resentments about having to share our toys, our bedrooms, and our parents’ attention. Any form of sharing is now tantamount to revolutionary socialism. Taxation is “just so unfair.” Like resentful children, many Americans throw a collective tantrum when our desires are at odds with ethical behavior and the common good. We can no longer distinguish Dickens from Marx. 

The conservatism of Edmund Burke and his followers revered tradition, including monarchy and aristocracy, but it did not profess admiration for money-making. To salvage their family reputations, the sons of Gilded Age plutocrats funded art museums and founded think-tanks. They were fully aware that Christianity, which defended the poor and criticized rapacious greed, was a counter-ideology to the gospel of wealth. They also had a better historical memory of the French Revolution. Push people too far, give them no hope, and they will rise up in revolt. 

While Dickens’s novels remonstrated against British greed and indifference, those of American writers featured the moral ambiguities of wealth. They are cautionary tales. In his novels, The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Hazard of New Fortunes, William Dean Howells portrayed the failings of otherwise successful entrepreneurs. The protagonists of The Great Gatsby and Absalom. Absalom! rose from obscurity to wealth, but never achieved their heart’s desire: the love of Daisy, in Gatsby’s case, and an immortal, unblemished dynasty, in the case of Sutpen. 

If it is to mean more than crass accumulation and vulgar ostentation, the American Dream has to embody something nobler than financial success. 

The Scrooge of today has nothing to complain about. Like Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump, he just got a tax cut. The Cratchits, however, are suffering. Scrooge has outsourced Bob’s job. Tiny Tim has lost his disability stipend. The family is separated—the parents living in a homeless shelter, the children in foster homes. 

Yet these days our national sympathies apparently lie not with the Cratchits, but with the venerable villain of Christmas Past. Scrooge R Us.