Ebenezer Scrooge on Charity

December 19, 2018 Updated: December 19, 2018


Charles Dickens and his unforgettable character Ebenezer Scrooge have become part of Christmas for millions and for generations through “A Christmas Carol,” a novella that was written in a few weeks. This ghost story defined Christmas as a time of giving, not only in the directly religious sense, but also as the celebration of the union of God and man in his gift of himself.

His tale was an especially powerful reminder of our duty to give in order to help the poor and needy, the widow and orphan, the homeless and hungry. That kind of charitable work had been a duty of all Christians, individually and for the Church as a body, from the beginning. Dire consequences awaited those who refused it (think of the parable of the goats and the sheep in the Last Judgment, and of Lazarus and the poor man at his gate).

Dickens takes up this warning through the story of Scrooge, a miserly businessman whose partner, Jacob Marley, has already died and appears to him as a ghost in chains.

One of the most memorable passages in Dickens’s parable comes at the beginning, when two gentlemen come to Scrooge’s office to ask him to contribute to their charitable cause:

“’At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,’” said one of the gentlemen, taking up a pen, ‘it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.’

‘Are there no prisons?’ asked Scrooge.

‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

‘And the Union workhouses?’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are they still in operation?’

‘They are. Still,’ returned the gentleman, ‘I wish I could say they were not.’

‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?’ said Scrooge.

‘Both very busy, sir.’

‘Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’

‘Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,’ returned the gentleman, ‘a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?’

‘Nothing!’ Scrooge replied.

‘You wish to be anonymous?’

‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge. ‘Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough, and those who are badly off must go there.’

‘Many can’t go there, and many would rather die.’

‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.’

‘But you might know it,’ observed the gentleman.

‘It’s not my business,’ Scrooge returned. ‘It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!'”

That famous passage is taken, and meant, as an indictment of the laissez-faire economic liberalism of the day, in which the human being is reduced to an economic agent, concerned with his own business with none of the social ties that bind people to families and communities in bonds of mutual loyalty and love. The common good will take care of itself if individuals are left alone to pursue their own interests.

Civil society, the vast social space between the person and the state, disappears in this vision of society, but not the state. Scrooge pays taxes to support the institutions mentioned: the prisons and workhouses through which the state takes care of those who are dependent upon it. He is the personification of heartlessness in the face of misery and want.

And yet, Scrooge is quite pleased with himself for the way he dispatches the two gentlemen: “Scrooge resumed his labors with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.”

Before we dismiss Scrooge’s behavior as characterizing 19th-century liberalism and individualism, we should pause to consider the ways in which Scrooge’s arguments fit modern state-centered liberalism or socialism.

Modern Parallels

The modern liberal is, or at least sounds, more compassionate, and could hardly sound less so than Scrooge at this stage of his spiritual journey. But the compassion of liberals translates not into giving of their own time, treasure, or talent to help the poor and downtrodden, but in support for more government programs and higher taxes to finance them.

Governments do not love, however, and it is easy to be generous with other people’s money. (As Margaret Thatcher famously observed, “The trouble with socialism is that, eventually, you run out of other people’s money.”) Support for higher taxes, however, is not a mark of good character, of the virtue of liberality. It confuses what we now call “virtue signaling” (which perhaps should be called signaling the vice of others, of those who don’t support the government program or raising taxes to pay for it).

It too easily assumes that the good intentions on which the program is based will translate into effective action to help those who need help, rather than in unintended consequences, such as increased dependency and demoralization.

As social scientist Arthur C. Brooks put it, “This is a moral framework built not around altruism, but sanctimoniousness.” Actual altruism, as Brooks and others have shown—the giving by those who care of their own time, treasure, and talent—is evident at much higher levels among the religiously observant and conservative (two overlapping groups). The least generous, by any measure of personal giving, are secular liberals.

Conservatives, though, even when they sound hard-headed and tight-fisted may, by every measure, be much more caring and giving. A famous example is Mitt Romney, who was secretly captured on video at a private fundraiser saying that 47 percent of people wouldn’t vote for him no matter what, because they are dependent on government and see themselves as victims. The fact that he was known as a man of faith, fidelity, personal kindness, and generosity, as well as business acumen, did little to undo the damage to his electoral chances in the 2012 presidential election.

Like Scrooge, on the other hand, modern liberals believe it is the state’s job to help those in need and, like him, they are the least supportive of private charity. Like Scrooge, they discount the importance of those associations of all shapes and sizes, through which people express their love and caring for others.

As Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia put it: “Government cannot love. It has no soul and no heart. The greatest danger of the secularist state is this: In the name of humanity, under the banner of serving human needs and easing human suffering, it ultimately, ironically—and too often tragically—lacks humanity.”

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social-welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.