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Charles Dickens, whose characters are often based upon real individuals that he knew, was an indefatigably outspoken social critic against the stratification of society in the Victorian Age along with the cruel employment of children, the poverty laws, and other machinations and bureaucracy of the Victorian legal system. Indeed, Dickens viewed his society as a prison in which a poor person was condemned to a life of misery.
In what has been referred to as his "extravagant didacticism," coupled with his customary sentimentalism born from his own childhood misery, Dickens punctuates his narratives, such as A Christmas Carol with ample social commentary. Clearly, Ebenezer Scrooge epitomizes the mercenary and unfeeling industrialist who ignores the plight of the lower classes. For, when asked to give to charity, Scrooge queries, "Are there no prisons?...And the Union workhouses?" And, when told that people die in these institutions, Scrooge remarks,
"If they would rather die,...they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."
But, as Scrooge learns that he must become a part of his society in order to be fully human in Stave Five, meaning and happiness is, thus, restored to his life since only by sharing does one acquire this sense of meaning and worth. Or, in the words of Antoine Saint-Exupery, author of Le Petit Prince, "to be man is to be responsible". [Etre homme, etre responsable]. This responsibility of one man for another is clearly a major trope for Charles Dickens and is exemplified fully in A Christmas Carol, which evinces much social criticism.
Charles Dickens' character Scrooge, views society as a waste of time, merely a unessential cog in a worthless, broken machine.
First, Dickens never condemns capitalism, decries the success of business owners, nor denounces the trading by which they amassed their wealth. The only criticism Dickens makes, in a move of astounding literary focus, is that Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley were not generous in their earned success.
There would not have been a story if Scrooge and Marley were not successful businessmen. If they had been unhappy poor folk, instead of unhappy rich folk, the beginning would not have been possible.
More importantly, the conclusion would not have been possible if Ebenezer Scrooge had not been a successful businessman. When the character has gone through his revelatory experience and come out a better man, he does not then become poor. Instead the new Scrooge uses his wealth to help those around him. He pays for Tiny Tim’s medical treatments which save his life. He buys food for local families. He raises the salaries of his employees. And he donates a large amount to charity.
None of this generosity would have been possible had not Scrooge been a successful business man and had not there have been a system of wealth creation such as capitalism.
This is, in a sense, an autobiographical element of the story. Dickens himself was very successful through his writings and journalism, and he used this success to sponsor many philanthropic causes throughout his life including founding a women’s home.
Charles Dickens is well known as one of the most prolific and influential authors of the Victorian period. His works often communicated the deep sense of justice that burdened Dickens. He spent his life bringing attention to the social stratification of Victorian English society and the poverty and destitution that plagued those at the bottom.
Many communist and socialist leaders have looked to Dickens as a champion for their cause. Even Karl Marx was a self-professed fan. And for these reasons, many have labeled Dickens a socialist and have used his ever-popular seasonal classic A Christmas Carol, as a condemnation of capitalism and consumerism.
While it is too late to speak for Dickens’s political views, I would challenge anyone who might be watching one of the many cinematic renditions of A Christmas Carol or even reading the book, to notice the decidedly non-socialist themes Dickens presents. In fact, I would go so far as to say that A Christmas Carol is a story about capitalism.
Here I point out three free-market themes that impacted me while I recently watched the 1984 film featuring George C. Scott. Though this discussion is what I am limited to by blog space and writing time, I encourage you to look for additional themes yourselves.
Secondly, Dickens seems to go out of his way to point out the inadequacies of government anti-poverty programs.
When Ebenezer Scrooge is approached by two gentlemen and asked to make a donation to the “poor and destitute,” his response was that the poor and destitute should go to the prisons and workhouses because his tax dollars already support those.
This demonstrates the fallacy of taxations superseding generosity. In his book, Who Really Cares, AEI president Arthur Brooks shows quantitatively that liberals who support large government anti-poverty programs are in their own lives the least generous. To them, their taxation has taken the place of personal generosity.
David Henderson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute, wrote in The Freeman magazine a few Christmases ago,
The modern Scrooge, instead of asking, “Are there no prisons?” would ask, “Is there no Medicaid? Are there no food stamps?” The modern Scrooges, in short, are those who advocate government programs for the poor rather than charity for the poor.
The lesson of Brooks, Henderson and Dickens is that the government cannot be generous. If the government takes over the responsibility of caring for the poor, then we will all be Scrooges.
What benefits our soul, and what led to the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, is the personal responsibility to take care of the poor. The New Scrooge took responsibility for caring for the poor in his community. He identified the needs and made the decisions and sacrifices necessary to fill those needs.
Furthermore, Dickens backhandedly makes the point that the government programs are insufficient. People in need were falling through the cracks, or else the gentlemen would not have been fundraising on their behalf in the first place.
Lastly, Dickens takes a relatively narrow view of community. The New Ebenezer did not set forth to save all of England, but he took care of those needy people whom he encountered everyday. Biblically speaking, he loved his neighbor.
Socialism and communism take very large views of community. They require large numbers of people to participate in the system so that the more productive members of society can fully support the less productive.
Capitalism is the only system that takes a small view of community. Due to principles such as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and F. A. Hayek’s “knowledge problem,” capitalism accepts that it cannot foresee nor understand all of the demands of a large community. Capitalism asks only that people take care of their own needs and allows for them to take care of the needs in their immediate community.
In conclusion, A Christmas Carol cannot be a story that promotes socialism because it is a story that depends upon capitalism.
The warnings we should head from Charles Dickens and the reclaimed Ebenezer Scrooge, are not that we need more government, but that we ought to strive to be successful and use our success to care for our families and contribute to our community.
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