Dining With Scrooge

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I have
endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of
an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves,
with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their
houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

~
Charles Dickens (December, 1843).

Little did
Charles Dickens suspect in 1843, when he sat down to write "A
Christmas Carol" in the hope of earning enough royalty income
to pay off a debt, that his story would become the most popular
piece of fiction in the English language. Generations that ceased
to read it have seen it performed on stage and on screen, both large
and small. I doubt that any other work of literature has been transferred
from the printed page to the silver and digital screens with such
artistic faithfulness to the original. In the case of Alastair Sim’s
1951 portrayal of Scrooge, the movie version is better than the
original.

The book sold
out the entire edition of 6,000 copies in its first week: the week
before Christmas.

It was in 1843
that the phrase "Merry Christmas and a happy New Year"
first became popular, due to Dickens’s story and the first Christmas
card.

Dickens was
obsessed with debt. His father had been imprisoned for debt, and
Dickens was taken out of school and put to work to support his family.
He made Scrooge a money-lender.

The story of
Scrooge is the story of a redemption — the buying back of a lost
soul. G. K. Chesterton was correct when he observed that Scrooge’s
redemption was like the redemption of a sinner at a Salvation Army
meeting, with this exception: The Salvation Army’s redeemed man
was likely redeemed from the punchbowl, whereas Scrooge was redeemed
to it.

Dickens saw
Christmas as a festival: a celebration marked by feasting. All around
Scrooge on the day before Christmas, there were preparations for
a feast. From rich to poor, men were preparing for a great meal.

Scrooge makes
no such preparations. Indeed, his rejection of an invitation to
a feast is at the heart of his stiff-necked ways. When his nephew
Fred, a poor man compared to Scrooge, invites him to Christmas meal,
Scrooge resists to the point of rudeness, and not mere rudeness:
a satanic affirmation. Dickens’s language is subtle but profound.

"Don’t
be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow."

Scrooge said
that he would see him — yes, indeed he did. He went the whole
length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that
extremity first.

For Scrooge,
food reveals his lifestyle. It is his silent affirmation.

Scrooge took
his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern; and having
read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening
with his banker’s-book, went home to bed.

In Sim’s version
of the story, Scrooge asks for extra bread. That will cost a half
penny extra, the waiter tells him. "No more bread," answers
Scrooge. The screenwriter got Scrooge exactly right, even though
Scrooge would have known about the extra charge by then and would
not have made the request.

Just before
bedtime meal, he takes a bowl of gruel. He even explains Marley’s
apparition in terms of food.

"What
evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?"

"I don’t
know," said Scrooge.

"Why
do you doubt your senses?"

"Because,"
said Scrooge, "a little thing affects them. A slight disorder
of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit
of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an
underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you,
whatever you are!"

AFFIRMING
HOPE

In contrast
to Scrooge was the society around him. Men prepared for the annual
feast. No matter how poor, men spent their hard-earned money on
the makings of a memorable meal.

Dickens sketched
a compelling contrast between London’s coal-blackened physical environment
in 1843 and London’s residents at Christmas.

The house
fronts looked black enough, and the windows blacker, contrasting
with the smooth white sheet of snow upon the roofs, and with the
dirtier snow upon the ground; which last deposit had been ploughed
up in deep furrows by the heavy wheels of carts and waggons; furrows
that crossed and re-crossed each other hundreds of times where
the great streets branched off; and made intricate channels, hard
to trace in the thick yellow mud and icy water. The sky was gloomy,
and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half
thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in a shower
of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by
one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear
hearts’ content.

But Christmas
stood as a public challenge to this hostile environment.

There was
nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was
there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air
and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in
vain.

The people
were happy.

For, the
people who were shovelling away on the housetops were jovial and
full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and
now and then exchanging a facetious snowball — better-natured
missile far than many a wordy jest — laughing heartily if
it went right and not less heartily if it went wrong.

Matching the
joy in the hearts of Londoners were shops filled with food. Here,
Dickens’s words serve as a primary source document regarding the
monumental economic changes that the Industrial Revolution had begun
to produce by 1843.

The poulterers’
shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in
their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts,
shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at
the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic
opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish
Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars,
and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls
as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe.
There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids;
there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence
to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water
gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and
brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the
woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves;
there were Norfolk Biffins, squat and swarthy, setting off the
yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness
of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to
be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very
gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a
bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared
to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went
gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless
excitement.

The people
had hope for tomorrow’s celebration, and through this feast, they
affirmed hope for the future. It was a ritual affirmation, though
Dickens did not see it this way. It was the same ritual affirmation
that had brought the Hebrews to Jerusalem once a year at Passover.

It was an affirmation
that announced to the world, "There’s more where that came
from."

By 1843, this
was not a vain hope in London. It was verified daily by the world
around them.

EMERGING
CAPITALISM

Dickens was
living in the second generation after the Industrial Revolution
began. Sometime around 1780, an economic revolution like no other
in history had begun. It was marked by compound economic growth
which did not permanently reverse — not in wartime, not in a post-war
depression, not in times of bad harvest and bad weather. Men were
escaping at long last from their dependence on the weather and the
soil. Nature was losing its grip on men’s lives because of the growing
division of labor, described by Adam Smith in 1776 in his story
of the output of a pin factory.

Specialization
of production in 1843 was slowly extending its reign through voluntary
exchange, releasing mankind from the tyranny of the weather. Excepting
only the famine of the 1840s in Ireland, which began while Dickens
was writing his story, the West would not again experience a famine.
That long-dreaded horse of the apocalypse was put out to pasture.

The driving
force of this revolution was specialization — specialization funded
by capital, itself the product of thrift, by double-entry bookkeeping,
and by attention to detail. In short, it was men like Ebenezer Scrooge
who were the architects of capitalism.

In a heartless
environment marked by scarcity, there must be careful attention
to details, to ledgers, to costs of production. There must be alertness
to profit opportunities, which are found where consumers demand
to be served — demand through competitive bidding, one against the
other. In short, there must be attention to business.

Here lies the
great paradox of free market capitalism. The spread of capital is
the basis for men’s increased productivity. The spread of the bookkeeper’s
mindset is the basis of net retained earnings, which in turn finance
additional capital. Taking care of business reduces poverty as nothing
else in man’s history ever has. Yet men like Scrooge take care of
business.

Dickens did
not understand this. Neither have generations of capitalism’s critics.
They accept Marley’s self-condemnation.

"Business!"
cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "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!"

Yet no man
can deal successfully with a comprehensive ocean of responsibility.
It is the specialization of production and market competition —
forced on all producers by consumers — that has reduced the burden
of poverty. The results of the process of steady compound growth
were visible in the shops of London in 1843, and Dickens described
them well. He did not understand their origin.

In dismissing
the two men who solicited a donation for the poor, Scrooge declared:

"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!"

Scrooge is
a miser. He has a shriveled soul. He has a highly specialized notion
of what constitutes a meaningful life, which he sees in terms of
the ledger book. Yet without Scrooge and men like him, who are devoted
to the details of their businesses, the shops of London would not
be filled with cornucopias — at Christmas or all year round.

Something is
missing here. What is it?

FEZZIWIG’S
PARTY

The ghost of
Christmas Past takes Scrooge to a party. Scrooge recognizes it instantly.
He had been there as a young apprentice. So had the entire company.

In came all
the young men and women employed in the business. In came the
housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with
her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy
from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough
from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next
door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her
mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some
boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling;
in they all came, anyhow and everyhow.

They ate. They
drank. They danced. Oh, how they danced, most notably the Fezziwigs.

But if they
had been twice as many — ah, four times — old Fezziwig would have
been a match for them, and so would Mrs. Fezziwig. As to her,
she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If
that’s not high praise, tell me higher, and I’ll use it. A positive
light appeared to issue from Fezziwig’s calves. They shone in
every part of the dance like moons. You couldn’t have predicted,
at any given time, what would have become of them next.

Here was what
by the ledger was waste — and what waste it was!

Scrooge here
had his first encounter with a successful businessman’s ledger,
but he had forgotten about this annual entry. The Ghost of Christmas
Past reminded him.

"A small
matter," said the Ghost, "to make these silly folks
so full of gratitude."

"Small!"
echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit
signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring
out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so,
said, "Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your
mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves
this praise?"

"It
isn’t that," said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking
unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self.

"It
isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy;
to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.
Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight
and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ‘em up:
what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it
cost a fortune."

Here, in his
praise of Fezziwig, Scrooge condemned himself — not merely as a
man but as a manager of men. Here, a trace of light pierced the
gloomy clouds of his misunderstanding.

The whole story
is about how the light eventually prevailed, insight by insight.
This is why it is beloved.

CELEBRATION

The heart of
capitalism is service to the consumer. In serving the consumer,
the producer must pay attention to what the consumer wants, at what
price, when, and where. But the same is true of the producers’ attitude
toward his employees. They, too, must be served: by better tools,
better training, better work environments, and loyalty downward.

One mark of
this attitude is the office Christmas party. Fezziwig had it right.
Compared to the total annual budget, the party is a marginal expense.
But it shows that the company is a team. Teams celebrate good news.
Christmas is good news.

The most faithful
person in "A Christmas Carol" is Fred, Scrooge’s nephew,
who invites him to dinner, is rejected, and vows to do it again
every year.

"I mean
to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or
not, for I pity him. He may rail at Christmas till he dies, but
he can’t help thinking better of it — I defy him — if he finds
me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Uncle
Scrooge, how are you?"

This is the
truest spirit of Christmas: to invite dour skeptics to celebrate
the feast, despite their insistence of "humbug," despite
their insistence that they wish to celebrate in their own way —
by not celebrating.

In the end,
Scrooge comes to his senses and shows up at the party. He had already
sent Cratchit a turkey, which had cost him money. That was not the
most costly of his expenses. To go to the party, he risked having
to be forced to eat a large portion of Christmas crow with all the
trimmings.

That is how
it is each year at Christmas. Men who have said “humbug” all their
lives, in various ways, with various degrees of commitment, are
asked to join the festivities. The price of admission is always
the same:

BYOC.

Scrooge found
that the festive surroundings left in him an irreducible joy. He
became a friend, which meant he ceased looking out exclusively for
Number One.

He became
as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the
good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough,
in the good old world.

There were
costs, of course. There always are.

Some people
laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and
little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing
ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did
not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that
such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well
that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady
in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was
quite enough for him.

CONCLUSION

The free market
does not make men good. It does encourage them to serve the consumer.
It forces losses on them if they are less efficient in their service
than their competitors. The free market society is not a dog-eat-dog
world. It is dog-serve-master world. The consumer is the master.

Scrooge served
the market well in both phases of his career. He did not wind up
in poverty in phase two. Dickens understood the Fezziwig had the
right approach.

In Sim’s version
of the story, Fezziwig goes out of business because he cannot compete
in the new world of capitalism. Dickens never hinted that this was
the outcome of Fezziwig’s good cheer. My guess is that Fezziwig
died rich. If he treated his employees well, he was probably in
the habit of treating his customers well.

May
that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed,
God bless Us, Every One!

December
23, 2006

Gary
North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 19-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible
.

Gary
North Archives

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