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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Various Economists on Scrooge, Charity and Coercion

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Various Economists on Scrooge, Charity and Coercion

Paul Krugman began “The Humbug Express” with an allusion to Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol” in which he compared Newt Gingrich and other Republicans to the old Ebenezer Scrooge because they oppose various programs that program supporters claim help the needy.  It is an unfortunate allusion because Krugman gets it wrong, distracting from his main point that the Obama administration has not created an explosion of government jobs as claimed by the “well-developed right-wing media infrastructure in place to catapult the propaganda’…to a wide audience where it becomes part of what ‘everyone knows’.”.  Scrooge’s sin was a personal lack of care and attention to friends and family as well as the poor and not a lack of support for government programs. 

It is foolhardy to try to impute twentieth century sense and sensibility into a nineteenth century man, but I will “rush in where Angels fear to tread.”  The old Scrooge was ungenerous and believed that paying taxes to support government programs relieved him of the responsibility of assisting the poor.  When Scrooge was asked by two gentlemen to give to charity, he replied,
`Are there no [debtors] 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 vigour, 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.'

…`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.’
Did the unrepentant Scrooge support the government programs to aid the poor or did the state coerce his contributions?  Dickens does not describe his political opinion beyond having Scrooge observe that “they [welfare programs] cost enough.  I am inclined to believe that his participation was coerced.  David Henderson distinguishes between coercion and compassion in “The Lesson of Ebenezer Scrooge.”
Indeed, 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.

But aren’t government programs for the poor a form of charity? That issue came up in the sales-tax controversy. The short answer is no. But the longer answer is worth stating also. During the campaign over the measure to increase the sales tax, my co-leader, Lawrence Samuels, and I were in a debate with two doctors from Natividad Hospital, which was to receive the large subsidy if the sales tax measure passed. The 200-person audience was composed almost entirely of Natividad workers and their families and friends. As you might expect, they were fairly hostile to Lawrence and me. At one point Melissa Larsen, one of the doctors on the other side, said that increasing the tax and giving the money to the hospital was “the compassionate thing to do.” I ignored her gall in calling “compassionate” a tax that would clearly have benefited her personally. Instead I responded, “No, it’s not. It has nothing to do with compassion. If you gave your own money to the hospital, that would be compassionate. But taking other people’s money without their consent is not compassion; it’s coercion.”
There is an argument to be made for coercion.  The poor and destitute create a negative externality.  Many feel compassion for their suffering; others may wish to avoid seeing the poor out of a feeling of revulsion.  If most citizens experience this negative externality but free ride off the compassion or revulsion of others who donate to the relief of the poor then coercion may be justified. 

In “Tea Partiers and the Spirit of Giving” Arthur Brooks claims that there is a measurable correlation between a person’s belief in the redistributionist role of the state and a charitable giving.

When it comes to voluntarily spreading their own wealth around, a distinct "charity gap" opens up between Americans who are for and against government income leveling. Your intuition might tell you that people who favor government redistribution care most about the less fortunate and would give more to charity. Initially, this was my own assumption. But the data tell a different story.

The most recent year that a large, nonpartisan survey asked people about both redistributive beliefs and charitable giving was 1996. That year, the General Social Survey (GSS) found that those who were against higher levels of government redistribution privately gave four times as much money, on average, as people who were in favor of redistribution. This is not all church-related giving; they also gave about 3.5 times as much to nonreligious causes. Anti-redistributionists gave more even after correcting for differences in income, age, religion and education.
The unrepentant Scrooge may not have been a Democrat but he certainly was not a small government antiredistributionist Republican. 


  1. We should strive to help the needy at all times, not just around the holidays. Helping them to get back on their feet may cost more at first, but will be financially beneficial later on.

  2. I am very passionate about helping the less fortunate in our society. However, when it comes to deciding how to help and whom to help with my money, I would like to be in charge of that. I do believe that their is a need to have taxes in place to fund programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and food stamps (although I think that program has room for improvement). I think that Americans will give more if they are in control of where it goes. When you hand it over to the government, there is always that question of whether or not it is really going to it's intended cause.
    Kim Huffman

  3. This article is stupid. Scrooge was not supporting the institutions he mentioned to take care of the poor as some great service. He's simply using them as tools to abdicate any moral obligation that might cost him any money. It is true that he brought those institutions up as doing good for the destitute but if you look at the character of Scrooge he most certainly would have done away with them as well and pocketed the tax savings for himself as most "Conservatives" would today.

  4. I would like to thank McDuck for his comment but I believe that he is only half right. Scrooge is "simply using them as tools to abdicate any moral obligation that might cost him any money." That is the point. Brooks research finds that "Conservatives are both happier and more charitable than liberals."
    My point was not to suggest that Scrooge was a Democrat but that Krugman's comparison of Scrooge and other Republicans was an anachronism.