The so-called Good Samaritan

Murray

As Christmas approaches every year and the traditional holiday stories enter the rotations of local television stations, you can be sure that someone, somewhere is going to mount a defense of Ebenezer Scrooge — pre-conversion, of course.

The honor this year falls most prominently to economist Steven Landsburg. Writing in Slate, Landsburg argues the charges brought against Scrooge for being “ungenerous” are but a “bum rap.”

He describes Scroge’s miserly behavior, even toward himself, and asks, “What could be more generous than keeping your lamps unlit and your plate unfilled, leaving more fuel for others to burn and more food for others to eat? Who is a more benevolent neighbor than the man who employs no servants, freeing them to wait on someone else?”

Uh…

The next sentence admits that “it might be slightly more complicated than that.” For instance, it’s possible that “when Scrooge demands less coal for his fire, less coal ends up being mined.” But, you see, “that’s fine, too. Instead of digging coal for Scrooge, some would-be miner is now free to perform some other service for himself or someone else.”

Landsburg explains:

In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser — the man who could deplete the world’s resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide.

If you build a house and refuse to buy a house, the rest of the world is one house richer. If you earn a dollar and refuse to spend a dollar, the rest of the world is one dollar richer –because you produced a dollar’s worth of goods and didn’t consume them.

It continues in this vein for a bit. By buying goods or services or using your largess on charity, you are concentrating the benefits. [On people who need them!--ed. Since when did my editor get a social conscience?] But put your money in a bank, or bury it in the ground and you can help lower interest rates or limit the money supply, thus bidding up the value of dollars that people spend.

Landsburg decides that the “primary moral of A Christmas Carol is that there should be no limit on IRA contributions… It’s taxes, not misers, that need reforming.”

On a related note, the Ayn Rand Institute urges us to put capitalism back in Christmas.

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  • francis

    Landsburg is not only mistaken in general and confuses being miserly and being economical (which certainly is a virtue), but he’s also self-contradicting.

    “Put(ting) your money in a bank” will hardly “limit the money supply”, you will have to “bury it in the ground”. Less money around means the money around increases in value. But even then you are “concentrating the benefits”, as only those that have the money can profit from this increased value. Landsburg might like that, but it is certainly less than the universal benefit he’s advocating.


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