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Winter 1999
 
City Journal Winter 1999.
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In  P rospect

 

Every few years around this time, some misguided soul pens an op-ed saying that A Christmas Carol's Mr. Scrooge is a political economist of genius and that Dickens—like most left-wingers the op-ed writer assumes the novelist speaks for—is wrong to hold him up for execration. In fact, of course, Dickens was no lefty, as Stefan Kanfer shows on page 96. Quite the reverse: though he was a reformer, his reformism was rooted in a conservative worldview that cherished law and order, feared the mob, believed in private property, and supported capital punishment.

So what was Dickens trying to show when he criticized Scrooge for refusing to contribute to a Christmas fund for the poor, on the grounds that he had already paid his taxes and so had provided the poor amply with prisons and welfare? First, the poor whom Dickens has in mind are what the Victorians called the "deserving poor"—the poor who, Dickens says, "would rather die" than go on relief, who could use a temporary helping hand, not a permanent subsidy to idleness. Second, Dickens wants to show that government and the free market are necessary but not sufficient ingredients for a decent social order. Also required is the realm of "civil society." That realm includes private philanthropies like the Christmas fund in question; and in fact the philanthropy of Dickens and his contemporaries, taking a powerfully moral approach far beyond the capacity of government relief efforts, vastly improved the condition of Britain's poor during Victoria's long reign.

Civil society, to whose virtues A Christmas Carol is a kind of hymn, also embraces the institutions of the family and the business firm, within which individuals, through their mutual relations, endow their lives with meaning and humanity, making of themselves something more than animals with appetites or calculating machines with interests. How they do that is the lesson of the Cratchit family: Tiny Tim, a defective child who in Scrooge's worldview is part of the expendable "surplus population," is the focus of so much delicate concern as to make, as Dickens puts it, this poor family rich. And it is the lesson of Mr. Fezziwig, Scrooge's first employer: his kindness—having nothing to do with wages—can make his employees feel their jobs "a pleasure," while Scrooge's harshness toward his clerk makes that employee's job "a toil." This is a spiritual lesson, of a kind Roger Scruton explores further on page 82.

At the center of the book, and central to the point Dickens wants to make with Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two "wolfish" and "menacing" beggar children, who are, the Ghost explains, Want and Ignorance. Mankind, he says, must ease their plight or suffer grave consequences, and it can't be done without something of that spirit—call it the spirit of Christmas—that Dickens evokes. Our own society has focused on alleviating Want, with distinctly mixed, not to say bizarre, results, as Heather Mac Donald describes in "Foster Care's Underworld" on page 42. Merely providing the material means of ending Want turns out not to be enough.

But at least Want of the starveling Victorian variety is gone from America. Ignorance is another matter. Despite the billions spent on public education, our schools have produced mediocre results—and, in our inner cities, notoriously unacceptable results—as Diane Ravitch relates on page 33 in "Our School Problem and Its Solutions." What's more, the schools' progressive-ed ideology has greatly harmed boys, in particular, as Janet Daley argues on page 26. She focuses on Britain, but her analysis is equally applicable to U.S. education.

The hopeful news, though, is news that Sol Stern brings back from the voucher-supported schools of Cleveland and Milwaukee. As he recounts in "The Schools That Vouchers Built" (page 14), an array of new private schools, products of civil society not of government, are educating just those poor, inner-city kids whom the public schools have served so ill. These schools work because they are infused with that humane spirit Dickens celebrates so unforgettably in the Carol; they make to children that moral, human, loving appeal that calls forth a human response—of the kind Dickens movingly depicted 155 Christmases ago.

 

 


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