Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Dickensian Aspect

I've held off posting on this for a couple of day because I assumed it had to be a hoax, a Supply Side Jesus equivalent for Victorian literature. There's only so much craziness one can buy anybody actually believing, after all.

People smarter than me, though, tell me it's on the level (though a few years old), so witness: why A Christmas Carol is deeply unfair to Scrooge.

There are three parts to this that particularly bugged me, and all of them appear (in one form or another) so frequently in libertarian arguments that I thought they were worth considering even if the article itself is now a little long in the tooth:
So let's look without preconceptions at Scrooge's allegedly underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit. The fact is, if Cratchit's skills were worth more to anyone than the fifteen shillings Scrooge pays him weekly, there would be someone glad to offer it to him. Since no one has, and since Cratchit's profit-maximizing boss is hardly a man to pay for nothing, Cratchit must be worth exactly his present wages.
It takes all of few seconds to recognise the obvious flaw in this argument; it only works if the cost to Cratchit to seeking alternative employment is exactly zero. Cratchit is worked horrendously hard by his boss, and whilst Levin is correct that Cratchit chose to have a family, the fact that what little free time he has is spent looking after same is something one would assume few people would criticise. Trying to find alternative job can be difficult and time-consuming even under the best of conditions, and whilst I can't claim to be an expert on the subject I would think Dickensian London is quite some way from being the best of conditions. Can Cratchit count on a good reference from Scrooge? What explanation could he give potential employers for his wish to leave his current job without risking Scrooge's wrath? Levin might not like that Cratchit is playing it safe, but that is most certainly what he is doing, and for good reason.

It should also be fairly obvious that Dickens is attempting to decry a wider trend in what for him was contemporary society by condensing it into the actions of a single character, and so assuming the rest of Victorian London is a worker's paradise that Cratchit is only excluded from on the grounds of his own lack of ability demonstrates wilful blindness.

Next up:
More notorious even than his miserly ways are Scrooge’s cynical words. “Are there no prisons,” he jibes when solicited for charity, “and the Union workhouses?”

Terrible, right? Lacking in compassion?

Not necessarily. As Scrooge observes, he supports those institutions with his taxes. Already forced to help those who can’t or won’t help themselves, it is not unreasonable for him to balk at volunteering additional funds for their extra comfort.

This is a classic example of a popularly held and entirely ridiculous belief that goes as follows: once I am mandated to help people to a certain degree, it is unreasonable to expect me to help people any further. [1]

Like the argument above, it collapses upon even the most cursory examination. For the sake of argument, let us say we require X million pounds per year to ensure nobody starves to death or has to sleep in the gutter. Now say we divert Y million pounds of taxpayer money to the issue each year, and hope the remaining Z=X-Y million pounds are donated to the relevant charities. Levin's argument is that because Scrooge pays into Y, then it betrays no lack of compassion to refuse to pay into Z as well. It doesn't matter if his contribution to Y is ten pounds a year, or ten pennies. It doesn't matter that the reason Y has been set as a value strictly less than X is precisely so that Scrooge can have more money. As far as Levin is concerned, until Y is set to precisely zero, there is no lack of compassion in refusing to help make up the shortfall, regardless of the consequences to anyone else. In other words, Levin seems to believe that the businessmen of the world would all be glad to pay the entirety of X voluntarily, if only we wouldn't insist on some sort of mandatory baseline. [2]

Of course, the above is nothing more than the tired old mantra that if someone is not under obligation to do something (in this case prevent people from dying of hunger or exposure), the decision to not do it voluntarily cannot be criticised.

Not that this particularly matters, of course, because Levin's next point is so shoot-the-moon crazy that his last one fades into insignificance. To continue with the basic algebra, not only is it unreasonable to ask for Z, but X is just too damn high in any case:
He is right to be unmoved, for society's provisions for the poor must be, well, Dickensian. The more pleasant the alternatives to gainful employment, the greater will be the number of people who seek these alternatives, and the fewer there will be who engage in productive labor. If society expects anyone to work, work had better be a lot more attractive than idleness.
There is a interesting little trick being utilised here that's worth unravelling. First, let's consider the one thing that is true in Levin's argument: society will pay a price for offering alternatives to employment that are no less pleasant than employment itself. To this day Slovenian friend blames the fall of Communism on its inability to recognise this fact, and whilst I think he overstates his case, he has a point.

Notice how the pieces are arranged, though. Cratchit deserves to work in appalling conditions for little pay, because people can always find a job that pays exactly what they are worth. But the only way to ensure Scrooge benefits from Cratchit's hellish existence is to ensure that the alternative is much much worse. Rather than establish the bare minimum of respect with which to hold a human life in and work upwards, Levin is convinced we must start with deciding the minimum each worker can feasibly be paid and work down. Then, having come to that conclusion, he attempts to argue that charity for the destitute is a bad idea, because it might raise their miserable lives up to a level where Cratchit no longer sees any sense in working his life away for the scraps from his master's table.

In short, the vicious degradations of the Dickensian workhouse are the inevitable consequence of consciously attempting to minimise the amount employers are required to do. Levin, to his credit, has at least realised this. It simply beggars belief however that he doesn't see this as a problem.

[1] This is not to say that it is impossible to ever do enough, or that it couldn't happen that taxpayers money could deal with a sufficient problem well enough that associated charities can be seen as a bonus rather than a necessity. Scrooge offers no such qualification, however, and neither does Levin, or at least not a sensible one.

[2] The other thing to note here is that if Levin had any sense or internal consistency at all, he would be condemning Scrooge's refusal to cough up. One of the central tenants of the argument that taxes should always be lowered is that once people are affluent enough they will choose to be altruistic because it is in everyone's interest to not have people starving to death. As MGK notes, however, Scrooge is absolutely loaded, and he still tells charity that it can go fuck itself. Thus, Ebeneezer amply demonstrates that there are some people who will never reach into their pockets, however much gold might be kept there.

1 comment:

Tomsk said...

This is what I've never understood about libertarian ideology- by maximising Scrooge's liberty to leverage his capital to exploit his fellow man, society inevitably reduces the liberty of everyone at the bottom of the pile. Minimising regulation therefore doesn't maximise total liberty.

The only way to square this circle is to understand what Levin really wants: total liberty for the rich and damn everyone else.