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Published: Dec 09, 2016 8 min read
Jan. 01, 1970 - Albert Finney, Aged 33 British Actor Plays Ebenezer Scrooge In Screen Musical ''Scrooge''.
Albert Finney as Ebenezer Scrooge in 1970.
Keystone Pictures USA—Alamy Stock Photo

The word Scrooge has become shorthand for a practitioner of cruel, greedy, miserly corporatism. But was Ebenezer really so bad?

Maybe not. Over the last few years, Charles Dickens's cold-hearted villain has been warmly embraced by some free-market purists, who hold up the old miser as an emblem of shrewd, clear-eyed business savvy. It's good timing, too: Scrooge looks downright honorable when compared to the disgraced corporate executives and politicians of 2016, the type engage in sketchy backroom deals and overcharging schemes.

At least Ebenezer is upfront about it, the argument goes.

As he appears in the original Dickens, Scrooge is a self-made small business owner. He is undeniably a buzzkill around the holidays. But he also comes across as an altogether good businessman—an honest, responsible moneylender, somebody who'd give you a fair deal on a mortgage. His sins essentially consist of lacking generosity. He may be a stingy, miserable old crank, but he's not a Christmas criminal in the league of the Grinch or the thieves in Home Alone. He doesn't engage in unethical business practices either, like the way Mr. Potter hides Bailey Building and Loan's lost money in It's a Wonderful Life. There's never a whiff in A Christmas Carol of Scrooge doing anything deceptive or dishonest.

In fact, you could see Scrooge as a pillar of the community, a man whose moneylending helped people bankroll homes and businesses. By extension, the argument goes, Scrooge and his ilk were partly responsible for the Industrial Revolution, which boosted local and global wealth.

Individuals like Scrooge were "critical to the creation of a wealthier England—and a wealthier, fairer world," Competitive Enterprise Institute founder Fred Smith wrote in a Forbes column referring to Scrooge as the "Ultimate Job Creator." (The Institute is dedicated to "advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty.")

"The biggest of the Big Lies about Scrooge is the pointlessness of his pursuit of money," Michael Levin, a philosophy professor at City University of New York, argued in an essay defending the character. "To discover the good he does one need only inquire of the borrowers. Here is a homeowner with a new roof, and there a merchant able to finance a shipment of tea, bringing profit to himself and happiness to tea drinkers, all thanks to Scrooge."

Maybe Scrooge has been getting a bad rap. He is considered cruel and selfish for chastising his employee, Bob Cratchit, for burning too much coal at work. But another way to categorize his behavior is that of old-fashioned thrift. It's not like Cratchit froze while Scrooge was sitting in his skivvies in the next room hoarding the heat. Scrooge subjected himself to the same conditions, conserving energy (and money) at home and the office alike. Barely a candle burned in his house, Dickens writes, because "darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it." The idea of enriching himself to enjoy the kind of lavish decadence portrayed in The Wolf of Wall Street would be unimaginable to Scrooge.

And if Bob Cratchit were better at his job, Levin argues, Scrooge would pay him more: "No doubt Cratchit needs—i.e., wants—more, to support his family and care for Tiny Tim. But Scrooge did not force Cratchit to father children he is having difficulty supporting," he writes.

Speaking of Cratchit, he's the only character in the book to voice genuine appreciation for Scrooge. Cratchit offers a toast over Christmas dinner to his boss, acknowledging that Scrooge is responsible for his livelihood and raising a glass to "the Founder of the Feast!"

The rest of the large Cratchit clan routinely refers to Scrooge as an "Ogre." Mrs. Cratchit even calls him "an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man." Yet Bob Cratchit is "a member of the British middle class," David John Marotta, of the Marotta Wealth Management firm, notes in one of his frequent ruminations on A Christmas Carol. "He lives a genteel life. He goes to work with a coat and tie on. His family lives in a four-room house and has a much easier working existence than most of Victorian England. Bob Cratchit earns more than an ample wage."

Then there's Tiny Tim, the Cratchit's crippled son. Presumably, Tim's health could have been improved if the Cratchits had more money, by way of a fat raise from Scrooge. But does this theory hold up given the reality at the time of the story? "The medicine available in the 1830s was generally useless or worse," the Chicago Tribune reported. "It is ludicrous to suggest that with money from Scrooge the Cratchits would have been able to buy Tim a cure for multiple sclerosis or whatever it was he suffered from." Today's insurers won't pay a dime for unproven medical care. Should we hold a small business owner in early 19th century England to a higher?

Marotta even blamed Bob Cratchit's spendthrift ways as a reason for his brood's suffering, noting that the money spent on their Christmas goose alone could have covered "a year's supply of medical attention for the entire family."

While Scrooge isn't a nice guy, he can't be accused of being a hypocrite or a thief. His supposedly benevolent nephew Fred, on the other hand, jokingly pities Scrooge because "he hasn't the satisfaction of thinking—ha, ha, ha!—that he is ever going to" turn over his wealth to Fred. So perhaps Fred is kind to his uncle partly because he hopes to benefit financially.

Meanwhile, in one possible vision of the future, Scrooge's business associates mock him just after he dies, with one saying he'll attend the funeral only "if lunch is provided." Servants rob the just-deceased moneylender's home of clothes, curtains, blankets, silverware, and more too.

Scrooge may be rightly criticized for his refusal to give during "the season of giving." But it should be noted that Scrooge also never asks for anything. This may be even more unusual than his absence of charity, because as yet another defense of Scrooge argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, "Whatever else Christmas is, it’s a lot about receiving."

At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge makes some arguably unwise business decisions. He impulsively gives Bob Cratchit a raise, goes on a Christmas Day spending spree, and even writes off clients' debts. Naturally, people liked him a lot more afterwards. "He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world," Dickens writes.

But let's not forget, even before his dramatic transformation, Scrooge was already quite a good and honorable businessman.