Charles Dickens’ tale ‘Christmas Carol’ is rightly popular this time each year, but widely misunderstood. Almost everyone misconstrues what his nightmare visits by the three ghosts actually teach him.
Children at Christmas frankly express joy at getting things they desire. We grown-ups laugh indulgently, yet dimly know acquisitive materialism is one of the major causes of human unhappiness.
Although we learn to hide it, many adults get agitated about free stuff too. Apart from the unpriced NHS, perhaps the most fiercely defended freebie of our time is the internet, “freebie” meaning payment not matching use. A huge debate now grips the US: “net neutrality”. This is the passionate desire that the internet should remain a neutral medium uncontrolled by telecoms. Saying it would be shielded from phone companies’ influence if we directly paid for content is about as unpopular as an idea could be. That’s even if you point out that we’d be paying websites tiny prices, like 1/10th of a penny per megabyte, for downloading, uploading, e-mailing.
In our secular materialistic times, nothing is more sacred & beautiful than the prospect of receiving something seemingly free of charge, or keeping it that way if we think it’s free already. Very very cheap just isn’t good enough – wholly unmetered is what gets the juices flowing.
That’s when compassion for others suddenly comes up – the poor, the “vulnerable”, whatever it takes to keep some commodity unpriced which we ourselves rather enjoy having cost-free access to as well. Look how the prospect of better robots makes otherwise intelligent people start babbling about the dream of universal basic income – saving on benefits testing by simply giving money to everyone. Suggesting people pay libraries a few shillings a month to borrow books – as they willingly did in the 1930s, or as they willingly do now to borrow movies – arouses horror. This is always framed as concern for poor people thirsting for knowledge. I heavily used free public libraries for a couple of years as a child, in there every night most weeks, and one thing I recall was how often I had the whole place to myself for an hour, sometimes all evening. Nothing to do with “Tory cuts” of course – this was decades ago under Labour governments when libraries were generously staffed and open late. The reality behind angry defence of state libraries is middle-class people enjoy the idea of borrowing free even when they could afford a modest fee. In truth they don’t care that much whether less-bookish people ever go in.
The internet is similar. Economically innumerate voters have no clue what not paying websites costs us. They fail to grasp that paying websites tiny amounts less than a penny would slash copyright theft, spam mail, the still strangely high price of phone calls. They don’t understand the totally unpriced internet created arrogant near-monopolies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, companies once ominously labelled “category killers”. In any other industry, firms like Facebook or Google with over 1,000,000,000 clients each, many times their next competitor, would cause an outcry. However, intense love of free stuff, hatred of more bills (even if it’s only 50 pence a month), flares up if anyone mentions the telecoms who fund the hardware wouldn’t need to throttle high-traffic users like Netflix if we paid websites in line with use.
Those are the moments when the name ‘Scrooge’ suddenly comes up, whenever someone suggests putting a price on something that was previously “free”.
So what did Scrooge learn in the Dickens tale of snowy London, chimney sweeps, and cooked geese? When he denounces Christmas as hypocrisy (“humbug”), is he a materialist who puts a price on everything? Yes, but the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future don’t show Scrooge that prices are evil and stuff should be free.
They show him that in the act of giving we spiritually awaken, something very different.
In the 1970s, an academic at the LSE wrote a sociology book called ‘The Gift Relationship’. Richard Titmuss looked explicitly for a commodity that doesn’t improve the more you pay for it, and his study of blood donation is deservedly famous.
He found that freely given blood in Britain (where donating blood is a high-status activity done by healthy affluent people) is higher quality than blood in the US (where selling blood is a low-status activity done by desperate addicts or homeless people). Titmuss deduced everyone reveres acts of giving to the community, a relationship he called the gift relationship. Even Titmuss, however, understood the main point: precisely that giving is a special act with heightened meaning. It’s not the blood costing nothing that makes it better quality, but the free giving of it.
Leftists who support state funding of all healthcare often praise Titmuss without grasping that what he really shows is healthcare would improve objectively up to some point (5%? 20%?… we don’t know where) if more of it was voluntary and done consciously out of charity. What we choose to freely donate carries our care and concern. What we choose to exchange in priced trade gets measured. Both of these bring better outcomes than indirect funding.
When the internet gets constructed on top of state-designed software without any pricing (because the programmers who built it didn’t understand economics) no-one is being spiritually transformed the way Scrooge is when he learns the spirit of Christmas. That other celebrated Victorian, Marx, proclaimed his insect-colony future of “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities” but hated humanity as it really is. Marx was simply a manic version of the cynical pre-change-of-heart Scrooge – except worse at arithmetic. He showed no grasp of the never-ending dance between givers and takers, perhaps because he himself was an unembarrassed taker all his life. He completely misunderstood giving or exchanging, what it is to help someone else, or what it is to support yourself materially so others needn’t support you. Marx’s personal life and his crank theories both reflected that incomprehension of the world.
The state-planned internet doesn’t enrich anyone’s soul by charging zero fees for moving data – it enables gluttonous megabrands to gobble up whole slices of the world, destroying smaller businesses. Our unpriced internet clogs up with spam, enables massive fraud, concentrates power in even fewer hands than before. The Bevan-sabotaged NHS isn’t a person who acquires loving wisdom by giving scarce resources unpriced to unlimited demanders, deserving and undeserving alike. Libraries funded by taxes aren’t morally elevated by lending books free to people who don’t want to borrow them. They aren’t spreading the printed word by reducing publishers’ profits. Even television, where the main revenue model was once carrying ads, shows how either open pricing or open giving improve hugely on indirect funding. Once cable arrived in the 1980s, and US audiences could directly reward firms who made shows they liked, the previously dire standard of American television improved. People sometimes talk as if the BBC is a person, but even slow-witted observers should see by now that turning a special tax into free-to-watch programming hasn’t morally nourished a BBC “heart”.
Economics, called the “dismal science” for good reason, has a sad old saying: if something scarce is free, then you are the commodity being bought and sold. Ad-funded television and internet sites like Facebook are in the business of selling you to advertisers. Likewise, tax-funded TV sells your loyalty to pro-state-spending political parties.
Scrooge doesn’t learn things should be free or subsidised. He knows, and continues to know after he embraces Christmas, that the world cannot distribute all we need without prices. Thinking it could is the materialistic fantasy of socialism. For example, Venezuela’s socialist government who just recently confiscated four million toys off several firms (now bankrupt) to give to poor infants this holiday, created that poverty with their policies. Yet they completely fail to grasp that it’s their attacks on priced trade that plunged Venezuela into near-starvation in the first place. Like greedy children on December 24th, socialists only understand generosity as someone receiving free stuff, even if they redirect their immature fantasies onto people they claim to want to help. They fetishise material redistribution, dehumanising both those giving and those being given to.
In his bitter, habit-hardened days Scrooge is self-sustaining, but that’s only the first spiritual step. He is lonely, angry. His material security is an empty shell, just like government funding or unpriced free stuff. What the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future teach Scrooge is that the spirit grows when we voluntarily give, when we consciously share good fortune with others.
Mark Griffith is a financial trader who keeps a weblog at http://www.otherlanguages.org