12/27/2005

How The Libertarians Stole Christmas, Part I: Butler Shaffer Defends Scrooge

(As I alluded to on Christmas Eve, that day the otherwise relatively sane Lew Rockwell. com published three articles relating to Christmas, and all begging to be fisked for the rigid impropriety of their anarcho-capitalist ideology. The other two were done yesterday - this one's the worst).
Butler Shaffer, a Lew Rockwell columnist and law professor with whom I had a small and very civil correspondence less than two weeks ago, published a piece entitled 'The Case for Ebenezer'.
Written in the style of an attorney's peroration to a jury, Shaffer notes,
"What is the bill of particulars with which my client is charged? Pay close attention to Mr. Dickens’ allegations. His case comes down to just two points: [1] my client has managed to become very rich, and, [2] he insists on keeping his money for himself. That’s it! That is the essence of his alleged wrongdoing".
He continues,
"The case against Ebeneezer Scrooge is nothing more than a well-orchestrated, vicious conspiracy to extort from my client as much of his money as can be acquired through terror, threats of his death, and other appeals to fear. The only happiness that ensued to my client from this campaign arose from the ultimate cessation of terror inflicted upon him. Like the victim of any crime, the termination of wrongdoing offers a momentary relief that can be mistaken for pleasure, but it is an illusion"; and,
"As we do so, pay particular attention to the utter contradiction underlying Dickens’ case: my client is charged with being a greedy, money-hungry scoundrel, and yet it is the conspirators against him who want nothing more than his money! Scrooge – unlike his antagonists – earned his money in the marketplace by satisfying the demands of customers and clients who continue to do business with him, and did not, as far as we are told, resort to terror or threats of death to get it".
However, we know he was a miser, so Shaffer's moral defence of Scrooge would either stand or fall on whether he charged extortionate interest terms. He says,
"We know that, at the very least, by managing to stay in the lending business these many years, and accumulating handsome earnings in the process, Scrooge’s decision-making has been beneficial to others"; a sweeping statement unsupported by anything other than Shaffer's own ideology. He sticks the boot into Bob Cratchett:
"The central character in this campaign of terror and extortion against my client is one Bob Cratchett, the 19th century’s version of Forrest Gump, a witless and chronic loser with no apparent control over any significant aspects of his life save, perhaps, for his body’s biological functions. He is an inflatable "Bozo" clown, whose only purpose in life is to absorb the blows visited upon him by others. He is the poster boy for "victimhood," a flatliner devoid of any dynamic sense of life".
Shaffer asks,
"One of the offenses with which my client has been charged was that he had not paid Bob Cratchett a large enough salary. Cratchett has worked for an allegedly substandard level of pay – whatever that may mean – for my client for many years. Why? Why did he not quit? Why didn’t he go to work for some other employer – perhaps one of the politically-correct businessmen who periodically show up at Scrooge’s office to solicit and browbeat charitable contributions from my client?"
Reality must intrude here. Shaffer assumes that the labour market in mid 19th Century England was as fluid as it is in early 21st Century America. If Bob had quit, the likelihood was that he wouldn't get another job - ever. Shaffer continues,
"Put yourself in Cratchett’s position: imagine yourself to have been the "victim" of years of under-appreciated and underpaid work, head of a large family – one of whose members suffered from a life-threatening ailment – what would you have done? Would you have simply sat around in a kind of "Super Lotto" stupor, hoping that great fortune would befall you through some act of dumb luck? Certainly, in the early days of the industrial revolution wherein Dickens wrote, when new businesses were starting up all over the place in a great burst of economic creativity, there must have been all sorts of opportunities available for a competent bookkeeper".
If he had been a less than competent book-keeper it is unlikely that Scrooge would have retained him, so Cratchett's professional competence must be assumed - and yet, Shaffer omits the critical scene where The Ghost of Christmas Present brings Scrooge to Cratchett's home, and Scrooge sees Cratchett sincerely toast him as the 'father of the feast', insisting that his wife and family join him. Cratchett's concerns are non-material - his primary interest is the physical well-being of his sick son, and thus requires a steady income which it would not be in his best interests to imperil by touting himself in a marketplace without employment rights.
Cratchett has no beef with Scrooge - he couldn't care less what the old fart was up to.
Cratchett is grateful to Scrooge for his employment - and it is the existence of that gratitude which the Ghost is seeking to shove into Scrooge's face. Shaffer goes on,
"Great fortunes were made by those who rose up out of abject poverty – such men as Andrew Carnegie come to mind, a young boy who went from seeing his father begging in the streets for work, to become the richest man of his era".
Such eulogies to Andrew Carnegie must be tinged with a reflection on what his precise role was in the quelling of the riots at the Braddock Mills, when Carnegie's Pinkertons fired on the strikers. Sometimes, you have to be careful in your choice of exemplars.
Shaffer goes on,
"Economic values are subjective, with prices for goods or services rising or falling on the basis of the combined preferences of market participants."
That's wrong, and the abuse of the H-1B visa system and the practice of 'onshore offshoring' both show it's wrong because the American and British participants in those labour markets are participating in markets deliberately rigged against them by the 'states' which all libertarians never cease to condemn.
Shaffer thus posits the unworkable dilemma of libertarianism. If the state takes your own money, then that's bad - but if the state abets you take someone else's money, through passing employment laws that work to your advantage, is that not also bad?
Having stuck the left boot into Bob Cratchett, the right one goes into Scrooge's nephew. Shaffer writes,
"Neither, in this connection, can we ignore the behavior of Scrooge’s nephew, who pops into the story early enough to chide his uncle for his miserly attitudes, and appears later, at a lavish Christmas party feted for his "yuppie" friends. For all his sanctimonious rhetoric about caring for others, why were no gold coins forthcoming from the nephew’s pockets on behalf of Tiny Tim? We see in this nephew the forerunner of the modern "politically correct" limousine liberal, who has all kinds of plans for disposing of other people’s money, while carefully shepherding his own, a man Mark Twain might have had in mind when he wrote of those who believe that "nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits".
The story gives no indication whether the nephew knew any more of Bob Cratchett other than that he worked for his uncle. If the uncle knew nothing of Tiny Tim, and the uncle worked at close quarters with the child's father, why should it be assumed that the nephew know any more?
Indeed, what indication is there in the book that the nephew was a regular habitue of his uncle's place of business? None. The only level regular of contact between them reported by Dickens is that the nephew invites the uncle for Christmas - and he refuses. Shaffer goes on,
"It might be argued that Dickens’ spirits were simply interested in the reclamation and rehabilitation of my client’s soul, and that such acts of terror had the well-being of Scrooge at heart. Such were the arguments used, during the medieval Inquisition, to justify the torture and burning-at-the-stake of heretics or, in later generations, to the persecution and hanging of witches. Lest you accept this shabby explanation for their behavior, ask yourself this question: would these spirits have deigned to visit Ebeneezer if he had been a penniless beggar? Would they have bothered this man for a single moment had there been no money to squeeze from him? The spirits informed Scrooge that he needed to think of more than just himself, and to consider the interests of posterity. But what had posterity ever done for him?"
Dude, it remembers that he reformed. But Shaffer isn't done - he's lining up to fire at the spirits.
He notes,
"Any decent person in whose veins course even a minimal level of humanitarian sentiment must look upon the spirits with utter contempt and moral revulsion. Keep in mind, these specters are possessed with the powers to suspend ordinary rules that operate throughout the rest of nature. They can successfully defy gravity, move backwards and forwards in time, cause matter to become invisible, raise the dead, and foresee the future. Having all of these amazing powers, why did these spirits not intervene to cure Tiny Tim of his ailment? The answer is quite clear: like socialists and welfare-staters generally, they didn’t give a damn about Tiny Tim’s plight!"
But sticking the boot into a crippled child is kind of beyond the pale:
"Tiny Tim continually reminds them "God bless us, every one." But let us not forget that other admonition long since lost on the Cratchetts: "the Lord helps those who help themselves"
He then suggests that Scrooge should cop a psycho plea -
"The fears generated by the aforementioned spirits have probably risen to such a level of influence upon my client’s mind that, in addition to his claims of duress, he could be said to have lacked legal capacity to exercise rational decision-making over his property. What sight could be more demonstrative of this incapacity than the spectacles of Scrooge throwing money out into the street to a stranger; bestowing gifts upon a thoroughly incompetent and ungrateful employee and his family; and giving this sluggard an unearned pay raise?"
Shaffer notes,
"With such beliefs do the unmotivated or the unsuccessful soothe their shabby egos. "I may be poor, but at least I didn’t sacrifice my principles" is the common defense of those whose accomplishments come up short in comparison with their more prosperous neighbors".
The whole thing is a libertarian market fantasy. Shaffer seems to forget that the story of Scrooge was an entirely subjective reflection on the nature of goodness, not economics; and he had better be careful, because people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
On Boxing Day, Burt Blumert, LRC's publisher, wrote this appeal:
"I am reminded time and time again by salesmen that LRC could be getting big bucks if we were to emulate the ad strategy of WorldNetDaily, FrontPagMag, and NewsMax.

Take, in effect, neocon money? Be subject to their string pulling? Hah! We will never sell out.

But that also means we cannot survive without you."
Ah yes, WorldNetDaily, FrontPageMag and NewsMax; Lew Rockwell's more prosperous neighbours...

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