This past week, we found ourselves transported to the era of Charles Dickens as we attending opening night of the Grand Theatre’s A Christmas Carol. The inspiration largely came from female lead Jan Alexandra Smith in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. In a Canadian first, Scrooge was portrayed by a woman, not in the role of a man, but of a seasoned woman fully capable of transformation. It was a revelation.
The Victorian era found Dickens interpreting a world of great wealth, great poverty and the struggle of these two realities in defining society. Capitalism was undergoing a rapid rise in production, but was plagued by a kind of emerging poverty Dickens wrote about in his Christmas classic.
In this past 50 years, much has been made of Adam Smith, the godfather of modern capitalism, who died shortly before Dickens arrived on the scene. Corporate interests talk a lot about Smith’s emphasis on the “Invisible Hand” from his book The Wealth of Nations,in which he described the unintended social benefits of an individual’s self-interested actions. A Christmas Carolonly makes sense in this light – wealthy individuals and families giving of their riches to those relegated to the poor house because of the disruption that emerged through early capitalism. Think Tiny Tim, his illness, and the inability to be healed until Ebenezer is transformed through revelations of his miserliness and you’ll get a picture of what was going on.
It is rarely mentioned that Smith wrote another bestseller years earlier called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In its pages, Smith attempts to address the ongoing friction between self-interest and sympathy for others, admitting that it wasn’t easy.
“However selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
In other words, the essential good in a man or woman can transcend self-interest and perhaps even greed, if permitted. There were likely many in those earlier days who would come to question that rationale. Indeed, Smith would go on to say that, because of human nature, we can’t live merely in a society that is altruistic alone. This only makes sense, since people are both “other” interested and “self” interested. It would be a remarkable thing to live in societies that willingly sacrificed for others before themselves, but that is not on the horizon anytime soon.
What we should expect, however, is a proper balance between moral conduct and an open economy. It is at this point where our modern world is failing. Yes, it is possible to be like the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge – making money and sharing it liberally, even transforming oneself in the process. But most people don’t function that way. Most are generous but are just as likely to be self-interested and occasionally selfish. Left to the “Invisible Hand,” there will inevitably be many more Tiny Tims than there will be Ebenezer Scrooges.
This has been the developing world’s experience since the emergence of both capitalism and democracy. Goods and services from the poorer regions of the world helped to empower the affluent nations. That was true in the time of Dickens as well. However, something is changing – and rapidly. For the first time in human history over half of the world is now categorized as “middle-class,” but that is because of the wealth generated in places like China, Brazil and India. But therein lies the rub – wealth has largely come about through the loss of resources in the more affluent world. Millions of jobs are being created in the southern and eastern parts of the globe, while they are disappearing in the West. Wealth is accumulating in the developing nations while draining from the West as investments move ever eastward.
It is no accident that capitalism flourished in step with democracy. Knowing that poverty would only grow in the emerging economic systems, it was inevitable that citizens looked to governments to be the arbitrators between wealth and poverty and between the ideal of equality and economic advantage of some over others. That arrangement is now suspect, and as western citizens increasingly see their interests decline in favour of corporate windfalls, their trust in government to strike the right balance is falling.
The real problem isn’t one of generosity – people and businesses show remarkable resolve to help the vulnerable, especially at Christmas – but one of collective capacity. Do people and organizations donate enough through private giving to properly care for people in poverty? The answer is in the negative; in fact, it isn’t even close. It is through the equitable distribution of wealth by responsible and balanced governments that humanity comes the closest to coupling social justice with economic prosperity. Modern societies today are now farther away from that reality than in recent memory.
The secret of Christmas is to turn Ebenezer’s Scrooge’s personal transformation into a collective one. There will always be room for private generosity, but until citizens collectively, acting through their governments, share the wealth equitably, personal generosity will never be enough to overcome collective poverty. Christmas, those on the margins, and a compassionate citizenry deserve better.