Celebrating Humbug: the ethics of misers and ritual gift-givers

Scrooge McDuck

It wouldn’t be particularly novel or interesting for me to assail the crass commercialism of the holiday season. Most of us do it this time each year.

And yet the pattern of insane consumption continues. Why? Because most folks who decry Christmas materialism nevertheless continue to feed the economic machine by participating in the purchase and exchange of generally useless gifts.

Yoo-Mi and I never exchange purchased ceremonial gifts — not at Christmas (we are not Christians and admit to more-than-a-little resentment of Christian cultural hegemony) and not on birthdays. We find the practice wasteful, and a bit unethical given the sad state of global ecology. Not that we disparage generosity. It’s just that we believe that the trained-seal munificence of ritual giving does not meaningfully teach or propagate the principle.

There is also value in having less stuff. I am hardly a poster-child for the voluntary simplicity movement, but those folks make a lot of sense.

At last there is a champion for Scrooge-like people like me. Economist Steven Landsburg has written a wonderful article celebrating the unassuming beneficence of the famous miser and his ilk. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens’s ghostly character, Jacob Marley, upbraids Scrooge for his socially disengaged life and offers himself as the John-Donne-esque (or perhaps, Bob-Marley-esque) counter-example:

Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!

We can all agree: Marley was a wonderful guy, if a bit self-righteous, and his point is spot-on. But did Ebenezer really deserve this Freddy-Kruger-like comeuppance? Not according to Professor Landsburg:

In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser — the man who could deplete the world’s resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide.

OK, Scrooge loses karmic bonus points for being a bit weak on intention. But let’s save a kind thought this season for the misers whose hearts really are in the right place.

Bah Humbug!

9 Responses to “Celebrating Humbug: the ethics of misers and ritual gift-givers”

  1. 1 millyonair 14 November 2007 at 1:47 pm

    Pooh. I tried to read the Steven Landsburg’s wonderful article and the link didn’t work. Since I couldn’t read it, I can’t really get on the Up-With-Miserliness bandwagon, although I do see the point you’re making, and I can kind-of support Scrooge’s reluctance to use a lot of nasty coal.

    But Scrooge, I would argue, wasn’t practicing conservation, he was being a greedy bastard. He didn’t call Christmas a “humbug” because consumerism revolted him- as a businessman, he would theoretically profit from holiday spending. Scrooge was a miser in spirit, unwilling to indulge in the enjoyment of life, unwilling to provide his dutiful employee with anything other than the barest of essentials. “Are there not prisons? Are there no workhouses?” he asks the men petitioning for charitable donations. Scrooge’s compassionless suggestion that the poor of the world should die and “decrease the surplus population” illustrates the heart of his miserliness, and hardly makes him worth emulating.

    I know, of course, that this was not the sort of attitude you were advocating in your post. Nonetheless, I disagree with Landsburg’s statement that “The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide.” Philanthropy is proactive. Miserliness, even Landsburg-style, is static. A charitable act is often like a pebble tossed into a pond- the ripples spread far beyond the point of impact.

  2. 2 mbjesq 14 November 2007 at 2:52 pm


    As I implied in my essay, you can’t take Scrooge too far as the model miser because he fails the test of moral intentionality. We don’t disagree on this.

    You are shifting the terms of engagement, however, when you contrast philanthropy with miserliness. That is a valid comparison, but it is not the one I’m making. I’m opposing miserliness in gift-giving with participation in the ritual commercialism of Christmas.

    One excellent illustration of the difference: I very much like celebrating birthdays-and-the-like with acts of service. (See here and here, and maybe someday I’ll tell you a fun story about a gift of service I once gave my friend Viral for his birthday.) Not everyone goes for this kind of thing. You should have heard the commotion when, more than 15 years ago I suggested at a management meeting of my then-law-firm (Sedgwick Detert Moran & Arnold, to name names) that we forego the annual Christmas bash and instead spend a Saturday picking up trash in the poorest neighborhoods of San Francisco. Let’s just say: the Christmas party was as well-attended as ever.

    Since you are, as I am, a believer in the ripple-effect of goodness, check out two things: CharityFocus, which is difficult to explain other than to say that it is more an attitude — found at the intersection of idealism and groundedness — than a nonprofit organization, and helpothers.org, which is a game of giving we devised more than four years ago to teach awareness and make small events within the infiniteness of the ripple visible to folks.

    This year: gifts of service in every stocking!



    p.s. I fixed the link to the Landsburg essay. Thanks for flagging it.

  3. 3 millyonair 14 November 2007 at 4:06 pm

    Thanks for fixing the link. So I read it, and it was all about tax reform, and I can pretty much agree with what Mr. Landsburg is saying. My complaint is a semantic one- that he doesn’t really mean “miser”, a word that implies hard-hearted greediness, but is instead promoting the idea of abstemious living, which is definitely something I support.

    Bravo to Scrooge for his abstemious living, but two thumbs down for his greed.

  4. 4 mbjesq 3 December 2009 at 2:07 pm

    This topic is evergreen. The latest comes from Wharton professor Joel Waldfogel, in his book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.

    Check out this short interview at the Wall Street Journal. http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2009/10/16/qa-scroogenomics-author-on-the-holidays-orgy-of-wealth-destruction/

    This discussion happens every year at this time. If only people took the ideas seriously.

  5. 7 mbjesq 11 December 2009 at 7:09 pm

    Waldfogel was on Q (CBC Radio One) yesterday. On this morning’s show, host Jian Ghomeshi read an abbreviated version of the following letter, which I shamelessly recycled from the essay above:

    Joel Waldfogel’s economic criticism of Christmas gift-giving is smart and true – but not very interesting. Is anyone surprised to learn that much of the money feeding the economic machine of Christmas results in generally valueless gifts?

    Likewise, it is not particularly novel or remarkable to assail the crass commercialism of the holiday season. It is only too obvious that practicing Christians should be appalled at the materialism of one of their significant religious celebrations and the rest of us should feel put-out by the cultural hegemony and mediocre aesthetic it has propagated.

    The more engaging question is moral. If so many decry the commercialism of Christmas and understand its economic wastefulness, why do they continue pattern of insane consumption? The facile answer, suggested by one line of Jian’s inquiry, is that gift-giving is satisfying. But isn’t this feel-good motivation largely delusional?

    I am a big fan of generosity, and encourage people to incorporate that notion into their daily lives as early and often as possible. But participation in traditional gift exchange should not be reflexively equated with generosity. The social pressures for conforming behavior are far more pervasive and influential than generosity.

    The trained-seal munificence of ritual giving does not meaningfully teach or propagate the principle of generosity.

    Okay, enough about Waldfogel.

  6. 8 Billa 13 January 2011 at 10:13 pm

    Sorry I must say that I disagree with statement that “The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide. A charitable act is often like a pebble tossed into a pond- the ripples spread far beyond the point of impact.

    • 9 mbjesq 14 January 2011 at 3:40 am


      No need to apologize for a point of view that is unarguably correct. Selflessness always radiates outward, farther and more subtlety from anyone’s ability to ever track or model. Of course, some of us believe that acts of service have greater resonance than gifts of money; but there is also no doubt that the latter often enables the former, with profound impact and the sort of broad follow-on consequences to which you refer.

      Landesman would probably say defend his statement by saying that he was commenting only on the visible or calculable beneficiaries, and that the same invisible knock-on effect happens in a virtuous-cycle of economic restraint as happens in philanthropy.



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