Disney's 'A Christmas Carol': Charity Vs. Big Government

Generally after a story has been told as a book, play, musical, numerous animated, live, made-for-TV films, and Muppets movie, its content is completely exhausted. But Disney’s latest, “A Christmas Carol,” by writer-director Robert Zemeckis of “Forrest Gump” and animated films “Beowulf” and “The Polar Express,” resurrects the classic tale through vibrant visuals while sticking to the classic story.

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Briefly, “A Christmas Carol” is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey), a miser who hoards his money and pays his single employee, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman), the bare minimum. Scrooge lives alone in a huge, dark mansion, leading a lonely life. When his nephew Fred (Colin Firth) invites him to Christmas dinner, Scrooge berates him for being happy when he has so little money. When local charity representatives ask for support, Scrooge tells them that he supports the poor through paying taxes. “Are there no work houses? Are there no prisons?” Scrooge asks. To him, taxes are all the dues he owes to society.

Seven years after his business partner Jacob Marley (also Oldman) died, on Christmas Eve, Marley’s ghost returns to visit Scrooge and warn him about the consequences of a life selfishly lived. The money Marley hoarded in life is now chained to him in death, weighing upon him as he wanders the world without rest. Marley foretells the coming of three ghosts to show Scrooge the error of his ways. The rest of the film chronicles the visit of those ghosts and their lasting impression on Scrooge’s life.

Visually the film stuns as it takes 3D flight through London streets. It captures Christmas in all its fun, beauteous glory, but also Hell on earth in its haunting future. From the end of the Ghost of Christmas Present through the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the film’s darkness make the early November, post-Halloween release more fitting than an early December, pre-Christmas one would be. The story occasionally lags as Zemeckis shows off what he can do with animation and 3D. While the vocal acting is good, the animation can’t quite portray the more emotional moments.

But the main message—keeping the Christmas spirit alive through joyful, selfless giving—rings true. And in today’s culture of big government takeover, it is a lesson that grows increasingly important daily.

Toward the end of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s visit, he shows Scrooge two scrawny children hidden beneath his cloak. They are Ignorance and Want. “They are man’s,” the ghost tells Scrooge. The ghost attacks Scrooge’s philosophy that it is the responsibility of government-run work houses and prisons to care for the disadvantaged in society.

It is important to note that Scrooge, though he does not care at all about the fate of the poor, notes that it is indeed someone’s responsibility to do something. It just isn’t his beyond what he gives in taxes. It is the government’s role. This ideology separates conservatives and liberals, and is important to note as Congress considers health care and unemployment benefits legislation.

In Dickens’ time, prisons and work houses were dismal government-run institutions programmed to discourage the poor from remaining so. Prisons were terrible in those days—see other Dickens works for evidence of that—and work houses, as City University of New York professor Gertrude Himmelfarb notes in her article, “Welfare and Charity: Lessons from Victorian England,” were meant to be demeaning and degrading to encourage the poor to look for dignified work.

This harsh government action seems uncivilized today, but it was really a correction to the original Poor Law system, which had made relief too easily available, encouraging laziness and increasing the number of poor in England. As Himmelfarb notes, “public authorities cannot really judge the merit of individual claimants for relief.” This deceives recipients into believing that they have a right to relief, removing the incentive to work. It also creates animosity between the poor recipient and the taxed donor.

But charity is different, and it is charity, not government welfare, that Dickens supports. As editor Jonah Goldberg notes in a brief article on National Review Online, often those who oppose government welfare are more charitable than those who support it. While welfare and charity attempt to accomplish similar goals, they have one striking, fundamental difference: freedom. Welfare from a government entity draws funding from involuntary taxation. This guaranteed income leads to greater administrative cost, less effectiveness, and low selectivity. Charity relies on free will, and is generally more effective because funds are given willingly to causes that donors care about. Charities can specify to whom funds are given, and also what the recipient must do to receive funds, eliminating the entitlement philosophy.

It’s interesting to note that liberals, who often accuse conservatives of supporting the wealthy, do less on their own to support the poor. Arthur C. Brooks, of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, writes in his study on religious faith and charitable giving, that conservatives, especially Christian conservatives—who tend to oppose big government and support the Republican Party—charitably contribute much more time and money than secular liberals, even when giving to non-religious, secular social interests. By looking at European countries as models, Brooks finds “a link between secular views and strikingly low levels of charitable giving and volunteering.” His findings suggest that the further the Democratic Party tends down the secular, liberal, big government path, the greater this disparity will become.

Helping the poor is a worthy goal. But our Founding Fathers did not intend the government to fund it. Nor is it healthy for the government to try. Dickens knew that, as did a great Tennessee representative from the 1800s. For a brilliant reason why governments should stay out of welfare issues, see Edward S. Ellis’ writings on Colonel David Crockett. It’s a worthy read, and though it’s a little long, at least it isn’t H.R. 3962.

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