In a 2013 essay for Forbes that is quickly becoming a Christmas classic, my colleague Fred Smith took a fresh look at the character of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Scrooge’s name has long been synonymous with joyless greed, but this piece takes a different view of old Ebenezer’s refusal to donate to the poor or pay an employee for hours he didn’t work.
Looking back to his childhood in the Sixth Ward of Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish, Fred recounts how locals who had started a small business would quickly be pressured into hiring unemployed family members and friends who, more often than not, contributed little to the profitability of the enterprise. In the end, most of these businesses doubling as community welfare schemes went under.
But there was one entrepreneur in Sixth Ward, “Old” Mr. Singletary, who resisted these cultural norms. He ran the local store and hired only those who worked hard and would accept the wages he offered. His store rarely offered credit and his prices were higher than those in the more remote city. Still, his store was one of the very few for miles, and thus essential to our community.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Singletary was not admired, but widely regarded as selfish, as tight, a “mean” man. He was our local Scrooge, an individual who believed in the value of what he was doing and was willing to accept the social stigma of ignoring the cultural demands of others. He wasn’t admired but his enterprise survived when many of others who gained greater cultural approval failed.
As Fred details, the “tribal” response of having a little extra cash—to immediately make it available to the nearest outstretched hands—is not how a prosperous society is built. Long-term economic growth often requires discipline in savings and investment that can seem heartless. Putting money aside for a college fund rather than Christmas presents, for example, will no doubt be vocally opposed by a majority of a household’s juvenile members, but will ultimately yield far more valuable results.
Read the rest of Fred’s column here.