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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Private Property and the Christmas Spirit

Freedom to use private property enables people to give of what they own

This “Perspective” originally ran in the December 1986 issue of The Freeman.

We get much more out of life than we pay for, because many people give much more than the services for which they are paid. This is the essence of the Christmas spirit, as portrayed by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol.

The well-known French author Bertrand de Jouvenel noted that we enjoy “warm hospitality, leisured and far ranging conversation, friendly advice, voluntary and unrewarded services. Culture and civilization, indeed the very existence of society, depend upon such voluntary, unrewarded activities.” But such activities very often depend on having time, money, and property. It is the freedom to use private property that enables people to give of what they own.

Dickens contrasted the Christmas spirit of giving, generosity, sociability, and cheer with the stinginess of dour, greedy, grasping Ebenezer Scrooge. In Dickens’s mind, Scrooge was a typical capitalist. But Scrooge was no more a “typical” capitalist than Dickens was a “typical” writer. Moreover, once Scrooge was converted by the ghosts of Christmas, past, present, and future, it was his private property which enabled him to be generous.

It is ironic that the welfare state, intended to be a system where money doesn’t matter, has become a system where only money matters. Many services which used to be provided by family, friends, and volunteers, with no expectation of monetary reward, now depend on taxes and bureaucratic decisions. In a welfare state, the act of “giving” is reduced to a nine-to-five government job.

The Christmas spirit of giving and sharing persists today because capitalism and private property survive. What Dickens failed to realize is that it is having private property and the freedom to use it that permits Christmas giving.

  • Contributing editor Bettina Bien Greaves was a longtime FEE staff member, resident scholar, and trustee. She attended Ludwig von Mises’s New York University seminar for many years and is a translator, editor, and bibliographer of his works.