Fairy Tale Morals


When one evaluates today's society, there is a natural tendency to ask "What happened? How did we get this way?" Perhaps a small part of the answer may be hidden in the fairy tales we were once told, and that some of us may have unwittingly passed along to our children. One day, perhaps in fact this very day, the consequences of our philosophical imprecision will become self-evident. A nation that tolerates and rewards shoddy thinking and looks down on plumbers will have the worst of both worlds: neither our pipes nor our economic theories will hold water.

Take the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, for example. Down here on the ground we have poor underprivileged Jack, and his somewhat naïve Mom. We have no idea what it is that Jack's mom does with her days, but whether it is watching Oprah or Regis she is far too busy to take the family's only real personal property asset (the cow) to the market. No, she delegates the task of negotiating the sale of said cow to Jack. Now, one presumes that Jack has not recently attended any negotiating seminars, and is clearly unqualified for this job, but off he goes.

Jack, of course, meets the man with the magic beans, as well all do eventually, some more often than others. Although it is not $25 million in unclaimed Nigerian funds, nonetheless Jack trades the cow for the beans. Mom learns of this exchange, smacks Jack's hand, the beans fly out the window, and they go to bed hungry. Lo and behold, in the morning the beanstalk reaches beyond the clouds. Jack, of course, although he is too stupid to sell a cow, promptly climbs up the beanstalk. When he gets to the home of the Giant, Jack immediately trespasses, steals all the private property he can carry, causes the death of the property's prior owner, and they all live happily ever after. (Except, presumably, the Giant and his next of kin.)

Who is, or should we say "was," this Giant? Did he honestly earn his golden things and large house? We don't know. We do know that he is reputed to be violent, and we see that he is when he tries to defend his own private property. We are led to believe that Jack is actually the underdog and that the Giant is somehow evil (he probably eats Englishmen, you know?). Do we lament the Giant's untimely passing? Hardly. And who is the hero of this story? It is none other than the trespasser, thief and murderer known as Jack. That's what I like: stark reality in literature. (If you own gold things and live in a large house you might not enjoy this story that much.)

Lest you think this is an isolated example, consider the story of the Three Little Pigs. Each seems to have been given the same three gifts of liberty, reason and speech that we have also been blessed with. (The observant reader may note that some of us act as though we are trying to rid ourselves of the first two of these gifts, liberty and reason.) As we join our porcine friends they are each deciding to build a house. While it is clear that a bad decision here means an easy meal for the wolf, nonetheless two of the pigs seek the "lazy way out," and build inappropriate structures for the situation.

The rest of the story is indelibly embedded in our collective memories. The pigs who spent their days goofing off get bailed out by their brother. Their brother is actually a Giant of a different kind, the kind I call an "economic giant," one who produces assets from application of his abilities. Too bad their brother's weeks or months of focused ability, hard labor and discipline all get expropriated in the name of sharing, to satisfy the needs of his comrades … excuse me brothers.

Note carefully the insidious nature of this story. If the Three Little Pigs were not brothers, no kid in their right mind would think this story makes any sense. However, siblings in today's society share their parent's house and assets, so why not the pigs? Now, suppose for a moment that all men are brothers… if you own gold things and a large house you might not like this story all that much either.

Folks, I ask you, if you have any real-life brothers and sisters, to answer honestly this question: suppose they spent the last 15 years or so taking cruises, 3-month vacations, not building for the future, not saving any money, working only when they absolutely had to, while you slaved away at your job, denied yourself luxuries, and scraped together enough money to buy a house just big enough for your own needs. Your (hopefully imaginary) brother or sister is now 45, but still able-bodied. The wolf, figuratively, is now at their door, but rather than get a job they want to move in with you, and live happily ever after. Friend, do they get the keys or not? So why do we poison the minds of our children with this drivel?

Now, to be fair, there is ONE fairy tale that "tells it like it is." I mean by this the story of the Little Red Hen. You remember her? She invests her only assets (her time and her intellect) and thereby finds some (presumably wild) stalks of wheat. (By the way, if you doubt that acquiring food requires such an investment, I invite you to go outside and try it yourself; not by going to the market where someone else has done all the work, but really and truly by yourself.) Yes, that makes her, in my mind, another "economic giant"! When the Little Red Hen asks for help in planting, watering, harvesting, milling, and baking the wheat, nobody wants to help. When she finally has the edible end-product, however, "everyone wants to get in to the act." The story ends with the Little Red Hen saying, "I shall eat it myself." And so she did. Observe! This act of selfishness, done without a social conscience or an awareness of the brotherhood of humanity or any sense of charity … in THIS fairy tale there actually is justice.

But wait! Don't we feel sorry for the other animals? Hardly. Whenever anyone accuses some Little Red Hen of being "unfeeling," he inadvertently acknowledges that a Little Red Hen is just. He is saying that a Little Red Hen is not obligated to grant a feeling that is undeserved, that goes against reason, against moral values, against reality.

Observe further! One never hears the accusation that someone is "unfeeling" in defense of the innocent. You will hear it only in defense of those who are guilty but want the "feeling" whether or not they deserve it. You will not hear it said by a good person about those who fail to do her justice. You will hear it said by those who don't feel obligated to repair the consequences of their own mistakes. There is nothing wrong with feeling, and being, charitable towards those who suffer due to no error or fault of their own. But ask yourself if you are obligated to be charitable to those who have caused their own difficulties? And then you will see what motive is the opposite of "charity": it is "justice."

These three fairy tales, despite their different endings, have a common thread. Jack and his mom, two of the Three Little Pigs, the lazy barnyard animals … they all abdicated their own responsibility for their own actions, and stole or cajoled the property of others to satisfy their own wants. You might call them the original special interest groups.

There are other fairy tales in our land. An ever-increasing percentage of the earned wealth of the productive – yes, the small and large economic giants across our land – is funneled into the pockets of the non-productive. We call this process "taxes." (Anyone who wishes to even partially reverse this inexorable trend is accused of advocating "redistribution of wealth.") Our elected Federal representatives call it "deficit spending." Your local Mayor or Governor probably calls it "balancing the budget shortfall." Only the individual people who do it for their own living call it honestly what it really is: theft.

As we begin to appreciate the way we have been conditioned to look past the absurd conclusions buried in our children's fairy tales, so also let us recognize and acknowledge similar absurdities in the way our social affairs are managed. And let us resolve to teach our children about the principles that enable people to determine their own futures, and the responsibility that having that freedom brings. One day, when the list of Giants to be looted has been exhausted, those principles may be required for our survival.

June 27, 2007