Music

We Are All Canny Hens Now

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Don't take my eggs, taxman!

A footnote to my post yesterday about the ideological overtones of children's books: Is there any tale as ambidextrous as "The Little Red Hen"?

Conservatives love the story. Ronald Reagan read a radio broadcast based on it in 1976, easily transforming the fairy tale into an economic fable. This excerpt should give you the flavor:

At last the time came to bake the bread. "Who will help me bake bread?" asked the little red hen.

"That would be overtime for me," said the cow.

"I'd lose my welfare benefits," said the duck.

"I'm a dropout and never learned how," said the pig.

"If I'm to be the only helper, that's discrimination," said the goose.

"Then I will," said the little red hen.

Reagan's version of the story ends with the government redistributing the food. "And they lived happily ever after," he finished, "including the little red hen, who smiled and clucked, 'I am grateful, I am grateful.' But her neighbors wondered why she never again baked any more bread."

So the chicken is a Reaganite, right? Not always. There's a union song based on the tale, too, one I first heard on an album of music from the Industrial Workers of the World. Malvina "Little Boxes" Reynolds sings it here:

Her version ends on a rather different note than Reagan's fireside chat:

"I planted and hoed this grain of wheat,
Them that works not, shall not eat,
That's my credo," the little bird said,
And that's why they called her Red.

Here we have a story with a simple, straightforward moral: Wealth belongs to those who create it. It's an idea near the core of the classical liberal tradition. But that tradition's branches appear in all the major American ideologies, liberal and conservative, socialist and libertarian.

Just as small tweaks to that original philosophy can produce very different political views, it doesn't take much work to fit the red hen's message to different political ends. If you buy the labor theory of value, the freeloaders are bosses; if you believe big business is America's most persecuted minority, the freeloaders are dropouts, featherbedders, and welfare bums. And if you ever find yourself wondering why libertarians have found it easy both to turn Reaganite and to go Wobbly—or, if you change "Reaganite" to "Goldwaterite," to do both—just remember we're all children of the hen.

NEXT: Race and the Gates of Harvard

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  1. The Reagan version holds a little more water.

    Which reminds me, I haven’t had boiled chicken in a while.

  2. The key question is, “Who built the oven?” If the red hen built the oven or bought it, the bread belongs entirely to her. If the cow bought the oven and let the hen bake bread in it, then the cow has some claim to the bread. This second example matches a boss and a worker. Socialists get it wrong, because they think ovens just drop from the sky.

  3. Most people who say they hold the labor theory of value do not understand what labor is. “Boss-man” does a different sort of labor but it is labor non-the-less.

  4. Why not this:

    If you buy the labor theory of value, the freeloaders are bosses,; if you believe big business is America’s most persecuted minority, the freeloaders are dropouts, featherbedders, and welfare bums.

  5. But Yahoo dude, the labor theory of value folks are mostly opposed to any return on capital.

    What they don’t understand is that capital merely represents the accumulated labor of the past.

  6. WHO IS HOARDING LABOR???

  7. Are you trying to egg us on, Jesse? 😉

  8. Goddamn “Little Boxes.” There are dozens of different versions of that song featured on Weeds, and so far they all suck. ZOMG teh suburbanites oh noes.

    Also, “canny hens” is a bit of a stretch to Keynesians, but I’ll allow it.

  9. The labor theory of capital is just a po-faced justification of slavery and theft.

  10. I like the death metal version, where the hen rolls in the extruded entrails of the cow, pig, and duck, declares himself absolved of his most unholy sins, and makes his bread with the harvested souls of unborn children.

  11. I like the death metal version, where the hen rolls in the extruded entrails of the cow, pig, and duck, declares himself absolved of his most unholy sins, and makes his bread with the harvested souls of unborn children.

    They totally ripped that off from the Weavers.

  12. That’s silly; hens don’t go into labor, they just lay eggs. Possibly golden eggs. Who’s the freeloader now, bitches?

  13. I see that capitalism’s chickens have come home to roost.

    But you can’t make an omelette without making eggs.

    Who has egg on his face now?

    Unlike certain H&R posters, eggs get laid.

    Egg-cellent . . .

    [Voice in background] Pun police, sir. We’ve been receiving reports of bad puns in the area.

    Just a few more, I . . . hey, lay off me, coppers!

  14. Well, he won’t be punning again for some time. That just goes to show that the best-laid plans of mice and men . . .

    [Voice]: Internal Affairs. A little bird tole me that officers have been selling confiscated puns on the black market.

    Get off me, pig, oof!

  15. We *shell* have no more of those tasteless *yolks.* These punsters won’t be feathering their nests any more.

  16. “I planted and hoed this grain of wheat,
    Them that works not, shall not eat,

    That’s what’s great about capitalism, and what sucks about socialism.

    In a capitalist society, you don’t have to work, and you’ll probably still eat.

  17. Get off me, pig, oof!

    Oof? French for egg?

  18. But you can’t make an omelette without making eggs.

    But you can’t make an omelette without making breaking eggs.

  19. My friends, a chicken in every pot.

  20. Them that works not, shall not eat

    Unless they’re a commissar, of course.

  21. Oof? French for egg?

    Actually it’s pronounced that way, I think, but it’s spelled ?uf.

  22. Am I just young? I have never heard of this story until now.

  23. Why the hell is a hen baking bread?

  24. “…libertarians have found it easy both to turn Reaganite and to go Wobbly…”

    Wobbly in the head maybe.

  25. Wow. There are still people who endorse the labor theory of value? Not actual academics, I hope.

    Do I hope in vain?

  26. It was a joke smartass sob. A good one too. Well played Mad Max.

  27. “The labor theory of capital is just a po-faced justification of slavery and theft.”

    Indeed so.

  28. It was a joke smartass sob.

    Oh. I thought it was merely a pun.

  29. Wow. There are still people who endorse the labor theory of value? Not actual academics, I hope.

    I dunno. I thought Marxist academics were bad, but that was before I started hearing about Keynesian academics.

  30. Mike Laursen | July 22, 2009, 6:48pm | #
    Why the hell is a hen baking bread?

    Tariffs, farm subsidies, and an oversupply of grain.

  31. I’ve seen the same thing done with Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax.

    Environmentalists want to point out that the big bad businessman doesn’t care about the environment and we have to stop him.

    Some Libertarians say it is about the Tragedy of the Commons: if the business man had to buy the land to cut down the trees, he’d be more careful and turn it into a tree farm, and the environmental destruction would never have occurred since it would be in his interest to preserve the land, without any government intervention.

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