We Are All Canny Hens Now


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.