6/29/2006

Fable: The Ant and the Grasshopper

There's below some discusion in the Painting Ayn Rand On Velvet post that mentions the Ant and the Grasshopper fable. Here's three versions of the fable and a little background history.




Here's the Ant & the Grasshopper Fable:

The Ant works hard in the heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The Grasshopper thinks he's a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away.
Come winter, the Ant is warm and well fed. The Grasshopper has no food or shelter so he either dies out in the cold, or begs and receives humiliating charity from the ant he teased.

Historical background of the fable:

That fable from the sixth century B.C. has been retold in a variety of ways. In the middle of the spectrum are versions that end with a flat moral tag, pointing out that when he became winter-hungry, "the grasshopper knew it was best to prepare for the days of necessity."At the twentieth-century end of the spectrum, the ants are said to take pity on the grasshopper and keep him warm and well-fed so that he is fit to fiddle all winter for the comfort of the children of a consumer society.
At the seventeenth-century end, the ants tend toward the sarcastic: "Since you sang all summer, you may as well dance all winter to the tune you sang all summer."

The libertarian version of the fable:

When winter comes, the shivering Grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the Ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while others are cold and starving. CBS, NBC and ABC show up and provide pictures of the shivering Grasshopper next to a film of the Ant in his comfortable home with a table filled with food.
America is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can it be that, in a country of such wealth, this poor Grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?

Bill and Hillary Clinton make a special guest appearance on the CBS Evening News and tell a concerned Dan Rather that they will do everything they can for the Grasshopper who has been denied the prosperity he deserves by those who benefited unfairly during the "Era of Greed." Richard Gephardt exclaims in an interview with Peter Jennings that the Ant has gotten rich off the "back of the Grasshopper," and calls for an immediate tax hike on the Ant to make him pay his "fair share."

The Ant sues, but loses the case.

The story ends as we see the Grasshopper finishing up the last bits of the ant's food while he lives in a government house. The Ant has disappeared in the snow. And on the TV they are showing Bill Clinton standing before a wildly applauding audience announcing that a new era of "Fairness" has dawned in America.

Now here's Al Date's critique of this parody.
A proper government should not confiscate the hard- earned fruits of anyone's labor, whatever color they may be.
But then, neither should the government encourage theft, or evil of any kind. Specifically, it should not empower certain citizens to confiscate the hard-earned fruits of other people's labor.

But that is exactly what a title-deed to land does: it allows land-lords to take un-earned income off of land-less tenants.

Libertarians don't seem to object to this aspect of our economic system. Perhaps they should reconsider the Ant & Grasshopper parable.

The lesson that is taught here--and which is also taught in the parable of the "Little Red Hen,"--is that if you DO WORK, you prosper [I have no problem promoting that!]; and that if you don't work, you don't prosper [ah, but I wish it were so].

Let's change the parable only slightly. Let's assume that the lazy grasshopper holds a title deed to the ant's land, and that the ant (or some other worker-ant) must pay him rent to live there.

If the location is in a booming area, the grasshopper can raise the rent on the ant until he actually has more food than the ant--doing no work other than sending out notices of rent-increases!

Is a land-lord required to improve the property before he or she sends out rent-increases? No. Well doesn't this amount to unearned income? Isn't this a form of coercion on those beings whose economic survival is inherently dependent on using land? This applies to humans as well as to ants.

Some would say, isn't this "just the way of the free market?"

It was John Locke who first stated the idea that humans are entitled to keep the fruits of their labour, as they had absolute rights to the "property" of their own bodies. This was the property-basis of the market-system.

Locke wisely noted that land is not MADE by any person; that it is provided by "God or nature." So by what right does a land-lord exercise absolute dominion over land, in the manner of kings and dukes?

Locke said that land-ownership could only rightly come with due consideration of the right of all other humans to use some equivalent land. According to Locke, the right to monopolize land-- with no regard for the community--is an infringement on the rights of other human beings to survive. Locke's adherents, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, advocated taxation on land as the ONLY valid form of public revenue.

But a hundred years later, land-profiteering had driven out land-taxation, and the tyranny of land-monopolization had re-emerged in the supposed "land of the free." "Company towns" had sprung up, where corporate bosses exercised as much economic power over common people as did the age-old aristocrats.

This was witnessed, among others, by Henry George, who wrote the most successful tax-reform book in history, Progress and Poverty.

The only solution was for the people to pay the land rent to themselves, to the community, as implied by Locke and Jefferson. This was partly accomplished in the Progressive Era, which made local land-taxation universal--and led to massive investments in infrastructure and financing for public health and education.

History has borne out Locke's vision. The monopolization of land is antithetical to a free market.

But libertarians don't seem to mind this situation, because it "does not involve any state intervention in the free market economy." I, and John Locke, must disagree. The ability to privately hold more land than you can personally use, and collect rent from your fellow humans because you have a "title deed" IS a political intervention; resulting in an ongoing redistribution of wealth to the land-rich which keeps the land-less down.

If libertarians truly seek to allow people to keep the fruits of their labour, as they often aver in parables such as these, they need to first clean up their own backyard, and call for the end of the state-granted privileges of land-lords.

Here's the rebuttal to the libertarian parody version:

The ants work hard all summer, producing products and services, such as in manufacturing, farming, and transportation. Grasshoppers laugh and dance and play all summer, without producing anything.

Come winter though, the productive ants are hungry and shivering, while the unproductive grasshoppers are warm and well-fed! How did this happen?

Easy: the grasshoppers own the land the hardworking ants live and work on. The grasshoppers collect land taxes from the ants, but call it land "rent". Since the grasshoppers did not produce the land, these land taxes (land "rent" payments) are really welfare payments to grasshoppers.

Some grasshoppers are somewhat productive, providing building maintenance for their tenants. But the part of the "rent" that is simply a payment for using the land, which the grasshoppers did not make, is simply a land tax, used for welfare payments to grasshopper- landlords.

Some grasshoppers used to make the mistake of calling these land payments by what they are: land taxes. But then libertarians raised a fuss, since they're against taxes. So, the grasshoppers changed the name, and started calling the land payments land "rent". Then the libertarians said "Oh, that's different. Go right ahead and collect these land payments from the ants." And they did. And they still do.

Read more at the Progress Report.

2 comments:

Cato said...

I would hardly call that parody "libertarian." Such parodies drain all the wisdom out of the original and try to make a mockery of such an important life lesson.

Aesop said...

I much prefer the parable of the Beaver and Skunks!