The Pied Piper and Our Children
MAY 01, 1985 by JOHN K. WILLIAMS
The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher and currently does freelance writing and lecturing from his base in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
One of the most delightful poems ever penned is Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” Children delight in hearing it. The poem tells an exciting story and tells it well, Browning’s choice of words and use of meter reflecting and reinforcing the events described.
Indeed, the poem has served me well. As a doting uncle not infrequently charged with the welcome task of minding my nephew and nieces, the poem has enabled me to lure Kristine, Elizabeth, and Patrick away from the television set for what I fondly imagine is culturally a more edifying experience. More: while heaven forbid that I ever would abuse my role as trusted child-minder and become a propagandist for sound economics, I did on one occasion introduce the term and the concept of “opportunity cost” to the vocabulary and thinking of my charges by explaining that the “cost” of viewing “Diff’rent Strokes” was not hearing Uncle John reading “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” The success of this exercise was testified to by an agitated telephone call from my sister, who informed me that ten-year-old Patrick had reduced his class-teacher to despair by challenging the justice of a half-hour detention to which he and a fellow miscreant had been sentenced. He had informed his teacher that the opportunity cost of the detention for his partner-in-crime was not having to sweep the leaves off the front lawn of his home, whereas the opportunity cost for Patrick was not playing football with two cousins visiting that afternoon.
“The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is, however, more than a children’s poem. It tells a story adults do well to consider. It describes a people who lost their children. Because of the irresponsibility of the adults of Hamelin, they lost their children. Their failure to keep a promise solemnly made resulted in a strange Piper leading their children away into a mountain the adults could not enter and from which the children could not leave.
If we think this mass loss of children is only the stuff of which fairy tales are made, we might be wise to think again. Think for a moment of the many pipers playing tunes to which young people, in this century, have responded. The children of Hamelin went laughing and skipping after their piper. The children of Nazi Germany, and of Marxist-Leninist regimes, marched stiffly in rigid ranks after very different pipers, entering a mountain not of delight but of despotism, decadence, and destruction.
We delude ourselves if we assert that pipers playing tunes composed by harbingers of hate either are not found, or are without influence, in nations founded on liberty, and born in the struggle of men and women who dreamed of freedom for themselves and their children’s children. Documenting this claim is tragically easy.
I think, for example, of an ugly little volume which, in Australia, is set for study in many of our schools: Social Sketches of Australia: 1888-1975. This book has it that the history of my country is one of inhumanity and brutality, led by mean, cruel, small-minded people. According to the author, there is nothing in my nation’s heritage worthy of admiration or deserving of praise. It would be an impertinence for a visitor to your country and the recipient of your hospitality to say too much about what he observes in your school system, but I am convinced that the text so distorting my nation’s heritage might be matched by parallel texts similarly distorting your nation’s heritage and studied by your children.
A Death Wish
Joseph Schumpeter, I submit, is all too right. He argues that market capitalism in a classically liberal social order generates a set of men and women consumed by a pathological hatred of the socio-economic system of which they are the beneficiaries. Paranoid and careless, this set of people have as their power-base the so-called “knowledge industry.” Their paranoia finds expression in the belief that they, uniquely representing the forces of goodness, are the persecuted victims of existing social structures which are the embodiment of evil and which conspire to destroy them. Their carelessness pervades their impassioned rejection of those values which, over long centuries, have proved vital for the emergence and sustaining of civilization and of liberty. They are incapable of understanding what Michael Oakeshott was asserting when, in his inaugural lecture at the London School of Economics, he suggested that “the greater part of what we have is not a burden to be carried or an incubus to be cast off, but an inheritance to be enjoyed.”
It is not difficult to see this twisted mentality at work. It is seen in journalists and academics who determinedly keep the minds of their readers and their students fixed upon what is contemptible, thereby nurturing a sour sardonic attitude of rejection which, in the course of time, is extended to the most valuable realities the human heritage has to offer. Their task is not difficult, for in the mixed constitution of things it is easy to pick out what is bad, to ignore what is good, and to draw the black veil of hatred over a complex of light and shade, when it still of fers considerable scope for kindness, sympathy, and improvement. Moreover, their task is facilitated by ideas and ideals which, at least superficially, conceal the dynamism of hate under a cloak of compassion. Some of these ideas and ideals I shall explore here.
The Rhetoric of Rights
On July 4, 1776, the then thirteen colonies on your eastern seaboard solemnly in Congress declared that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” In so declaring, a nation made its own an idea and an ideal for which men and women, over many long years, had fought, suffered, and died. The liberty of all people to dream their own dreams and to strive to make such dreams reality was, at long last, proclaimed to be a right possessed by all rather than a privilege conferred upon some by a caste or a class born to rule.
It may seem strange to observe that such a positive and enriching concept of unalienable rights equally possessed by all people enshrines an essentially negative term. Yet it does. A “right” all people enjoy by virtue of their humanity signifies the absence of an obligation to refrain from certain activities or to surrender certain goods. A right to free speech signifies the absence of an obligation not to voice certain opinions. A right to possess certain goods signifies the absence of an obligation to surrender those goods. The only obligation to the possessor of such a right gen erated in other people by that right is also negative: namely, the general obligation not to disregard or defy that right. The right of one person, X, to engage in some activity generates the correlative obligation in other people not coercively to prevent X engaging in that activity; the right of X to own something generates the correlative obligation in other people not coercively to make X surrender that something.
Let us suppose an individual claims the right to climb a mountain. He is claiming that he is not obliged to refrain from attempting to climb that mountain. He is further claiming that other people are obligated not to prevent him from making such an attempt. What is not being claimed, however, is that other people are obligated to provide him with the equipment or train him in the skills necessary successfully to climb the mountain. Rights equally enjoyed by all do not generate positive obligations in other people.
Why not? Simply because rights equally enjoyed by all are grounded in what human beings all share: a common humanity. If I were to claim that I have a right to own a wrist watch, and that men and women wealthier than I am are obligated to provide me with that wrist watch, I am grounding my alleged right in what I and those allegedly obligated to provide me with a wrist watch do not have in common, namely, wealth in excess of some arbitrary measure. Claimed rights for some generating positive obligations for other people presuppose two distinct classes of people: people enjoying a purported right to certain goods and services, and people burdened with an obligation to produce and provide those goods and services. Such a state of affairs is incompatible with the insistence that all people equally enjoy the same rights.
A Shared Determination
Again, it would be possible by a shared act of human will to ensure that the equal rights of all people are recognized and respected. Men and women could, by an act of will, refrain from actions involving violence, theft, and deception which, by their nature, ignore and defy the rights of their fellows. Such a shared determination to refrain from aggression against other people could not, however, produce food sufficient for all to eat or paid employment sufficient for all to enjoy. Indeed, the imagination fails when one attempts to describe what would be needed to produce the goods and services sufficient for all people everywhere to enjoy the right affirmed in the twenty-second article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated by the United Nations, namely, the full development of their personalities in “economic, social, and cultural” spheres.
It is not denied that men and women exercising their shared rights can contract with one another and thereby incur contracted positive rights and correlative positive obligations. Nor is it denied that men and women may morally be obligated in positive ways to those people with whom their lives are entwined, even though those people enjoy no right to such compassionate and caring behavior.
The Good Samaritan
In the well-known Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, it is asserted that the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan traveler are obligated to assist the wounded victim of robbers; it is neither asserted nor implied that the victim has any right to these people’s solicitude. The demands of charity have nothing whatsoever to do with any claimed rights. The demands of clarity, however, dictate that we use the term “right” to signify what Wesley Hohfeld, in his celebrated classification of rights, calls “liberties.” The right of a person to do A or to own B signifies simply the absence of any obligation to refrain from doing A or to surrender B, and the correlative obligation in other people not to force that person to refrain from doing A or to surrender B.
In 1881, however, an influential English philosopher, Thomas Hill Green, gave eloquent expression to a seemingly plausible view. All civilized people agree, he suggested, that freedom “is the greatest of blessings.” Yet freedom, “rightly understood,” means not simply “freedom from restraint or compulsion.” Rather, it signifies “a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying” particular things. A person is thus not really free to climb a mountain unless he possesses the equipment and skills necessary so to do. Or so asserted Green, surreptitiously transforming the concept of freedom. Accompanying this metamorphosis was a corresponding transformation of the notion of a right. Some men and women allegedly do enjoy rights creating correlative positive obligations in other people.
The vision of rights equally enjoyed by all and grounded in the humanity of each and every person faded. In its place emerged a plethora of arbitrary claims and selfish desires pretentiously called “rights.” President Roosevelt spoke of the rights of all to “freedom from want [and] freedom from enforced idleness or unemployment,” albeit granting to privileged unionists the “right” coercively to prevent non-unionists laboring at wage rates below those arbitrarily decreed by unions, a “right” guaranteeing unemployment for the weak and the margin-alized of a community.
Inexorably, a society of free men and women pursuing their diverse visions of the good life, yet bound together by the ties of interdependence and trust forged in the market place, gave way to a society of competing special interest groups, vying for favors and thrusting their snouts ever deeper into the government trough. Inexorably, the weakest and poorest went to the wall, the privileged assuaging their consciences by demanding that those they had forced out of work be paid unemployment benefits, and that those they had condemned to perpetual poverty be granted welfare payments. The politics of principle capitulated before the politics of expedience, parties competing with one another in the task of formulating policies which benefit groups of people who know what they are receiving, and disadvantaging those who do not know what they are paying.
How harmless the tune sounded when first played by the piper. How captivating the melody of positive rights proved to be when first heard. Yet how dark is the mountain into which that piper and that melody would lead us.
As the noble cry for rights enjoyed by all was transformed into the shrill demand for special privileges enjoyed by some, the dream of equality too became a nightmare. The document speaking of the unalienable rights of all insists that all men “are created equal,” and the two assertions go together. All are equal in that all possess the same rights; the demand for equality is the demand for the recognition, in all people, of those rights human beings as human beings share. What is morally outrageous is the notion that the rights of different groups of people differ, and that this difference is grounded in one or more of the criteria defining these varied groups.
Springing from this revolutionary insight is the principle of equality before the law. Rule must be by known general principles of just conduct equally applicable to all in an unknown number of future instances. Any precept, even if it enjoys the approval of the majority, which places the interests of some before the interests of others, or prescribes one vision of the “good life” but proscribes alternative non-coercive visions, is thus anathema. Justice does wear a blindfold, treating all alike.
Dividing the Wealth
There are those, however, similarly speaking of “equality,” who dream a different dream. Professor J.R. Lucas puts it thus: “The equality vouchsafed us by the equality before the law, although valuable and not vacuous, is still much less than the equality the egalitarian seeks.” In truth Professor Lucas is too kind: the equality the egalitarian seeks is incompatible with equality before the law, and the equality of rights upon which the rule of law rests.
This other vision of equality today is the vision of many. Confining our attention merely to economists, one thinks of the late Arthur M. Okun, who asserts that “equality in the distribution of incomes . . . would be my ethical preference. Abstracting from the costs and the consequences, I would prefer more equality of income to less and would like complete equality best of all.” Joining him is Charles E. Lindblom, who asserts that the closer societies move toward absolute equality of income and of wealth, the more they “approximate [to] the humanitarian vision.” Certainly, no economic reasons for this ideal are proffered.
Perhaps the absence of any economic defense of egalitarianism is no accident. The late Henry C. Simons, in his celebrated study of progressive taxation, utterly demolished in his capacity as an economist all pseudo-economic defenses of such a policy and its egalitarian underpinnings, but concluded that “drastic progression in taxation” is an imperative because the distribution of wealth and income effected by market capitalism in a free society “reveals a degree (and/or kind) of inequality that is distinctly evil or unlovely [sic].” Such a strange appeal to an aesthetic consideration is echoed by Professor A.B. Atkinson who, in a volume detailing real and imagined inequalities obtaining in contemporary Britain, finds it unnecessary to devote more than a page to explaining what is wrong with these inequalities, and apparently regards as decisive an observation by another writer to the effect that “equality has a particularly powerful aesthetic appeal.” Precisely how an aesthetic judgment can lead to a moral imperative and justify the de gree of political coercion that imperative allegedly legitimates, is, sad to say, not explained.
Equality of Results
Let us get back to basics. The word “equality,” and its cognate expressions “equal” and “equally,” signify a relation. Two or more objects are “equal” in respect of a given quality or characteristic if they possess that quality or characteristic to the same degree. Two or more lengths of wood may be “equal” in length. Two or more material objects may be “equal” in mass. Absolute equality in all characteristics or qualities is impossible, for if two entities, A and B, are distinct, then each possesses at least one characteristic or quality the other lacks—minimally, spatio-temporal location. Used of human beings, the adjective “equal” is quite inappropriate, for it is utterly impossible to specify any characteristic or quality all people possess to the same degree. That is fortunate: it means that people are not interchangeable, for if A and B are equal in some respect they are, in that respect, interchangeable.
This truism leads to a familiar dilemma. If “equal” opportunities are extended to people of unequal abilities, unequal outcomes result. Yet if opportunities are so allocated that equal outcomes result, that allocation of opportunities must have been characterized by inequality. A policy defended on the grounds of equality can thus no less plausibly be attacked on the ground of inequality. Such was painfully evident in the controversies surrounding the much-publicized and debated Bakke case.
Prima facie, it seems impossible to formulate any public policy which generates equality along all of the important dimensions in which human beings have an interest. Empirically, it is far from obvious that the rectification of various social inequalities of outcome by manipulating the distribution of opportunities Coy, for example, policies of positive discrimination) has proved particularly beneficial from the viewpoint of the “victims” of the alleged injustice being rectified.
Nor is it obvious that the “correction” of all inequalities affecting the well-being of human beings results in a morally “more desirable” state of affairs. The grotesque worlds of L.P. Hartley’s Facial Justice, in which handsome men and beautiful women are “cured” by surgery remedying their envy-provoking excesses of sexual appeal, and of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeran, in which people with abilities above the norm are “equalized” by the implantation of anti-pacesetters, are hardly morally desirable worlds. The examples, admittedly, are bizarre, but they usefully underscore the directionless nature of the imperative to eliminate inequalities.
Similarly, the prescriptive interpretation of “equality” is, considered in isolation, of little or no relevance to social ethics. People are treated equally if they are treated equally badly; they are treated with equal consideration or equal respect if they are treated with equally little consideration or equally little respect. The moral imperative to treat human beings with consideration or respect is more demanding than the imperative to treat them with equal consideration or equal respect. The demand for “equality” is not, in other words, a demand for quality. Nor does a commitment to equality somehow “add” to the value of morally contemptible behavior: the sadist who occasionally softens and spares an intended victim is not “morally worse” than the consistent sadist who tortures all of his victims with egalitarian efficiency.
Human history testifies to the terrible consequences of the attempt somehow to make human beings “equal.” Even the seemingly benign attempt to establish equality of wealth or of income demands, as Robert Nozick has argued, a dictatorial State ruthlessly suppressing individual liberty. Nozick’s point was eloquently stated some two centuries ago by David Hume, who noted that even if possessions are “rendered ever so equal,” the exchanging of goods or the giving of gifts rapidly would “break” that equality. “The most rigorous inquisition is requisite” to check such behavior on its “first appearance,” as is “the most severe jurisdiction to punish and redress it.”
Once again, however, pipers playing a tune based on the theme of an “equality” quite other than equality of rights and equality before the law, are, today, familiar figures. The young follow them. The identity of these pipers is not difficult to determine. One thinks of such household names as Ralph Nader, Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. One thinks of prominent journalists contributing to once respected newspapers. And if one is wise, one recalls the adults of Hamelin, who remembering their principles too late, lost their children.
Finally, I draw your attention to the understanding of wealth and of conquest of poverty that captured the minds and the imaginations of those who, long ago, first dared a dream of a world in which destitution was no more.
How foolish their dream seemed to their contemporaries. Everyone knew that poverty, historically, was the norm. Everyone knew that life expectancy was, in the France of 1800, twenty-four years for males and twenty-seven years for females, and France was then the wealthiest nation in the world. Everyone knew that in 1780, over eighty per cent of French families spent ninety per cent of their income upon bread. Everyone in eighteenth-century Europe and European colonies knew that life, for the masses, was basically nasty, brutish, and invariably short. Everyone knew that the wealth of nations was something given and unchanging, and that one nation could improve its situation only by worsening the situation of other nations.
But a dream was born. Maybe wealth could be created. Maybe trade and exchange could benefit all. Maybe the material well-being of all could be increased. Maybe if the human spirit was unfettered and was released to experiment and to create, food sufficient for all to eat and clothing sufficient for all to wear and shelter sufficient for all to enjoy might become a reality.
And it happened. In one short century the working populace of Britain quadrupled. Real per capita income doubled between 1800 and 1850, and doubled again between 1850 and 1900. This sixteen-fold increase in wealth—this sixteen-fold increase in the goods and services available—did more in one hundred years to ameliorate poverty and exorcise the specter of destitution than had millennia of human history and eighteen centuries of preaching about the virtue of charity.
Discovering Uses for Previously Idle Resources
Men and women began to see that resources were not simply “there” to be enjoyed but were created when human creativity and hitherto useless products of nature came together. Human creativity took a black, viscous substance, known from Biblical days and once marginally useful for the making of ink and perfume, and gave it a new use. A new source of energy—oil—thus came into being. Human creativity took dead rocks—anthracite coal—and discovered how to ignite these rocks, and the steamship and the locomotive became realities. People actually began to think of progress; began to realize that the new and the unexpected could burst into being, displace what was the case and always had been the case, and better satisfy human needs and desires.
Yet, during the 1960s many men and women, like mediums conducting a seance, conjured up the dead. The old picture of wealth as something fixed and unchanging was resurrected. The old vision that depicted the gains of some as demanding corresponding losses by others rose from the ashes.
To take but one case, Paul Ehrlich in 1968 published a volume, The Population Bomb, proclaiming a dismal future for this fragile planet. I cite this volume because it asserted that 1984 would witness the fulfillment of the dire prophecies Paul Ehrlich made. I, as a visitor to this nation—if Ehrlich’s most hopeful scenario for the future had become a reality—would be observing a country within which steak was but a memory. Between 1973 and 1983 the world would have witnessed one billion men, women, and children starving to death. The United States would have imposed strict food rationing. Riots would have torn this country apart when Congress during the mid-1970s passed the Family-size Regulation Act. Smog would be ubiquitous. The telephone system would be no more. Unemployment would be the lot of twenty-seven per cent of the potential workforce. Globally, disaster would reign. Since India’s food production had reached its maximum potential in 1967-1968, that nation, and similar Third World nations, would be haunted by the dread horsemen of famine and of death. Or so Paul Ehrlich prophesied.
He was wrong. In the 1970s India, after three disastrous decades of socialist agricultural policies, largely deregulated agriculture. Price controls on food were lifted. Tax reforms were effected enabling farmers to retain more of the earnings from the produce they sold. Decisions as to what to plant were taken from central planners and restored to farmers themselves. In September 1977 U.S. grain exports to India began to wane, for India was almost self-sufficient in food. In 1983 India began to agonize over the new but welcome problem of how best to store surplus crops. Instead of rising, the birth rate in less developed countries has fallen from 2.2 per cent yearly in 1964-1965 to 1.75 per cent yearly in 1982-1983. Global food production, whether measured by grain prices, production per consumer, or the famine death rate, is vastly better today than ever before. The cost of such minerals as copper is falling, not rising, human ingenuity having made from sand a substance performing one of the uses to which copper once was put, and having launched space satellites substituting for the millions of tons of copper cable global communications once demanded. A higher percentage of the U.S. populace today engages in paid employment than ever before.
Paul Ehrlich and his fellow doom-sayers are demonstrably wrong. Yet the pipers of cataclysmic disaster continue to play their dirge. Herbert I. London recently penned a volume entitled, Why Are They Lying To Our Children?, documenting the prolonged after-life of discredited dogmas about the limits of growth. Surveying sixty-eight school textbooks, London notes that the future therein depicted, based on demonstrably false statistical evidence, flawed methodological assumptions, and utter economic ignorance, is a future of depleted resources.
So in my own country. A set textbook for all students in my State desirous of sitting university entrance examinations is penned by a biologist, Professor Charles Birch, and it too depicts a desert-like future, withering any hope of a world in which destitution is no more. The very best strategy that Charles Birch, and his U.S. counterparts, can recommend is a world government coercively redistributing present wealth. What has failed in the U.S.S.R., failed in mainland China, failed in Tanzania, failed in Cuba, and failed wherever it has been tried is, apparently, to be implemented on a global basis.
Observed disaster is not, it would seem, sufficient to silence the dread piper playing the terrible tune that is “socialism.” Play he still does, and the young—and sometimes the not-so- young—mindlessly follow.
Yet, I cling, and shall continue to cling, to the hem of hope. For there is another piper playing a very different tune.
He was heard during the fifth century B.C. in the city-state of Athens, and human beings began to dream of rule not by a tyrant’s whim or a mob’s caprice, but by law. He was heard by those men and women in medieval England, who made Magna Carta—the great Constitutio Libertatis—a reality, and forged a weapon before which all despots trembled, knowing their days were numbered. He was heard again in the eighteenth century by thinkers who challenged the world of guild and of caste and of privilege and of legally-fixed relations that was mercantilism. He was heard again by those who fled tyranny for a new and better world, and who penned the Virginia Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the First Ten Amendments to that Constitution. And he still is heard by ordinary people who, suffering under today’s tyrants, listen to their short-wave radios and, with tired and hurting fingers, transcribe the works of Solzhenitsyn and risk the concentration camp and the so-called psychiatric hospital in obedience to this other piper playing this other tune.
And what about us? We too have heard the piper who lures us by the song of liberty. We know we shall lose our children. After all, we know we never owned them in the first place. Yet to what pipers shall we lose them?
I spoke earlier of those sad and sorry men and women who betray the heritage of which they are the beneficiaries. I spoke earlier of their attempts to cheat our young people of that heritage. I thus remind you of the task the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead laid upon the shoulders of men and women such as we. What is that task? Simply to bring before the growing minds of our children “the habitual vision of greatness.” When Matthew Arnold was installed as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, the great Benjamin Jowett pleaded with him to do one thing: “Teach us not to criticize, but to admire.” Taken at face value, that plea was somewhat wholesale. There is that in my nation’s history, and in your nation’s history, which ought not to be admired. That is where criticism comes in. Yet the irony is that our shared heritage enshrines the very principles by which that meriting criticism is identified and that meriting condemnation stands condemned.
To insinuate a note of admiration in a generation reared in skepticism and cynicism is no easy task. Yet to no less a task are we called. You and I have caught a glimpse of the stars, and it is for us to say “No!” to those who would shield the eyes of our children from ever seeing those stars. In the final analysis, we cannot fail. For at the very heart of life—yes, at the very heart of God—lies freedom. Humankind, bearing the imago Dei—the Image of God—can never be content until freedom is a reality known to all and enjoyed by all. The tune the piper of liberty plays is the tune that pulsates and throbs through all that is, and which finds voice in that tiny part of the cosmos which has become aware of itself, the human spirit.
God grant that you, that I, that our children, keep our ears open to the piper who testifies to the reality of liberty built into the very fabric of our being. For it is only as we and our children follow that piper that we shall discover what Whitman sang of: “life immense in passion, pulse, and power”; and what the Jewish Rabbi of Nazareth meant when He spoke of “life, and life abundant.”
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Nozick, R. Anarchy, State and Utopia New York: Basic Books, 1974.
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