When I was a young child, my parents made sure I had plenty to read. Like most kids, my siblings and I looked forward to the holidays, when we would receive one of the Little Golden Books. That series was started in the 1940s and contained some of Western civilization’s most enduring folk tales. Though they were published to offer children an alternative to the heavily religious and moralistic fare then available, these enjoyable stories conveyed vital life lessons to us all.
Some of the tales – such as “The Animals of Farmer Jones” – appealed more to my brother and me. Others, like “Three Little Kittens,” were more popular with my sister and her friends. But, one story seemed to speak to everyone, and helped shape our values more than any other: “The Little Red Hen.” Little did we know at the time, but this innocent story would many years later serve as a cautionary tale for our nation.
In the story, the little red hen lives in a charming house with her friends, a pig, a duck and a cat. They are slovenly and indolent. She is industrious and neat. When the time comes to clean the house, she’s the one doing the work, as they play in the mud, pond and sun. One day, she finds a grain of corn and asks her friends whether they want to help her plant it. Of course, they demur. They’re too busy enjoying themselves. So, she plants the corn and tends to it. When the corn is ripe for harvest, she offers her friends another opportunity to pitch in. They decline. So, she cuts the corn herself. She then offers them the chance to help grind the corn into flour. No thanks. They similarly refuse to help bake the flour into bread. When the wafting aroma of fresh bread rousts them from their lethargy, the pig, duck and cat want to join the hen in devouring the bread, but she refuses to let them. She did the work. She eats the bread.
The story of the little red hen has many variations. Sometimes it’s a grain of wheat. Sometimes there are more animals. Sometimes she has little chicks that eat the bread with her. But always, the message is the same. If you do the work, you get the benefit of that work. That was one of the vital core values we kids learned from the story – and from our culture. That work ethic, plus our national passion for charity and kindness, made this nation great, powerful and prosperous. It made us blessed and proud, in the good sense.
As our nation took shape, this work ethic helped forge the exceptional dynamic of America. It enabled us to dream and to work to fulfill those dreams. We were a people that embodied the words of King Solomon in the 15th chapter of the Book of Proverbs: He who hates gifts shall live. We knew that, if we didn’t work for it, we didn’t deserve it. Nothing was more shameful than taking a handout. There is a classic scene in the fabulous Depression-era boxing film “Cinderella Man” where the protagonist, James Braddock, in complete penury, has to accept government assistance. He is mortified, and as soon as he is able to repay these funds, he rushes to do so. That was what made America great. That we could be there for our fellow citizens in need, but that they would hate the gifts.
Then something happened. As the government expanded, our values started to change. Instead of diligent hard work to attain our goals, we started to put our hand out, with little shame. Instead of admiring those who used their wits and elbow grease make something of themselves, we started to resent them. Suddenly, our great nation was no longer the nation of the little red hen, or the little engine that could, or any of the other positive images of those more innocent days. Soon the little red hens would not be permitted to eat their whole loaf. Eventually, the pigs, dogs and cats of the world figured out how to organize, and they started to vote themselves larger and larger pieces of bread. Ultimately, the little red hens would not merely be denied the fruits of their labor, they would be vilified and reviled as selfish. Indeed, the same Hollywood that turned out so many inspiring films lauding that American spirit started replacing all movie villains with today’s hardworking, successful little red hen.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher who came to visit the fledgling United States in 1831, marveled at her grandeur and the industriousness of her people. He also sounded a baleful warning that our freedom and democracy would only exist “until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.”
Today, the lessons of the little red hen have been replaced by the cry to tax the rich – the little red hens of today. Adults raised on those Little Golden Books and the core values of hard work and personal responsibility vote for candidates who march under the banner of fairness to appropriate the entire loaf. But, like the pig, duck and cat, they don’t understand that little red hens are no fools, and you can’t eat bread if no one had the incentive to bake it.