The Little Red Hen: A Closer look at a Conservative Fable

You have no doubt heard the story of “the little red hen”. Some conservative pundit repeats it every so often. The story may be boiled down as follows. The little red hen is hungry and wants to bake herself a cake. She goes around to the other barnyard animals asking for help, which no one gives. Then when the time comes to enjoy the product of her own labor, everyone in the barnyard wants a piece. The conservative uses this tale to justify the deprivations of the poor – on the basis that they have “earned” their position through their laziness. The well-to-do on the other hand, have likewise “earned” their material prosperity through their own “hard work”.

The moral lesson of the story is simple enough, and not really very debatable. The problem for the conservative is that it has very little to do with corporate capitalism. In fact, you can use this conservative fable to “turn the tables” on conservative apologists for corporate capitalism. You see, the conservative makes important assumptions in the story that aren’t valid.

Notice something really interesting about the story. Whose oven is it? Does it belong to the little red hen, or is it available to everyone in the barnyard? If anyone has access to it, it is a simple matter for any of the other animals to make their own cake. But if this barnyard is like the real world, not only do the other barnyard animals have no guaranteed access to the oven, they have no guaranteed access to the raw materials from which cakes are made. They couldn’t make their own, if they wanted to.

Notice another possible assumption of the fable. Does everybody who helps in the enterprise get an equal share of the product of that enterprise? I don’t think the conservatives are prepared to say that anyone who contributes to production of a finished product is entitled to an equal share of that product. That sounds like “socialism” – something I’m sure that conservatives didn’t intend to assume in their fable.

Let’s re-write the fable, and make it a little more accurate.

To be true to the world of corporate capitalism, somebody owns the oven. We’ll assume the owner is the little red hen. Unfortunately, owning the oven only creates a mere possibility for producing anything with it. The little red hen quickly learns that gathering the wheat, grinding it to flour, obtaining the other materials, and producing the actual product is work.

The little red hen isn’t industrious at all. In fact, she’s rather lazy. Soon, she begins to wonder is there isn’t a way to get somebody else to do the work. So she goes around to the other animals. They don’t have ovens, so naturally they are interested in using her oven. In fact, the other animals are perfectly willing to give her a share of what they produce, since she does have certain responsibilities. She has to clean the oven. She has to pay for the energy to run it. She may even obtain the materials from which cakes are made. When she approaches them to ask for their help – notice that the little red hen needs the help of other people, she isn’t a “rugged individualist” at all – they want to know what the terms of the deal are.

“Do I get an equal share of what we make in the oven?” they ask.

“Well, the cake we make is only so big. Since it’s my oven, I get half, and all of you can split up the other half.”

Each animal then figures out that he will expend more energy baking the little red hen’s cake than its worth. “Not I,” they respond to this deal.

The little red hen could then respond with a better deal. After all, with so many people helping out, there is no reason why the oven can’t produce enough for everybody. In fact, working together the barnyard animals could produce a surplus for sale making everybody fat and prosperous. They could organize a labor cooperative. “Why not engage in large scale production, with a piece of the surplus for every animal assisting in the enterprise,” the horse suggests as a counterproposal.

That sounds good to the little red hen, at first. Then she gets to thinking about it. Remember, the little red hen is lazy. She doesn’t really want to do the work herself. On the other hand, her oven is the one critical piece of equipment she can use to bargain with the other animals.

Unless they get their own ovens. Then she has nothing to use as an inducement for them to work using hers. All of this surplus production for sale, means that eventually the other animals won’t need her oven any more, and she’ll be right back where she started. The other animals haven’t figured this out. She has, because she’s lazy and conniving. She wants those animals in a position where they have to work at her oven, and can’t ever build their own.

So she goes to the farmer. It seems that he provides the raw materials. That’s what every animal in the barnyard eats. “Why are you just giving it away,” she asks him. “I could turn it into delicious cakes, sell them and make you a tidy profit. Give me control of the resources, and I will make both of us rich.” A couple of days later, feeding time comes and goes, but the farmer never shows up. The animals are all wondering if something happened to him, when the little red hen wanders by.

“Oh, he and I are partners now. He gave me all of the corn and the wheat and feed for use in my bakery business. If you’re hungry, I’d be happy to sell you a cake or a loaf of bread fresh from my oven.”

Of course, the barnyard animals have no money to buy anything – which she well knows. When they point this out, she makes them an offer. They can work in her bakery and she will feed them.

“What about a share in the profits,” they ask.

“Take it or leave it,” she tells them.

Obviously, they take it, for a while anyway. It isn’t long of course, before they realize that she can’t make the first nickel of profit from her enterprise without their help. Individually, they have little power to negotiate better terms. Together, however, they can pretty much dictate terms to her, in the same manner that she dictated terms to them. So one of them – the horse for example – starts talking to the other animals. “If we stick together and refuse to work, she’ll have to offer us a better deal,” he tells them.

The little red hen catches wind of this, and realizes the spot she’s in. Not only is the horse right, none of these animals is going to have to least sympathy for her. She has to do something. Finally, she comes out of her pocket and pays a little bit more than she would like to.

But not to everybody. That would be too expensive.

Instead she goes to the dog. “Listen, Fido. You’re smarter than these other chumps. You’re not really one of them. You’re a predator. You’re strong, you’re fast. You deserve more they do. I’m going to give it to you. All you have to do is protect my interests. You can start by doing something about that big mouthed horse.”

That doesn’t work for long. The barnyard animals soon figure out that she can’t threaten all of them. They might pay a price, but sticking together is still the best defense. So she comes up with something really ingenious. She figures out how to keep them from uniting.

There are ten animals in the barnyard. She decides she only needs eight to work in her bakery. So she calls all of them together.

“Listen,” she says. “I’ve been thinking. You’re right, the people who work in my bakery deserve a bigger share. In fact, I’m willing to give each of you a 25 percent increase in pay.”

This brings cheers and applause. “We’ve won,” they say.

Not quite. “I’m willing to increase you’re pay, but you’re going to have to prove that your worth it. I only need eight of you. So the two of you who produce the least today, will just have to find something else to do.” Now she has eight animals working for a little better pay, and two who are unemployed. It doesn’t cost an extra cent, since she is now paying the same overall amount split eight ways instead of ten. The ‘unemployed” have no where to go, she controls all of the food, and she has nothing for them to do – or she says she doesn’t. So they begin to starve.

Now, she’s got them where she wants them. They don’t dare talk about “organizing”. They don’t complain too much about their pay, and they work as hard as she demands that they work. After all, there are two starving animals who would love to take their place. She doesn’t even have to worry about them organizing secretly. The fear of losing their job and facing starvation will cause one or more of them to “inform” in an effort to secure his own position. The only problem she has is the two starving animals. She is perfectly willing to let them waste away. What choice does she have? The minute they have any bargaining power they will demand an even greater share. Worse, they might set up their own competing enterprise.

On the other hand, once the two “outcasts” are gone, she will have to create two more, narrowing the work force to six. Then to four. Soon, she will paying the small number left entirely too much, and she will need all of them. She needs to keep the two outcasts going. On the other hand, she has to be careful. Too much “generosity” might be interpreted as weakness. It isn’t long before a few of the animals come to her with an humanitarian plea.

“We can’t just let these other animals starve,” they say. Some of the other animals – playing right into her hands – ask why not. “Why should we support those deadbeats,” they ask, oblivious to the fact that the little red hen has created the whole problem to start with. They even tell the story of the “little red hen” to justify leaving these “slackers” out in the cold . After a little pro forma protesting, she finally agrees to establish a “humanitarian” welfare system. “I’m willing to commit two percent of my take to feed them if you will commit two percent of yours.” Isn’t that fair of her?. She has agreed to pay a minuscule portion of her huge surplus, if the other animals will commit a portion of their already meager cut. With this regressive welfare system and a small fund keeps the two “outcasts” barely alive – until she needs them to replace any of the unruly or complacent animals. Of course, she doesn’t even consider “full employment” as the solution to their starvation. That would wind up empowering the animals doing the work. In fact, poverty and near starvation becomes a cruel lottery, with all of the animals taking a turn in utter destitution.

The last time I checked, the little red hen was living in a brand new air-conditioned ten thousand square foot chicken house. She is the queen of the barnyard. She is respected. She is feared. She is hated. She attributes this hatred to “envy”. In fact, for all her wealth and power, she is miserable, because she can never rest. She spends her days on the roof of her chicken palace looking at the other animals in the barnyard, and wondering. When will they figure out the game? When will they ask why all ten of them can’t work in her bakery? When will they figure out that the starvation of the two is being used as a weapon against the other eight? When will they realize that they and the two “deadbeats” are being screwed by the same little red hen?. When will they unite – once again – and force her to offer them a fairer deal? When will they realize that they don’t need her at all, and her oven can cook more than just bread and pastry?

I hear oven baked chicken is delicious.

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