Several years back, I was challenged to write a short story illustrating the lives of people in a libertarian context ... with a catch. I had to use a particular cast of people in a particular setting. The point, as I recall, was to show that libertarianism could not work in certain hypothetical settings.
There was to be a poor family, consisting of a Jewish pig farmer, incapacitated by a stroke, married to a Mandean (rare Christian sect) woman, both of whom had different governments. In the house also were to be the pig farmer's father, who had cancer, but could not afford care; a twenty-year-old daughter with twin kids (one of them retarded) and pregnant with another one; and her brother, fourteen, who unlike his sister, was olive skinned (like his mother).
There was to be a state of the art cancer facility nearby, which few in the area could afford. Finally there was to be a nearby city where the husband of the daughter had fled when he abandoned her.
So, that's what I was given to work with, and the result was Sarah's Gold. It is a story about struggle, edification, and triumph. I don't know whether it will all fit in one post, so I'll break it up into sections.
Thanks for your patience. Maybe this will give you something to read when the board is slow.
Warning: What follows is literature.
I have no gold," Sarah Fuerstman McCord said dryly to the boy.
"No need, Miss," he replied, "I have already been paid."
With a smile and a dash, the boy ran back into the woods. Sarah watched him glide with the grace that great runners have, thinking about her own twin sons, Milton and Misha. 'Perhaps Milton could be a runner one day,' she thought, and she wondered how much the boy had been paid.
She looked out across the distant mountains, straight into the bright sun, with almost a defiant stare, at the tiny silhouettes of Morton's men, standing guard at the great rock. 'Why would they think anyone would want to step foot on their hallowed ground, anyway?'
"Well?..." came the sudden voice behind her.
Spinning round, she crammed the envelope quickly into her pocket. "Aman! Never scare me like that again!" she scolded, rolling her eyes.
"You lied to the runner," he said. "You do have a little gold." Aman was her brother, a fourteen-year-old adolescent boy-man, tall and sinewy with his mother's dark eyes and skin. He bore a shame-on-you grin that widened slowly to a smile. He beheld his twenty-year-old sister with the same unmitigated adoration he always had. He admired her strawberry hair, her fair skin, and the way she held herself, which he had always emulated. Proud. Erect. Alert.
"Well, I had none for him." She tossed her head and gave her brother an eyeful glance that said at once 'you scoundrel' and 'I love you'.
"You know that Morton's men must have seen him. It would have been smarter to meet in the woods. What does it say?" He pointed at her pocket, and sat down on the cool ground.
She joined him, and with a single rip of the envelope and a hard blow, she exposed its contents: a piece of paper, and a piece of gold.
"I'm going to die, Magla. We don't have enough gold to waste on me," Grandpa Fuerstman said with a hint of a snarl. "I don't know how long Dr. Faille can continue the treatments because I am so old, and so many more have needs." On Grandpa's face were etched the lines of seventy years of worry and pain and regret. "Why did I make the decision twenty years ago to bring this hell upon my family?"
The tiny, dark woman kept working, attentive to the form taking shape on her lathe. "Dr. Faille cannot help you now," she began matter-of-factly, and with a faint Iraqi accent, "It is up to the kings of the light. Your death will be your day of deliverance. It is said in the Ginza that your hell will not be everlasting. Since I am Mandean, I can claim you into the light. But," she looked up from the lathe and into Grandpa's eyes, "you could spare yourself from hell altogether if you would receive the baptism."
"No, no, a thousand times no!" Grandpa stammered, his neck tight, his fist punctuating the air with an insistent rhythm. "I will never allow myself to be baptized like some... some Christian!"
"Christian!" she bellowed. Magla stood up, facing Grandpa squarely. "How dare you accuse me of following the false prophet! Next, you will call me a Sabian!" She burst into tears and ran out of the workshop.
Grandpa winced and started toward her, but thought better of it. He was late for his appointment with Dr. Faille.
"Dammit," he mumbled as he noticed the lathe still turning. "That's my power she's wasting." He flipped off the switch.
"Where are you going, Aman?" Sal asked, rubbing his sleepy eyes.
"Quiet!" his brother begged, "I have something I have to do. Don't make any noise and don't tell anyone." Aman looked down at the wide, frightened cow eyes of his eleven-year-old brother, and knelt on the floor beside his bed. "I must go somewhere, but I will be back before sunrise," he continued softly, "I am going for you, to make your life better."
"But what's wrong with the life I have?" Sal whispered quietly.
"Not the life you have, Sal," Aman said gently and slowly, "but the life that you will have." They looked at one another's moonlit faces, two bonded brothers, hand in hand, eye to eye, with a tacit understanding.
"I don't know what you're up to," Sal said adoringly, "but I know that you are much brighter than you let on. I can multiply fractions, but you can build passages to get by Morton's men. Do what you have to do. I'm going back to sleep."
Aman helped his brother pull the covers up to his chin, and headed out of the room to meet Sarah, pausing at the large crib Magla built, where Milton and Misha were asleep. In the dim light, he could not discern which was which.
Sarah waited nervously just inside the woods. She paced and fidgeted, pondering what she had done, and what she was about to do. She thought of Blanton, as she often did, and of the day that he left. He had courted her only a few months before they married, an action she now regretted, and he was out there, somewhere in The City. She patted the womb that held Blanton's last vestige, as the crunch of twigs betrayed Aman's arrival.
"Sal thinks I built the passages," he beamed.
Sarah pursed her lips as they turned to walk. "And I'm sure you made him none the wiser," she intoned. "Did you check on the twins?"
"Yes," said Aman. "They're asleep. We have to hurry and get back before Mother discovers we're gone. Are you up to this?"
The sounds of crickets and owls and crackling twigs from their hurried steps filled the long silence before her answer came. "Am I up to living at all, Aman? I know I was foolish to have married Blanton, and even more foolish to have borne the twins. How ashamed I am for my actions! But they were mine. I was responsible."
"I think the jerk was responsible some, too," Aman protested.
"Yes, but he shirked his responsibility, and now it falls to me." She glanced at her brother, and noticed his posture, slightly tilted an alert, readiness posture intentioned, she knew, to protect her. She smiled wearily. "You are twice the man he is." She pulled her sweater closer about her, noticing for the first time the chill of the night air.
Aman walked ahead of her, clearing webs and occasional vines. After several hundred yards, they both became too breathy to talk, and so they walked briskly but silently for about fifteen minutes.
Just ahead was the clearing, and the road. They could see the shadowy figure, and once more increased their pace. When the figure came to meet them, they stopped and breathed heavily. The man took Sarah's arm as though to comfort her. "I'm so glad you received my message," he said.
"Yes, I did," Sarah sighed, "the message and the coin. Thank you, Dr. Faille."
"Aman! Aman! Wake up!" Magla cried again.
Through bleary, sleepless eyes he saw, unfocused, his mother and his brother standing by his bed. "Oh, Mother," he mumbled, "I didn't sleep well at all last night. Let me stay in bed."
"Your brother told me about last night," she said.
Blinking, he rubbed his fingers round and round the pasty sockets. "What do you mean? Told you what?" He looked at Sal, who was winking awkwardly.
"He told me you tossed and turned all night, with fits and nightmares."
"Oh, yes. Of course. Well, it was just awful. I dreamed that Jesus was trying to convince me to follow him, and that he chased me with a sword." Aman gave her the most pitiable expression he could muster.
She slapped both palms against her cheeks, and sucked in a wide mouthed gasp. "Oh, how horrible for you! Oh, dear child." She sat beside him, and scooped his head up to her bosom. "There, there. There, there. We can schedule your lessons for later."
Aman managed to send his brother a return wink, which brought a very satisfied smile from Sal.
Joseph sat straight up, swaying slowly in his porch rocker. Sarah sat beside him in an armless, straw bottomed chair. She held his tight, arthritic hand between both of hers.
"Father, I know you can hear me, even if you can't respond. You are to blame for none of this. I made my decisions despite your advice to the contrary. I can't imagine now what I was thinking. I wish I would have told you before how much I love you. My only hope is that what I have now done will somehow make up for some of my foolishness."
Her father stopped, slowly moving his tired, gray, glassy eyes to meet hers. In deliberate, muffled syllables, he efforted a quiet, "Lib... er... ty." He spoke so seldom now since his stroke that Sarah was startled.
"Yes, Father," she said, drawing her face just inches from his, kissing upon his hand. "Liberty."
He moved to speak again. "Re... spon... si...," but had no energy to finish.
"Yes, Father," Sarah said quietly, her eyes darting all over his face, trying desperately to read an expression, any expression, "I know. Responsibility."
He began to twitch involuntarily, as though attempting to speak had been too much for him. Sarah gently moved a misplaced strand of hair away from his face, and caressed his head as he leaned on her comforting shoulder.
She looked out across the beautiful mountain acreage. In the distant sky, dark with thick black clouds, a trail of lightning fingered its way to the horizon in a dazzling display. In front of this was a lone jet, tracing a path toward The City.
Sarah's pained expression slowly relaxed as she watched it quietly. When she looked at her father, she discovered he was watching it, too.
"Sal, tend to Misha." Magla ordered.
Misha fidgeted in the high chair Magla had made for him. Crafted beautifully of white pine, its base was wider than the one she built for Milton, since Misha tended to rock and sway with such abandon.
Sal reached out to steady the chair, and Misha responded by slinging a bean that settled with a sticky squish on Sal's forehead. The roar of laughter that came was met with disdain by Magla.
"There is nothing funny about a retarded child," she said coldly, imparting her glare one by one around the table. Only Misha was still laughing now.
"Oh, Mother," Sarah sighed, "We weren't laughing at Misha, but at the bean." Her smile waned as she caught the face of her grandfather. His countenance implied the uselessness of arguing with her mother.
"I shall be glad when the toddlers are both old enough to sit in chairs," Magla said, pressing a napkin against the corner of her mouth. "I can sell these high chairs for at least a half-ounce of gold."
"There is unrest among the governments in the area," Grandpa announced suddenly. "There is even speculation that there might come intervention from The City."
Sarah and Aman cast each other a surreptitious glance, while she attempted an innocent expression. "Why would The City intervene, Grandfather?"
"Why are you asking questions about politics?" Magla scolded. "Your life is already wasted. You are inept at working with wood. Instead of learning a handy skill which would have given you a lifetime, steady supply of gold, you learned to read. Well, what has your reading gotten you? You are a child, a child!, with two children of your own, and pregnant with another one. One of your children is retarded, and will never have the care that he needs. Your filthy Christian husband has abandoned you. You dress in rags because you cannot sew. You cannot kill a pig or cook it. You drain this family's resources without any contribution to its income. And now you are concerned about politics. You had better begin to order your priorities before you find yourself and your children begging the Mortons to take you in and give you charity."
A stunned, uneasy silence settled around the room. Sarah looked down quietly, defenselessly at her plate of beans and pork.
Suddenly, Aman slammed his fist against the table, rattling the plates and dinnerware. The twins both began to cry, as Sal desperately tended to them. Aman rose, sending his chair careening into the wall. His eyes creased with anger as he began in a contemptuous tone, "None of Sarah's plight is her fault. It is yours, Mother, if it is anyone's. I am soon to be a man, and when I seek out a woman, it will be a search for one just like her. Whose decision was it to settle among these crazy Christians? Was it Sarah's? Who gave Grandpa his cancer? Was it Sarah? Who was the cause of Father's stroke? Sarah? You preach personal responsibility, yet you're always blaming someone else. I am ashamed to be..."
Sarah reached for his arm, "Aman, please. Don't."
He jerked her hand away, and continued, now tearfully and with utter concentration, "And you, Grandpa! All of this falls ultimately to you. You have manipulated Father and Mother against each other for as long as I can remember. Where were you when Blanton came courting Sarah, promising her wealth and freedom? As I recall, you told father he seemed like a good man, that all Christians weren't evil, and that one day, we would all share in the fulfillment of Blanton's dream. Well, now he is off somewhere in The City, wealthy as a gold miner, while we are sharing in nothing but squalor. You failed to educate us, so we had to educate ourselves. All this argument constantly about governments and Jesus and the Baptist and Moses. Well, what about us?"
It was a first. Aman, nearly fifteen, had never so asserted himself. Magla was dumbfounded, with an expression of stark terror. Who would now control the boy? All the men were weak and feeble, and her own frail frame was no match for his. Grandpa, though, never changed the expression on his poker face.
"Sit down, Aman," Grandpa said.
Their locked eyes prolonged the moment. Around the table, glances darted back and forth between the two of them. Even the twins seemed interested, with some vague understanding that a challenge was afoot. Aman looked away, finally, at Sarah, and found in her face a mixed expression of sadness and fear. He knew suddenly that Magla had caused the sadness, but that he had caused the fear. He remembered how, in his angry fit, he had brushed her hand away.
"Oh, God," he said. "Sarah, I'm sorry." He saw his mother's terrified expression, and Sal's bewildered stare. "Mother, forgive me. I never meant... Grandpa, I..."
"Sit down, Aman," Grandpa said again, more gently.
"Yes. Yes, I will sit down." He stared for a moment at nothing in particular, as though his eyes were resting on a shelf.
He had forgotten about his chair, and hit the floor with an enormous thud.
Another round of laughter erupted as he collected the chair and settled into it, beginning with Grandpa, then with Aman, then with Magla and Sarah together, and finally with Sal and the twins.
The only one not laughing was Joseph. He was looking out the window. Sarah noticed this and turned to see two of Morton's men coming toward the porch.
Burton Cordelle, Morton's chief enforcer, made a startled face at the taste of Magla's strong coffee. He was a massive man, with the arms and shoulders of an ancient rower, but with the gentle and kind face of a beloved uncle.
Clearing his throat, he continued, "And so you can understand how complex all this is. Contracts among the Pringles and the Mortons and the Fitches are all about to expire. The government of The City seems ready to pounce at a moment's notice."
"What do you mean 'pounce', Mr. Cordelle?" Sarah asked. She caught Magla's tight-lipped stare. "Mother, I am a legal adult. I will ask the questions I see fit to ask."
"Of course, dear," she smiled sarcastically. She wanted no hint of discord to be shown to the Morton men.
"Well," Cordelle began, moving his eyes from Magla back to Sarah, "The City informs us that some of its citizens are interested in purchasing land in this area. They already own the land The Cancer Facility is on, as well as a narrow strip of land that stretches all the way from it to The City. Oddly, this strip has a road with seldom a car on it, except for the few that go there from this area, including that of your grandfather."
The other man with Cordelle had yet to speak, and kept his eyes mostly on Sarah. She noticed this, and was discomforted by it, and felt some vague recognition about him which she could not bring into focus. "I understand, Mr. Cordelle," she pressed, "but are citizens of the city threatening to take the land by force?"
"Oh, of course not," Cordelle replied. "But the amount of gold they are offering the landowners is quite much, and the landowners are giving it serious consideration."
"I am a landowner," Grandpa interrupted, "and no one has offered me any gold."
"Mr. Fuerstman, with all due respect, sir. They know of your condition. For your land, they apparently are willing to wait."
"My condition?" Grandpa was startled. "You mean they are waiting for me to die? Magla, do you hear this? Sarah?"
The other man finally spoke, "Who is your heir, Mr. Fuerstman?" He was a fat, squat, mealy man with thin, greasy black hair and thick, black rimmed glasses. His suit looked cheap, and was nondescriptly gray.
"That is none of your business," Grandpa told the man, whose name by now he had forgotten. "You can find out when the city dwellers do. My God! Vultures!"
"Mr. Cordelle," Sarah would not let the matter drop. "If the sale of land to citizens of The City is free and fair trade, without force, then why would anyone protest?"
"No one protests, Sarah," he replied with the cadence of one who is carefully selecting words. "We are merely considering alternatives, which I was going to bring up shortly. Suppose The City were to own all the land in the area except for your grandfather's. What sort of predicament would that leave you in? What if you could not strike contracts with citizens of The City for necessary services? What would you do?"
Sarah seemed puzzled, not about the answer to his question, which was obvious to her, but about where all this was leading. "I should quite imagine that it would be in my own self-interest to cooperate with citizens of The City. Why would they deny services to me, if I were willing to pay? That would not be in their own best interest."
Cordelle looked up at Grandpa as though appealing for help, but none was forthcoming. "Sarah," he turned back to her. "Perhaps there is another way, a way in which you will not have to depend on the good sense of other people." He paused a moment as though realizing that wasn't quite what he meant. "Mr. Ratz, here, is under contract with Mr. Morton, and is himself from The City."
All eyes turned to him instantly. He rolled his tongue around his fat cheeks, like a mischievous child waiting on a response to a just done deed.
"From the city?" Magla broke in. "You? You are the one offering the gold, and waiting for my father-in-law to die?"
"No. I offer something much more valuable than gold," he deadpanned. "Let me explain." Sarah found his nasal voice to be ingratiating, but listened attentively.
He paced the room, making broad sweeps with his hands as he spoke. He seemed more like he was giving a speech or presentation than talking to people. "Imagine, if you will," he said finally, after much introduction about himself and his credentials, "a society where government is not cruel, where the needs of everyone are fulfilled by a benign government."
"What needs?" Grandpa asked.
Ratz seemed annoyed by all the confused expressions directed toward him. "Well, all of them, Mr. Fuerstman. Your housing. Your clothing. Your education. Your health these needs of yours, and of your children."
"But these are needs that I alone am responsible to provide."
"Yes," Magla joined in. "Why would government be concerned about such matters?"
Ratz looked at Cordelle with a tightly drawn mouth, and an I-told-you-so expression. Cordelle offered, "Please, Mr. Fuerstman, Magla, Sarah," he looked at each one as he called the names. He was much better equipped to deal with people than Ratz was. "You were kind to allow us to come here. Please just hear him out. He is talking about something quite new here. You will need to expand your imaginations a bit to understand. Many of the other landowners have already listened, and some are impressed." After this rescue, he smiled disarmingly, to which the Fuerstmans responded in kind, and turned their attention back to Ratz.
"Suppose," Ratz said, folding his hand dramatically to prop up his chin, "just suppose, that your own children what do you have here? a couple of teenage boys? two toddlers, one of whom is retarded? and yet another on the way? suppose government itself would pay for them to attend school. I'm talking about good schools, like those in the city, where even those like ... what is the retarded one's name?"
"Misha," Sarah said blankly.
"Yes. Misha. Suppose government provided for him the very best care, and it would not cost you one speck of gold." His smirky smile was now spread clear across his face.
"But, who would provide these services for free?" Sarah asked, her confusion compounding with every utterance from Ratz.
"Well, they wouldn't be free, per se. But they would be free to you."
"You mean charity?" Grandpa queried, his brow deeply furrowed and drawn. "But only a very wealthy person could finance such a charity, with so broad a scope."
"Yes, yes, now you understand!" Ratz exclaimed triumphantly. "A charitable government, financed by the gold of its wealthy citizens!"
"But, Mr. Ratz," Magla protested, "Why funnel this charity through government? Why not let the wealthy person set up his charity himself?"
Ratz glanced once again at Cordelle, who took the baton. "Mrs. Fuerstman, suppose the wealthy citizen would not cooperate in financing the charity."
"Well, then," she answered instantly, "I dare say it would hardly get off the ground." She smiled broadly, a rare occurrence, satisfied that she had set Cordelle straight on such a simple concept.
But Sarah was more attuned. There was no trace of a smile as she glared at Ratz, straight into his eyes, and said, "You mean to take the gold of the wealthy by force don't you Mr. Ratz? You mean to steal it from them."
"Oh, dear me, no!" Cordelle broke in, patting his forehead with a handkerchief. "Not per se. 'Steal' is certainly not the proper choice of words. Not at all! Isn't that right, Mr. Ratz?"
Ratz, too, was unsmiling, and still holding the glare from Sarah. "From each," he began slowly and with great deliberation, as though to screw the words, twist by twist, into an open wound, "according to his ability... to each according to his need."
"Please, Ratz!" Cordelle said, rolling his eyes. "That is not helpful at all."
Sarah ignored Cordelle, and in a violent motion squared herself up with Ratz, clinching her fists, barely containing her revulsion. "You are advocating a Robin Hood society, where those who have wealth are routinely pillaged and looted, and their wealth spread out among those who did nothing to entitle themselves to it. I was not raised that way, Mr. Ratz. And if you were, then your mother was a bitch and your father was a jackal!"
"Sarah!" Magla stood, shouting. "How dare you speak to a guest this way!"
Ratz' posture was drawn back, but he never took his eyes from Sarah's, and returned her incredulous stare with an unctuous one of his own.
Suddenly, the door to the room flung open, crashing against the wall, as Aman stood shakily. "Someone help!" he cried, "I believe Father is dying!"
The Cancer Facility was massive. A woman in the city owned both it and the land between the Mortons and the Pringles. She owned also most of the strip of land that joined the facility to The City a hundred miles away. Sarah sat quietly, holding Misha, while Milton sat on her one side, and Sal and Aman on the other. Magla was kneeling by the wall, praying, while Grandpa paced aimlessly back and forth. Cordelle and Ratz, who had helped drive some of the family to the facility, were standing at the computer with the nurse.
In a moment, Dr. Faille walked in. All eyes, except Magla's, greeted him. He looked first at Sarah, then at Grandpa. "I'm sorry," were his only words. Magla began to wail, and Grandpa began to sob. Sarah was only staring off into space, numbed and dazed, thinking of her last private encounter with her father, and how she was so grateful that she had told him she loved him.
Ratz was whispering something to Cordelle, but Cordelle was waving him off.
An attendant came to escort them to where the body would be claimed. One by one, they filed mournfully out of the room, stopping, each adult and Aman, to thank the doctor. Cordelle and Ratz remained as the heavy doors settled shut.
"Hello, Sandy," Cordelle said.
The doctor barely acknowledged him with a faint nod, and turned straight away to Ratz. "Ratz, what are you doing involving yourself with these people?"
Ratz drew his lips toward his pinched nose in a defiant, defensive expression. "I drove them here, Dr. Faille. I extended them a bit of charity."
"They have no need for your kind of 'charity', Ratz." Dr. Faille took two heavy gold coins from his pocket and tossed them at Ratz. They bounced off his chest and settled on the floor near his feet.
"Doctor, Doctor," Cordelle laughed sheepishly, "is this behavior necessary? Could you not maintain decorum, if for no other reason, then out of respect for the friendship and trade you and I have shared throughout the years?"
Dr. Faille ignored him.
"What you are doing, Ratz, constitutes fraud. That's why you were banished from The City. You chose this punishment yourself, instead of rehabilitation."
"I could not afford rehabilitation. I have very little property, and they would have made me work," Ratz whined.
"A man should not take on what he cannot afford," the doctor answered coldly. "Many in The City had little property before, but applied themselves with all they could muster to provide for families and to help their neighbors and friends. Now, many of those are wealthy. Our government sees to free and fair trade, and allows each person to pursue his own happiness in his own way, so long as he brings no force into his dealings. Simply because you have made stupid, irresponsible decisions, you now usurp a right to the wealth of other men. You are a putrid rascal."
The doctor peeled his eyes off Ratz, and squarely faced Cordelle. "Burton, I don't know what has become of you. If I discover that my friend has become an associate of the devil, then he is no longer my friend." Cordelle was visibly startled, but the doctor continued, "If you have bought into the drivel piped out by this slug, that is your business. But he is not welcome here. And if you are his associate, then neither are you."
"I am most certainly not his associate. I am employed directly by Mr. Morton," Cordelle protested. "We are simply trying to give him a fair hearing."
"Once you have heard," Dr. Faille said carefully, "that a man wants you to help him steal, when you cut him off at that point, your hearing has been fair."
Cordelle responded only with quick, speechless blinks.
"Well," Ratz said finally. "I suppose I know when I'm not welcome. And I suppose if I were dying, you would offer me no help, Doctor."
Dr. Faille turned quietly to Ratz and said, "You have just enough gold at your feet to afford one treatment." The doctor gave him a face of stone as he turned to walk out the doors, "Leave as quickly as you can."
Cordelle gave Ratz an unsure glance, and headed out the doors to try to catch the doctor. Ratz, under the attentive supervision of the nurse, gathered up the gold and stuffed it in his pocket.
"Quiet, everyone! Please! Order!" Thaddeus Morton pounded his gavel again. "We have a heavy, heavy agenda tonight." He wiped the sweat from his brow, as the hall began to settle down. All three chiefs of government were there, including Morton, Claudia Pringle, and Abraham Fitch. He settled his elbows on the table where each chief sat with his enforcer, and Ratz at one end, and a representative from The City, a woman, at the other. "We have two special guests this evening, and each has something to say. Anyone who will not hear them, please leave the hall now."
"May we hear one and not the other?" came a cry from the hall.
Gaveling the laughter, Morton said loudly, "Suit yourselves, but these matters are very important. It is my turn to chair the council of governments, and this particular council is vital to all of you. We are saving the contract renewal discussions until the end, since the remarks by our guests will likely greatly impact them. Please be gracious, responsible representatives of yourselves as we are for you on your behalf. Is anyone here dissatisfied with the protection his government has offered him?"
"No," came a reply from the back, "but I am dissatisfied with the smell from Fuerstman's pig farm!"
Magla, Grandpa, and Sarah sat four rows from the front. Magla stared stone-faced straight ahead, while Sarah looked down embarrassed, and Grandpa joined the laughter.
"Order!" Morton pounded twice. "We can discuss that matter with Ms. Pringle later. Now please pay attention. One of our guests is Mr. Bernhard Ratz, formerly of the Institute for Political Science, now in my personal employ as a security advisor..."
'Security?', Sarah questioned herself, 'whom does he offer security to except thieves?' She could not fathom the justification for stealing. It was simply too much a part of her character. She had wrestled with the question since the night of Ratz' visit of whether she would steal to feed her own hungry child. Her conclusion was that she might, but not until she had exhausted all other efforts like working, begging, giving up her own food, or even placing her child with a capable caregiver.
"...and many other splendid qualifications. Please welcome Mr. Bernhard Ratz." Only the government representatives applauded, which cast a weird effect, and quickly died.
"Thank you, Mr. Morton, for that kind introduction." Ratz wore the same gray suit he wore that night at the Fuerstmans. "Friends, I bring to you tonight a bold new vision, a liberation from the oppression you suffer. The heavy thumbs of wealthy men from The City are about to squash all of you if you do not become aware. They are even now conspiring to buy your property at prices you can scarcely refuse and to what end? Have any of you, when approached by these people, asked what they wanted with your land? They want to exploit it, that's what. They want to divvy out some gold to you just so they can make their own selves even richer!
"You people are sitting on some incredible resources here. By pooling your wealth, you could make use of these resources for yourselves. You could build your own city, but not build it on the backs of workers by the whips of oppressive labor barons. You are scheduled to discuss later tonight how you will continue to deal with one another. Mr. Morton has the aquifer, Ms. Pringle the phones, and Mr. Fitch the electrical lines. Is it not more sensible to merge together for the common good, so that all good things can be available to all people?"
Some heads in the hall nodded faint approval, others, particularly the smaller landowners, tilted forward to listen more closely.
"Some of you have more wealth than you need, while others of you suffer needs which cannot be fulfilled, simply because you don't have enough gold. I ask rhetorically to Mr. Fitch's Christians: how Christian is this? Would Jesus have sat around with fists full of gold while children starved all around him?"
'He certainly would have', Magla thought.
"You, there in the back, the man dissatisfied with the smell of Fuerstman's pigs! How much land do you own?"
"I own none," came the reply, "I rent land from Mr. Fitch."
"And why is that?" Ratz pressed on, "Simply because you had the misfortune to be born poor? And Mr. Fitch," he looked to his right at Fitch, "how much poorer would you be if you simply gave the measly parcel of land to this man?"
"Why should I give him my land?" Fitch asked incredulously.
"Precisely because it is not yours. Each of you," he turned back to address the hall, "has a right to all the land in this vision I offer you, the vision of The People's State. Land and wealth shared equally among all of you guarantees equality. It guarantees that no one will want for food, shelter, clothing, or a doctor's care. You are proud of your freedoms, but The People's State gives you the ultimate freedom of all, freedom from need."
There was a smattering of faint applause.
"Mr. Ratz," asked Claudia Pringle, in a booming surprise alto, "who would decide what people's needs are? What is to prevent anyone from claiming a need when none exists? Or who is to settle whether something even is a need at all. A person may need a coat for the winter. Such would be a need whose legitimacy no one would deny. But someone else may need a second car. Who will determine whether this is, or is not, a legitimate need?"
"Why, Ms. Pringle," Ratz smirked. "Government will, of course. People like you, Mr. Fitch, and Mr. Morton."
She glanced aside, as though having a sudden revelation.
Ratz anticipated the buzz beginning to stir in the hall. "None of you," he announced, "replied when asked, that you were displeased with your governors. Have you not trusted them all this time to make wise decisions on your behalf? Have they ever betrayed you?"
"No!" came the answer from many.
"Then why waste their benevolent services? Why have poor among you when you can eradicate poverty? Why have hungry among you when you can eradicate hunger? Why have sick among you when you can eradicate disease?"
"Yeah! Yeah!" came a louder roar, mixed with respectable applause.
"Take back what is rightfully yours! Take back what was stolen from you for the sake of someone else's personal gain! Tear down the walls! Tear down the walls!"
The refrain began with nearly half the hall Tear down the walls! Tear down the walls!
"Order! Order!" Morton pounded.
Ratz stood proud like Mussolini on a balcony, basking in the adulation of those who cheered.
"Mr. Ratz, please!" Morton pleaded.
Ratz gathered himself, and gave motions to the hall to stop chanting. "Friends, before you make your decisions tonight, meet with me, and let us reason together. Thank you very much!"
The applause was enthusiastic among half the hall, moderate among some others, and little if any from the rest. Grandpa, Magla, and Sarah sat perfectly still.
"Order, please!" Morton pounded once more as the hall hushed. They were all curious about the next guest, because she had never been to the area. "Thank you. Thank you. Now please allow me to introduce to you Ms. Elizabeth Washington, a successful landowner from The City. She is the owner of The Cancer Facility..."
At this, shrieks and applause burst forth from all areas of the hall. People stood and whistled, cheering loudly. Morton's gavel could not be heard through the roar. The Cancer Facility was where all of them had routinely received their medical care from Dr. Faille and others in the Facilitys auxiliary medical annex. Many of the wealthiest landowners, grateful for the care they and their workers received, often paid more gold than the price of their treatment, in order to help care for their neighbors. And some of the neighbors who were poor and could work, worked gladly to offset some of the cost of their care, the finest care on earth. None had ever been turned away at the Cancer Facility. And they were thanking Ms. Washington for it.
She stood erect before them, a tall, big boned woman, with wisps of thick black straw hair. Her green eyes smiled along with her mouth, as she attempted for nearly a minute to quiet the hall. Ratz stared at her with his chin jutted out, like some sulking boy who has had his wagon taken away.
"Neighbors of the Cancer Facility, thank you for welcoming me among you. The facility is my proudest life achievement. All that I am, I have put into it. My own father died of cancer when I was a girl, just becoming a young woman. I was twenty years old."
She looked directly at Sarah, who was smiling with a face that betrayed her recognition of the woman. A single tear trickled down Sarah's cheek, rested, then fell onto the head of a sleeping Misha at her feet.
"I know what struggling is. I have done it all my life. I still do. Yes, I am a wealthy woman. Yes, I have much gold. Yes, I own a lot of land. And all of it, every last ounce, every last acre, I would give it up to have my father back again."
But for her voice, the room was utterly quiet, not even a rustle.
"I am the one who has been offering to buy your land, through agents I have sent to negotiate with you. I gave my agents standing orders to offer you twice what your land was worth. Why did I do it? Simply because I could afford to. Why did I want to do it? Simply because of Mr. Ratz."
Ratz displayed a confused expression. He was at once disarmed at the public mention of his name, and at the same time disturbed that mention of it came from Ms. Washington.
"I knew Bernhard Ratz would come to you," she went on. "He presented his ideas before to many landowners in The City. There, we have strict laws against the initiation of force. We consider fraud to be a form of exactly that. It doesn't have the same physically bruising qualities as a club, but it is a means to the same end to force another person to act in a way he otherwise would not. It is trickery rather than tyranny. No one is ever a willing victim of fraud.
"The fraud he perpetrates upon you tonight is his misrepresentation of his People's State. When he speaks of pooling your resources together, he does not mean pooling them together voluntarily, as we do in The City. He means establishing a system where it is your civic duty to give up of your wealth whatever amount the government tells you to give up. This same advocate that you have known all your lives would become an enemy, not all at once, but slowly. As you die out, your children will become more and more used to a lifetime of carrying this duty upon their shoulders, until such time as those among their children who protest, will come to be seen as derelicts and crackpots.
"Before long, the wealthy will wise up, and realize that they can corrupt your government, whose size, scope, and power, over time, must expand in proportion to the amount of services it distributes. Wealth will begin to accumulate with government, until it is handling most of the wealth. It will own land where you cannot build houses or factories or mines or parks, and will stop minting gold. It will keep the gold for itself, print money on paper, and strike coins of cheap tin and zinc.
"In its corrupt state, and with its expanded powers, it will favor the wealthy, who will be its clients, with special privileges and business subsidies. Even pursuing a government office will come to require great wealth, as government comes more and more to regulate trade and behavior. The poor will become trapped in inescapable poverty, where they will be no threat to the government and business politicians. The government will subsidize them enough to survive, but still will encumber them with regulations and incentives against responsible behavior, making their escape impossible to any but the luckiest few.
"You, as individuals, will at some point become unable to control this government. Its laws will become an unthinkably complex jumble of contradicting regulations, that can only be sorted out by a privileged few, those who can afford or swindle the education to learn a language among its legal community that will be foreign to its citizens. Not only that, this government will come to regulate your behavior and your private lives, with frivolous prohibitions that are favored by the largest blocks of government clients."
She paused to take a sip of water. The hall could hear her swallow it.
"When you go over your affairs among yourselves tonight, please consider that while there is competition in a free market among those who offer goods and services, there is also cooperation among a producer and its clients. Mr. Ratz says you have rich, abundant resources here, and he is right. Regarding this, each of you in this room has exactly the same responsibility. Whether you are wealthy, or whether you are poor, your duty is to struggle to achieve, to push yourselves to the limits of your abilities.
"You must realize if you are rich, that you are not entitled to the labor of the poor; you must pay for it. And if you are poor, you must realize that you are not entitled to wealth of the rich; you must work for it."
She stepped forward in front of the table, near the front row of the hall. She held up her clinched fist.
"In my fist is a quarter-ounce of gold," she announced. "This is gold I earned from profits at the facility, from wealthy clients both in The City and here. Who among you would seek to come down here and wrestle it out of my hand for the sake of your own need? And I promise you, I will struggle to resist you, because it is mine. Which of you will bring a club or gun to take it away from me? None of you? Not one? Yet he," she thrust a finger at Mr. Ratz, "would try to trick it out of me. And if his government gets the power he is asking you to give it, it will turn its protecting powers into attacking powers, and throw me in jail if I do not give up my gold. And if I resist going to jail, it will kill me and take the gold from my corpse."
She moved slowly back to her place at the table.
"I want to buy your land to keep Mr. Ratz from swallowing it up into his People's State. My father died of cancer to the body corpus. Mr. Ratz' ideas are a cancer to the body politic. You, and you alone are the people responsible tonight for what your world will be like, and that of your children. If you will not sell your land to me, then for God's sake, keep it for yourselves, and make something of it together."
She stood silently, as those in the hall looked at one another, respectfully, remorsefully, and with a shared understanding of what she had said. It was a moment before it dawned on them that she had finished. They rose in unison and began to hiss and boo, not at her, but at Ratz, who, at some advice whispered from Mr. Morton, left the hall quickly by the back exit. Then they turned the full chorus of their adoration upon Ms. Washington.
She looked straight at Sarah, and blew her a kiss.
"I have one more announcement to make."
Morton raised his gavel, but the mere movement of Ms. Washington's lips silenced the crowd.
"Some time ago, two of your area residents visited me in The City."
A gasp went up in the hall. Who would have known her, much less visited her?
"Ms. Sarah Fuerstman McCord and her brother, Aman Fuerstman were brought to me in the dead of the night by the goodness of Dr. Sandy Faille from the Cancer Facility."
Magla and Grandpa looked at Sarah briefly, startled, then quickly back to Ms. Washington.
"They did not come for charity. They came for justice. Our government was protecting someone who harmed Sarah, namely, her husband, who left her and her children when they needed him most, in pursuit of a fortune that he felt they would delay him in attaining.
"In The City, we, like you, have laws that enforce strict responsibility for personal actions. Fatherhood and motherhood are the most sacred of all responsibilities. Blanton McCord would have shirked his, but for one small important detail, which Sarah brought to my attention. When he entered our protection, he did so fraudulently, without informing us of his responsibilities. He was still the husband of Sarah, and responsible under our laws for her care and the care of his children.
"I brought the matter to the attention of our law interpreter, a business competitor of mine, incidentally, who agreed, and gave the matter over to the enforcer to handle. Blanton McCord admitted his guilt, and surrendered half of his assets, which rightfully belong to his wife, whom he has never divorced. I am delivering those assets to her tonight while I am here, by request of our enforcer.
"Sarah," Ms. Washington lowered her voice slightly, with almost a reverent tone. "You represent all that is the best about people. You have honor, integrity, and wisdom, which you have earned by the good sense to learn from your mistakes. You were never poor. Not today, with hundreds of ounces of gold, and hundreds of acres of land, and not yesterday, when you had but a few coins."
Sarah patted her soaked face, and strained to choke out a few words, "Thank you, Ms. Washington." As she reached for another tissue, she saw Misha through the blur of her tears.
He was smiling.
Lib, thanks for putting this thread in your profile. I never would have come across it otherwise. You have some compelling ideas in this story. Your writing style seems to have been influenced by Ayn Rand. Overall, quite an impressive handling of a difficult assignment, IMHO.
Just found this thread, and enjoyed the story. Did you publish this anywhere?
I like your political commentary, as much as the personal drama in the story. It would make a nice Movie of the Week.
Wow, thanks! I can't believe someone actually read the story! I put it on a website I used to have, but I guess that's not publishing it, per se. Anyway, thanks for the comments.
I'd also like to comment on your wonderful descriptions of your characters -- you did this so well, I could SEE them in my mind; the way they gestured, raised voices, etc. And needless to say, Ms. Washington's speech in the end was really in sync with my own political views.
Do you write regularly (either as an amateur hobbyist or professionally) or did you write this story simply as a means of fulfilling a class requirement?
Either way, I think you should keep writing. You're good.
Actually, it wasn't for a class. Rather, it was a challenge from a liberal intellectual (who was a very nice person whom I greatly respected) at another message board quite some time back. He could not fathom that people, even in the strangest of circumstances, might be able to figure out how to live their lives all by themselves.
Discussions with him (and other authoritarians, both liberal and conservative) remind me of something that Von Mises talked about in Human Action: when people advocate that government enact a plan, what they mean is that government enact their plan in particular. When government enacts a plan they don't like, their suggested remedy is to change the plan. Compromise is inevitable, and the pending unforseen consequences of central planning by committee always await.
The best remedy, of course, is that each person make his own life-plan in accordance with what he believes is best for his own happiness, presuming that he initiates no force or fraud that is, he is able to enact his plan peacefully and honestly.
When we try to live the lives of others on their behalf, we make them not only miserable, but eventually incapable of living their lives without us and our plans. As Thoreau once wrote, "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life."