“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 Facility’s 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.