All Commentary
Friday, July 12, 2013

Pushcarts without Romance

Jean Merrill. The Pushcart War. New York: Dell, [1964] 1987. 223 pages.

James Buchanan argued that Public Choice theory “exerted major influence in providing a coherent understanding and interpretation of what could be everywhere observed.” I add to that my own assertion that one of these “everywheres” is the world of literature. 

Public Choice theory is one of the great underutilized tools for thinking about literature, and literature is one of the great underexplored areas for the consideration of Public Choice theory. As I suggested in an earlier column about Shakespeare’s Henry V, literature and Public Choice both seek to go “behind the scenes of politics” to consider the unromantic realities of how political decisions actually get made. That makes them natural and productive partners.

Although most critics have been shockingly blind to the similarities, Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War, a novel for middle-school readers, is very much like Henry V. It is about a war between a tiny group of underdogs and a huge, seemingly unbeatable opposing force. It contains stirring battle scenes, great speeches, and heroic sacrifice. And like Henry VThe Pushcart War takes us behind the scenes of the political decision-making process in an open invitation to anyone who is interested in Public Choice and literature.

Written as a fictional future history looking back at the historic events of The Pushcart War, the novel opens with a portrait of the streets of New York City, which have become clogged with trucks that have grown so large (large enough to move a power plant!) and so numerous that traffic is at a standstill. In response to the increase in traffic the trucks seem to get bigger and bigger. The fictional historian Professor Lyman Cumberly suggests that this is because “The only way to get where you wanted to go was to be so big that you didn’t have to get out of the way for anybody. This is known as the Large Object Theory of History.”

In order to deflect attention from the traffic jams they are causing, the truck drivers need to find someone to blame for the congestion. They blame the pushcart peddlers. As Maxie Hammerman, the Pushcart King, explains, “Who shall they blame? …Taxis? No, there are too many taxis. Cars? No, too many cars. The trucks do not want to fight the cars and the taxis. That would make too many more people mad at them. But pushcarts—how many are there?”

To counter the trucks’ strong-arm tactics of knocking over pushcarts and their operators, the pushcart peddlers begin to use peashooters to shoot pins at truck tires, causing flat tires all over the city and emphasizing the trucks’ role in the congestion that plagues New York. While the campaign is wildly successful (particularly when Frank the Flower is arrested and becomes something of a folk hero), the pushcart peddlers face hidden political challenges. 

The mayor of New York—elected on the strength of his famous peanut butter speech, defending the trucks as making the “difference between big business and small business” and thereby making New York great—is in bed with the truck companies. The biggest three truck owners in New York have given him shares in their companies and play poker with him every Friday. As he frequently tells them, “Your problems are my problems.”

The logrolling and pork-barrel politics so well described by Public Choice make it very easy to predict that the mayor will require very little extra persuasion to raise a punitive “tacks tax” in hopes of making it too expensive for the pushcart peddlers to put pins into truck tires. When that fails to stop the war—because the peddlers are using pins and the government has taxed the wrong pointed object—the mayor declares that all pea packaging plants will be closed as well.

The pushcart war continues to grow, until a “peace army” of 500 pushcarts blocks the three biggest trucking routes in the city. With the mayor in the pocket of the trucking companies, the outcome seems a foregone conclusion. However, letters to the press and strong public support for the pushcarts (combined with a Police Commissioner who likes the pushcart peddlers as much as the mayor likes the trucks) turn the tide, and the small business world of the pushcarts is saved. Trucks are reduced in size and number, the truck companies’ secret plan to get all non-truck vehicles off the road is revealed, and peace reigns.

The Pushcart War has a delicious skepticism about politics and about business and about human nature that runs through its plot. Merrill makes it very clear that everyone involved in the war—the trucking companies, the pushcart peddlers, the politicians, the movie stars and even the children—is following his or her own self-interest, and using the vehicle of the pushcart war to do so. That alone should recommend the book strongly to readers of this column. Add in the considerable charm and humor with which the story is told, and you have some essential summer reading for fans of literature and economics.

James Buchanan’s famous article “Politics without Romance” reminds us that while Public Choice is a rich and complicated theory, its basics are simple, easily attainable, and transformative to our understanding of political economy.

Armed with nothing more than the rudimentary insights from Public Choice, individuals could understand why, once established, bureaucracies tend to grow apparently without limit and without connection to initially promised functions. They could understand why pork-barrel politics dominated the attention of legislators; why there seems to be a direct relationship between the overall size of government and the investment in efforts to secure special concessions from government (rent seeking); why the tax system is described by the increasing number of special credits, exemptions, and loopholes; why balanced budgets are so hard to secure; and why strategically placed industries secure tariff protection.

Combine those insights with a narrative that has the wit and charm of Merrill’s Pushcart War and the basic ideas of Public Choice could be as commonly taught as fractions, spelling, and Shakespeare. And that might begin to take the romance out of politics.