The Autumn of Our Discontent

Mr. Braun is an engineer in Creston, Iowa. This article is from his recent speech before the Toastmasters group there.

Once upon a time there was a great department store where people could buy any product they chose. This store had all of the latest scientific devices, medical aids, autos, washing machines, television sets—everything from soup to nuts. Customers were offered numerous options: you could go into the store just to browse, or you could buy on time, pay cash, or write a check, whatsoever you wished. People came from great distances to shop and to partake of the great assortment of products at reasonable prices.

Somewhat unique among the goods and services offered was one that went pretty much unnoticed: police service. Yes, at each of the store’s many entrances and exits stood a man in blue with his shiny badge. The only time the policeman was noticed was when somebody tried to rob the store or take something out without paying for it. Occasionally, fights would break out in the store and the policeman would be called upon to restore order. Sometimes he was needed to apprehend a pickpocket or dealer in fraudulent merchandise. There was even an occasion when a store clerk tried to rob a customer and the police had to intervene; but basically the man in blue went unnoticed. Yet, he was always there and it was a comforting sign.

Everything went well for many years. The store enjoyed a good reputation; most everyone spoke well of it. Oh, there was the occasional gripe by someone who felt that he was being cheated, but this was very rare. All in all, the store showed profits, the customers were happy, and mutual respect prevailed.

Then, one day a poor crippled old man came into the store. He looked longingly at some of the products. This was not unusual; people with problems had come to the store before. Usually, some kind person would pay for a meal or make a gift of some item purchased in the store; and this was fine. The receiver felt good and the giver felt good.

But on this occasion it seemed that no one was around to help this poor crippled old man. He did a great deal of browsing. At times it looked as if he were going to yield to temptation and steal something, but his integrity and honesty prevailed. A policeman had been observing him carefully. Suddenly, the policeman took something off the shelf and gave it to the crippled old man. The old man, startled at first, looked with surprise at the policeman and then smiled.

Several persons in the crowded store witnessed this scene with mixed emotions: "What is that policeman doing? He can’t take things that don’t belong to him and give them to others. Well, I guess it’s O.K.; after all, the poor man is a cripple."

A few days later, the old man was back, this time with a sick friend. He gave the policeman a wink and a smile, whereupon the policeman took some food and gave it to the crippled old man and his feeble friend. And so began a trend. Others who were poor or had physical problems would go to this policeman and ask for free merchandise, and they usually received it.

As expected, this one policeman became very popular and received commendations from both receivers and observers; after all, the store was very rich. More and more people saw this happening and thought it was fair. Soon, the policemen at the other doors joined in giving away the store’s merchandise. Before long, even healthy people were walking in on crutches trying to get free merchandise, and usually succeeding. Of course, as the merchandise began to disappear, the store had to raise prices to keep from losing money; but the increases were minor at first and nobody complained. After the practice had spread and continued, the scene began to change in the store. Instead of the quiet orderly business place it once had been, it now looked like a madhouse. There were police all over the place, hundreds of them, giving things to people for all sorts of reasons. But the people receiving these things were not happy about it as had been the first crippled old man and his friends. They always seemed to want what the policeman gave to somebody else. They would stand around screaming: "I want some of that. He’s getting more than I did. Why can’t I have it now?"

The ordinary shopper, without an ailment, was beginning to wonder why he should have to pay for things that others were getting for nothing. In time, as prices continued to rise, he too would manage to get some merchandise free; so he didn’t complain too much about the price because he felt someone else was doing most of the paying and he was getting only bargains. In the old days, if he saw someone stealing, he would yell, "Help, police, there is a thief" until the officer took notice. But now it wasn’t really robbery because the police were doing the taking and giving.

Eventually, no one believed he was getting a fair deal, even if he got everything free. It seemed as if somebody else always got more. So, what happened? The great store, of course, went out of business and there no longer was a reason for anyone to go there. You’ve guessed it! The store is America. The policeman is the government. You and I are the customers. And if this is truly the "Autumn of our Discontent", let us hasten to mend our ways. If we can get the police back to their proper function of guarding peaceful persons and protecting private property, we may still save the store.

In this Bicentennial season, let us celebrate the founding principles of liberty and justice — not what we can get from government at someone else’s expense. With self-responsibility — to each the fruits of his own labor — we can all live happily ever after.