Arnold Kling  

Folk Songs

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This past weekend, my wife and I attended a sing-along. About fifty of us Baby Boomers, along with a few children and grandchildren, gathered with some guitars, banjos, and other instruments to sing the classic tunes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, John Denver, and other icons. I started to realize that the only thing wrong with these songs is the antiquated collectivist lyrics.

I think we could use a few updated folk songs. Some of the new titles I came up with are:

Hard Taxpayin'
Take Me Home, Private Roads
I ain't a Warmin' Anymore

Then, I read in yesterday's Washington Post:

Harvard Law School has a plan to encourage more students to enter public service. The school announced yesterday that it will pay the third year of tuition for students who pledge to work in government or at nonprofit organizations.

Just what we need them to do--encourage more Spitzers.

But this story really hit home. My oldest daughters, like many college students these days, graduated wanting to work only for nonprofits. As a result, this song came to mind, with updated lyrics:

You don't have to support me, I'm workin' for a profit

So, in addition to writing parables and encouraging civil disobedience, there is yet another way to spread the libertarian message.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Education

COMMENTS (25 to date)
Jeff Holmes writes:

Well, think-tanks are usually nonprofit and these account for an estimated 87-92 percent of libertarian employment, according to a thought I had the other day.

Marcus writes:

Just the other day I asked a friend why aren't there any libertarian folk singers?

I think collectivism appeals to the heart and the heart just doesn't appreciate that collectivism doesn't scale well.

Concerning your daughter, one thing I think we need to focus on is this myth that profits are bad. We need to educate people to understand every time they take part in a transaction they profit. That BOTH sides of the transaction profit. It's not zero sum.

8 writes:

We don't need no education
We dont need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.

David writes:

My alma mater (Wesleyan; to whom I no longer give money, thanks in part to Arnold's arguments) actually uses its proportion of alumni working in the non-profit world relative to peer institutions as a point of pride. In other words, "our graduates are not capitalist demons, so you, our sensitive socially committed alumni should be proud and support us financially". Now, I too must admit to working in a non-profit (albeit, supporting the DoD, whose existence would appear justified by both moral philosophy and the Constitution, and not the preferred areas, e.g., creating carbon-neutral safe spaces for transgendered art).

David writes:

One more thing, since when is a Harvard-educated CPUSA member like Pete Seeger a "folk singer"?

N. writes:

Have patience. After a few years of working at a non-profit your daughter will likely discover first hand that most effort goes towards raising money to raise more money and providing corporations with good publicity, rather than addressing whatever problem they set out to address in their 'mission statement.' From the inside it's tough not to notice how much more beholden an organization is to its funders than to the people it is supposed to be helping.

Heck, if she's really sharp, she'll fall to the fact that most non-profits are dependant on the problems they purport to be trying to solve lasting in perpetuity. She wouldn't expect her fellows to work towards putting themselves out of a job, would she?

Unfortunately, it is still a big leap from realizing the non-profit world is largely a sham to turning your back on your peers who you know will think less of you if you leave for the corporate world.

Ozornik writes:

No wonder, back in the days behind the Iron Curtain, the one could buy western jazz/rock/country LPs on the black market only (risking a jail time) while comrades Seeger and Guthrie enjoyed unrestricted access to the shelves of “Melodia” stores.

Oh, and they published selected works of capotes-sinclaires-fitzgeralds et al in Stalin’s USSR as well.

… When Kurt Vonnegut died recently – I know, it is not the sentiment to be proud of – I uttered quite a few expletives (with all due respect to his literary talent).
But then again, what do I know, I was just born and raised behind this Iron Curtain; and brainwashed for the first 30+ years of my life about insurmountable suffering of Americans under capitalism… with the assistance of Mr. Vonnegut’s and his ilk’s abundant gift of writing.

Barkley Rosser writes:

"Taxman" by the Beatles (George Harrison, I think, to be more preciese).

Barkley Rosser writes:


While we are at it, you should be informed, in case you did not know, that Pete Seeger at least actually spent time in prison in the US for his political views.

Eric H writes:

Oh good, Barkley got the Taxman. Unfortuantely, "Won't Get Fooled Again" is really, really hard to sing along to while sober.

Chris writes:

I think it's totally fine that Harvard and your daughter (both private parties) want to use their resources to further non-profit groups. As long as they don't force their beliefs on me.

Ozornik writes:

Barkley Rosser writes:

While we are at it, you should be informed, in case you did not know, that Pete Seeger at least actually spent time in prison in the US for his political views.

Rest assured that the bio of such venerable fighter for the betterment of proletariat was readily available in communist Russia - with emphasis on the jail time, and neglect to the cute private school/Harvard upbringing, of course.

…And boy, oh boy these frequent enthusiastic singings of “We Shall Overcome” at mandatory young communist’s gatherings.

According to my lecturers during countless propaganda sessions, Mr. Seeger in his jailbird capacity joins the honorable roll of other celebrities caged for their views by oppressive tyrannical regimes, e.g. lenin-stalin-hitler and numerous lesser figures. On the other hand, Seeger didn’t kill anyone himself, right? But neither did Lenin… you got me confused now, Barkley!

Barkley Rosser writes:


I realize you are being very ironic and witty, but of course we both know that Lenin personally ordered plenty of people to be killed, even if he did not actually pull the triggers himself.

As for Pete Seeger, let me see, is it that big of a deal where he went to school? His most prominent activity was to fight for civil rights for blacks in the South. But you probably think that is something to sneer at because you heard so much about it in those annoying propaganda sessions back in the old USSR, and anything you heard too much about in those places must be a pile of garbage worthy of being jailed.

FC writes:

Barkley Rosser:

Did he beat up Bull Connor, or give Orval Faubus an atomic wedgie? Or was he too busy bowing toward Moscow five times a day?

Ozornik writes:


I have no troubles putting irony aside. It will boil down than to the question of responsibility for the words coming out of someone’s mouth.
Do the one bear more of it given a great talent to incite people’s minds? Even more so being Harvard-educated?

Well, strike Harvard out, we don’t wont college professors to feel responsible for the deeds of their pupil, don’t we?

Like those student groups in Paris where young Pol Pot was hanging out. I am wondering, did they sing collectively “If I Had a Hammer” back then? Or, maybe Pol Pot just heard the one about imagining all the people leaving life in peace without possessions and set his mind to check how it may work out in his native country?

P.S. I shall confess though: I do have on my iPod “Follow the Drinking Gourd” by Weavers rated 5-stars. And I am never tired of 16 tons – the best rendition of all – Eric Burdon’s.

Snark writes:

Try fitting these lyrics to a folk song popularized by Peter, Paul, and Mary (apologies in advance):

Stuff, the things that we buy and hope others see,

is a very necessary part of our economy.

Conspicuous consumption, there never seems to be enough.

Buying cars and homes just like the Jones. We love that fancy stuff.

shecky writes:

"Folk music" always seemed an inaccurate description of that style music. No doubt there are some fantastic lyrics to be found, though.

Seeger wrote some particularly pointed lyrics in his time, though I can only think of more anti war songs than collectivist ones at the moment.

Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" is possibly the most collectivist. Or not. One of the brilliant things about it is that it works in any context. Even the less cited "private property" verse is ambiguous enough to be interpreted in a variety of ways. Though certainly a product of his times, Guthrie seems to have been generally apolitical. And his songs I think tend to hold up better.

Denver, well, seems pretty far removed from the others.

SheetWise writes:

"All I Really Want to Do"
by Bob Dylan has a resoundingly libertarian theme.

Not quite folk-songish, but most of what Rush did is qite libertarian. "Tom Sawyer" especially -- "His mind is not for rent / to any god or government" and "What you say about his company / Is what you say about society"

Erich writes:

I always thought "Imagine" could be tweaked to push for perfect property rights, individualism, and tolerance.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Gosh. Of course you are right. Now I remember reading how, thanks to his five-times-a-day bowing in their direction, Moscow sent nuclear-tipped banjo shells to Pete Seeger, with which he blew away Bull Connor, Orval Faubus, and all the rest of the segregationists.


And, indeed you are correct. Pete Seeger is single-handedly responsible for the entire slaughter of millions in Cambodia. How careless of me to forget.

BTW, I think Hilter also did not actually personally kill anybody. Just more orders. As for old Iosif Dzugashvilii, well, I think he did off some people directly in his pre-revolutionary bank robber days.


Some would argue that "Imagine" also sounds like the ideal of pure communism. But then, that ideal, with its never-even-remotely-achieved-in-actual practice vision of the "withering away of the state" ends up looking like some sort of anarchist/libertarian utopia as well, at least to some degree.

Ozornik writes:


Do I sense you leaning on the crutch of irony and sarcasm now?

But of course, no one is single-handedly responsible for atrocities on a nationwide scale. Not even Lenin/Hitler/Stalin/PolPot. Nor indeed seeger/lennon/whomewer. It has to be the prevailing mood of the substantial chunk of the nation. The question is – who’s better at mood-setting than seegers/lennons? Than again, are they responsible for the words coming out of their big-talented mouth? And again, PolPots of this world do not emerge out of the blue from blank slates.

Ask yourself, how come, it’s not cool to fancy out oneself with Nazi paraphernalia on the average American college campus, but it’s totally OK to sport a t-shirt with Che on it? (The latter one allegedly known for personally shooting human beings).

Do a mental experiment: picture some casual college intellectual’s party. And the crop of the evening is some handsome lad with the guitar, spewing out – to the delicious easily memorable tunes – verses regarding some ethnicities being inferior to others. What are his chances to be invited again? Now picture the same guy discharging the same enchanting melodies but with the lyrics like ‘Imagine no possessions”. Ain’t his chances considerably bigger?
But why? Do you know, arithmetically, what cost us (humanity, that is) more lives Nazism or Communism?

liberty writes:

Ah, yes.

I remember singing so many of the above as a kid:

We Shall Overcome
If I Had a Hammer

"This Land Is Your Land" was a little bourgeois for my crowd.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Both Arnold and Bryan can assure you that your sense is on the money: I am indeed a sarcastically ironic cripple.

Regarding the old debate about who killed more, the Nazis or the Communists, this comes down to whether or not you say that the various famines were the Communists killing people and who one blames for the all the Soviet dead during WW II. I am sure you have a view on these matters, but I think I shall pass on discussing them further.

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