Monday, July 24, 2006

The ant and the grasshopper

Classic Version

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter.

The grasshopper thinks he's a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away.

Come winter, the ant is warm and well fed. The grasshopper has no food or shelter so he dies in the cold.

Modern Version

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter.

The grasshopper thinks he's a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away.

Come winter, the shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while others are cold and starving.

BBC, CNN, NDTV show up to provide pictures of the shivering grasshopper next to a video of the ant in his comfortable home with a table filled with food.

The world is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can it be that this poor grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?

Arundhati Roy stages a demonstration outside the ant's house. Amnesty International and Kofi Annan criticise the government for not upholding the fundamental rights of the grasshopper.

The Internet is flooded with online petitions seeking support for the grasshopper. Opposition MPs stage a walkout from Parliament.

Left parties call for a Bharat Bandh in West Bengal and Kerala demanding a judicial enquiry.

Finally, the Judicial Committee drafts the Prevention of Terrorism Against Grasshoppers Act (POTAGA) with effect from the beginning of winter.

The ant is fined for failing to comply with POTAGA, and having nothing to pay his retroactive taxes, his home is confiscated by the government and handed over to the grasshopper in a ceremony covered by BBC, CNN and NDTV.

Arundhati Roy calls it "a triumph of justice".

Postscript

The ant dies of starvation, and the grasshopper dances away the winter and summer. Come next winter the grasshopper knows nothing about building or maintaining a home. He searches for the ant, but there are not ants anymore. So the grasshopper dies too.

Arundhati Roy comes back to claim an award for predicting the environmental collapse that contributed to the extinction of the ant, and then the grasshopper. She donates the money to build a centre for environmental justice.

(Thanks to Seetha Parthasarathy)

13 Comments:

At July 24, 2006 3:08 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

I'm afraid I don't get it.

 
At July 24, 2006 4:20 pm, Anonymous Tholf said...

Is this in reference to something that actually happened, or just an illustrative fable?

I've read some of Arundhati Roy's fiction and non-fiction works and much prefer the former. I think she reads too much organisation and coherency into crappy situations. That said, she's more familiar with the stuff she writes about than I am.

 
At July 24, 2006 9:50 pm, Blogger Rafe said...

It is a pity that you don't get it mikey, if that is actually the case. Maybe you should think about it a bit more and see if you can work it out.

tholf, it is happening although not to the extent that the producers are actually being killed off (not in the western world anyway, maybe in parts of the third world). The final disaster has been averted by the incredible productivity of modern technologies but it remains to be seen what happens if the structure of incentives is not improved to make everyone more responsible for their decisions and actions.

 
At July 24, 2006 10:32 pm, Blogger Sukrit Sabhlok said...

I took it as an illustrative fable pointing out the importance of personal responsibility. It's a dig at the left's style of thinking in this regard (the attitude of government being able to legislate away our problems).

 
At July 25, 2006 9:53 am, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

Arundhati Roy is living proof of the notion that some (fiction) writers should stick to writing fiction. For some, crossing over to the other side does not work well.

Just because someone can write, sing, act, or play footy does not mean they can advise the rest of us on anything.

 
At July 25, 2006 9:56 am, Anonymous mikey said...

Not being facetious Rafe! I would never do that around here..

Thanks to your two comments, I think i see whats being implied here. I also now see that it assumes certain ideas of progress, growth, technology, production and poverty. You know, people often remark about the left's inability to reach out without alienating people, but sometimes I wonder about you Libertarians. :-)

Personal responsibility is great. I'm all for it. But leaving straw-grasshoppers to die for no reason? And trying to make out that if you take action then all the ants and all the grasshoppers will die? Forgive me if im taking all this too seriously, but is there supposed to be an equivalent to POTAGA in the real world? One that is going to kill us all?

Given P-Costello's recent proclamations on procreation, it might be useful to ask whether there are already, or whether there will be soon, too many insects And whether it is moral to discourage or encourage the birth of new larvae.

 
At July 25, 2006 10:19 am, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I'm thinking 'the law of unintended consequences' here. One of Hayek's great insights was that plans - no matter how well thought through - often produce unintended consequences.

Various forms of central planning - no matter how clever and capable the intellect behind it - show that planners aren't capable of knowing enough to plan an entire system. In that sense, the fable illustrates a problem of epistemology as much as anything else.

 
At July 25, 2006 1:19 pm, Blogger Michael said...

Then there was the story about the grasshopper who thought of new ways to do things, so that he could spend a good part of his summer singing and dancing, but the conservative ant just smirked, and kept on struggling the way it had always been done, commenting to his friends how silly these new age grasshoppers are, bludging and doing things the wrong way.

Then there is the story about the grasshopper who sings and dances all summer long because he has been deprived of his fair share of community resources when it was privatised into the hands of the ants, so that is all the ant can do, either that or revolt against the tyranny of the ants.

The thing about ants is that they do nothing new, while they may work hard, they kick everyone else out so no one is able to work on an even playing field to prove one way or another that the way the ants dictate the use of resources may not be the best way, and when it's all said and done, they live on the rotting corpses of beings who try to achieve greater things.

 
At July 26, 2006 10:26 am, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

Michael's post (another Mike - this is scary) illustrates the limits to the usefulness of parables. If you're creative enough, eventually you'll be able to come up with a parable that illustrates your perspective in a nutshell, regardless of the rigour of that perspective.

I do think one needs to be careful of placing people - of whatever sort - up on a pedestal. Many of Rafe's Popper posts discuss the dangers of elevating a class of people based on what appears to be their visionary capabilities. It was Hayek who pointed out that ordinary, inarticulate people may do things the 'best' way without knowing why. Elevation of what appears to be 'the best' can mean the accumulated wisdom of the ages finishes up getting trashed.

 
At July 26, 2006 11:18 am, Anonymous mikey said...

Now there's something I can agree with. To a certain extent wisdom and 'the right thing' are subjective. And isn't that what freedom is about, ultimately? The right to make your own decisions, whether on an indidvidual or a community or sometimes even a national level.

Does Hayek offer a way of understanding how and why rdinary people come to wise 'collective' decision or just individual ones. I found Pierre Bourdieu's concept of Habitus (bodily knowledge) useful.

The parable gets me because it cuts so close to the bone of situations in places such as Sao Paulo, or Johannesburg or even Delhi, where the Uber-Affluent live almost within sight of incredibly huge slums filled with all kinds of suffering. And I'm sure you are not blaming those folk. Even the ones who don't complain and seem to enjoy carefree lives. And even the ones who Arundhati Roy and Kofi Annan might defend.

 
At July 26, 2006 4:06 pm, Blogger Jono said...

The crazy Michael's parable totally went off the rails with the following paragraph:
Then there is the story about the grasshopper who sings and dances all summer long because he has been deprived of his fair share of community resources when it was privatised into the hands of the ants, so that is all the ant can do, either that or revolt against the tyranny of the ants.

Fair share of community resources ? Privatised into the hands of the ants ? What tyranny of the ants are you referring to ?

The original story was honest, simple and clear. This one is distorted and ambiguous and confusing. Are you trying to imply that entrepeneurship, innovation and creativity are punished under a free capitalist society ?

Actually, it would be the converse. Because the ant is able to keep the fruits of his labour, otherwise known as savings, he can then use those savings to pursue innovation and productivity.

As the ant saves and builds up a more complex capital structure, he adds several increasingly complex stages of production, creates employment and raises living standards.

 
At July 26, 2006 9:27 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

Hayek's evolutionary theory of law in volume one of Law, Legislation and Liberty is a good place to start. I've done some research in this area, so if you're interested in some more detail (and some more recent thought on this issue), I'll blog on it at some point in the next week or so.

 
At July 27, 2006 2:17 am, Anonymous Rob said...

Superb parable, Sukrit.

 

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