County Must Learn to Make Stone Soup

COMMENT

April 30, 1995|By BRAIN SULLAM

Sometimes, a good children's book can clarify very complicated public policy issues.

Last week, I checked out from the library a copy of "Stone Soup," a classic children's story written and illustrated by Marcia Brown and first published in 1947.

At a time when questions such as "Why am I paying taxes for education, Social Security, welfare, agricultural subsidies and other programs that don't benefit me?" dominate the public debate, this book is a good antidote.

For those who have never had the pleasure of reading this delightful book, I will recount the story.

Three soldiers are returning from war. (Judging from the illustrations, the story is set in 18th century France.) They haven't eaten for two days. In addition to getting a decent meal, they want to find a barn to sleep in.

They come upon a village. The peasants living in the village see the soldiers coming and hide all their food because they know that soldiers are always hungry.

When the soldiers ask for meals, the villagers tell them there is no food available. When the soldiers ask for a corner to sleep in, they are told all the spaces are taken.

Disappointed, the soldiers confer among themselves. They then call the villagers together and announce that since no food is available, they will make "stone soup."

This attracts the interest of the villagers, who provide the xTC soldiers with a large iron pot, buckets of water and a number of very smooth stones.

The soldiers build a fire under the pot, add the stones and soon the water starts boiling.

The soldiers note aloud that this soup would be much more tasty if it were seasoned with salt and pepper. The children provide the soldiers with salt and pepper.

Then the soldiers suggest that the soup would taste even better with a couple of carrots. A villager returns with her apron laden with carrots.

The solders then muse that adding cabbage to the soup would enhance it considerably, but they acknowledge that there is "no use asking for what you don't have." Soon, three cabbages are added to the soup.

And so it goes, until they have created a wonderful soup laden with vegetables and meat.

Tables are set in the town square, and the aroma of the cooking soup overwhelms the villagers. They decide that they need bread to accompany the soup and a roast and cider to round out the meal.

Everyone eats, drinks and dances far into the night.

When the soldiers depart, the villagers thank them. "We shall never go hungry, now that we know how to make soup from stones," the peasants say.

I'm sure that cynics would say this story glorifies a trio of con

artists who easily separated some food from gullible peasants.

While the soldiers did benefit from their crafty deception, the peasants benefited as well.

Our current public discourse ignores the idea of civic responsibility.

We seem to have twisted John F. Kennedy's rhetorical admonition -- "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" -- into "What has my country done for me lately?"

Carroll's current debate about funding for public education is a good example. At virtually every public session on the county budget, a member of the audience proclaims that because he doesn't have any children in the school system, he shouldn't be required to pay for the portion of the county budget devoted to education.

Since most people don't require the use of the fire department, should they be exempted from paying for the county's contribution to the volunteer fire departments?

The same could be said for senior centers or the Farm Museum. Carried to an extreme, this self-centered view of financing public institutions could lead to the collapse of civic life.

Herbert Stein, the former chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers under Richard Nixon and a moderate Republican, wrote an insightful column in the Wall Street Journal addressing this issue on April 20. He dismisses the current rhetoric that pits the people against the government.

"The government is no one. There is nobody here but us people," Dr. Stein wrote. "The government is an instrument by which people organize to conduct their relations with one another. All the benefits and costs of the association are the costs and benefits of the people."

We could organize our taxes so we pay only for the benefits we derive from government, but our system of government would eventually break down.

We could behave much like the peasants in "Stone Soup," hoarding our vegetables and meat. Or we could make a small contribution to a communal meal that results in an unprecedented feast.

We seem to have forgotten that as a society, we as individuals derive more benefit by contributing a little to the common good than if we kept all our earnings to ourselves.

If we want, we can ensure that as a society we never go hungry by educating our youth, caring for the elderly and providing an environment that allows businesses and families to prosper.

In a democracy, the choice is ours.

The people who know how to make stone soup ought to make their voices heard.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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