Friday, January 7, 2011
The Yellow Brick Beltway
By David Schoenbrod, a professor at New York Law School and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. [From the Wall Street Journal, Nov. 27, 1998.]
The release this month of "The Wizard of Oz" in a digitally juiced-up film format should prompt more people to read the even more wonderful book. Their reading pleasure will be enhanced by understanding that L. Frank Baum wrote the book as parable whose point is more poignant-today than when it was published in 1900―that the wizards of Washington are a bunch of charlatans running a scam on the little people of America.
Baum drew the book's symbolism from William Jennings Bryan's campaign for the national government to back its paper money with silver as well as gold. Bryan's opponent in the 1896 and 1900 presidential elections was William McKinley, who supported the gold standard. Bryan argued that the gold standard depressed the economy, thereby crucifying America on a "cross of gold." The hard times are represented by the bleakness of the Kansas in which Dorothy finds herself at the beginning of the book.
Dorothy represents everywoman, and the cyclone that carries her to the land of Oz is a silverite victory at the polls, according to the historian Richard Jensen. The land gets its name from the silverites wanting 16 ounces (oz.) of silver to be the monetary equivalent of one ounce of gold. Her own house lands on the wicked Witch of the East (the Eastern bankers), killing the witch and freeing the Munchkins (ordinary people) from bondage. The good Witch of the North (the Northern electorate) tells Dorothy that the Wizard of Oz may be able to help her get home. To reach him, she must travel the yellow brick road (gold ingots), which may be done only with silver slippers (the movie changed them to ruby for better contrast). She meets Bryan's supporters along the way―the Scarecrow (the farmer who thinks he has no brains) and the Tin Woodsman (the industrial laborer who thinks he has no compassion)―and Bryan himself represented as a Cowardly Lion.
This ragtag electoral coalition gets to national capital, the Emerald City, whose greenish hue is an optical illusion, just as the greenback dollar is illusory money. The wizard proves to be a complete charlatan. As he confesses to himself, "How can I help being a humbug when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can't be done? It was easy to make the Scarecrow and the Lion and the Woodsman happy, because they imagined I could do anything." He blames his actions on the polls, but at least he is honest with himself. To get Dorothy back to Kansas, he suggests a hot air balloon, but his hot air carries him away, leaving Dorothy behind.
The book is in the end about political and human truths of far broader import than the elections of 1896 and 1900, both of which McKinley won. The Scarecrow learns that he always had brains, the Woodsman that he always had a heart, the Lion that he always had courage. Dorothy too learns that with her silver shoes she always had the means to return home. The message is that ordinary people can take care of themselves if they realize their full potential, work together and do not put themselves into the thrall of self-professed experts wielding the powers of government.
This populist message was uncongenial to E.Y. (Yip) Harburg, the socialist and New Dealer who had the most to do with scripting the movie. The movie makes the wizard a force for good. Although he is a fast talker and overpromiser, he is not a complete humbug, because he instills Dorothy, her companions and his own people with the confidence needed to succeed. He gives them, however indirectly, what the New Deal promised to the American people―brains, heart and courage. The wizard's farewell address was readily identifiable to the movie audiences of 1939 as in the style of Franklin Roosevelt.
This subtle respinning of the story turns its meaning on its head. In the book, Dorothy seeks the security of home in the national capital, but finds there nothing but trickery and discovers in the process that she and her fellow citizens already have what it takes to live the good life. In the movie, Dorothy and the rest of humanity find that they need charismatic and expert leaders. They are bound to keep electing wizards.
The book's perspective is needed today more than ever. Our modern wizards are far more sophisticated than the original at deceiving the people. The original wizard simply stayed in his palace, required the wearing of tinted glasses and promised only what might happen anyway. Our modern wizards of both parties have tricks to avoid responsibility that Baum could not have dreamed of. They use unfunded mandates and unfunded entitlements to give to Peter without appearing to take from Paul. For the same reason, they delegate to agencies and the courts the power to regulate and to tax. Their secret is the same as the original wizard's―they have nothing to give us that we do not already have in ourselves. Yes, we do need some government, but, no, we don't need the aggrandizement of government that comes from all the tricks.
Which reminds me, Dorothy, stay away from the White House.