Jon Sanders

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the king's horses and all the king's men

Couldn't put Humpty together again.

-- Mother Goose

The riddle of the ill-fated Humpty Dumpty was solved long ago (he's an egg). Now it's just a nonsense rhyme we tell our children. In that sense it'd be on par with government stimulus and jobs bills, if they could be condensed to four lines and aa-bb stanzas.

Still, the similarity is allegorical. The central failure in that allegory belongs to the head of the government. Marshalling all the power at his command, he nevertheless fails to fix the problem of the great fall. Not once does he question whether the problem requires his solution.

For that matter, neither does Mother Goose ask whether it was any of the king's damned business to meddle in the fall of the egg. The egg was precariously perched. A fall was likely.

Was Humpty destroyed in the fall? The implication is that he was. But that implication is from the same honking metrist who thought the remarkable part of her story wasn't that the king got involved, but that his project failed despite the full attention of his government.

Consider the alternative. Humpty falls. Humpty struggles to pick himself up. Suddenly, the king does something extraordinary (meaning beyond the ordinary; i.e., not what you'd expect from a king): he harnesses his powerful government to help Humpty. All those official hooves and boots arrive, doing what hooves and boots do. Inexplicably to the king and his minions, Humpty is no more.

The king's faithful scribe makes sure to take out a quill and record that the fall was indeed great and the problems from the fall were beyond solving, even by the king who cared so much as to send everything he had.

Who was the king? We don't know. Suffice it to say he was no King Canute, who recognized and instructed on the limitations of government. Perhaps he was just a naif with power he didn't understand and whose proper use he didn't know, a great regal toddler with a hammer.

On the other hand, perhaps he was so terrible none dared speak his name. And perhaps Humpty was a man.

Perhaps the king's vision required Humpty's great fall and tragic end. Perhaps the king's actions fully achieved both of his purposes: give the appearance of great compassion and destroy the "egg."

Jon Sanders

Jon Sanders is associate director of research at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C.