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."

Recent history has known such leaders. As Robespierre, the guillotine-bloodied butcher behind the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France, famously stated, "One can’t expect to make an omelet without breaking eggs." The idea entranced an even bloodier tyrant, Lenin, who echoed him: "If you want to make an omelet, you must be willing to break a few eggs." (Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky said he had seen many broken eggs but never tasted the omelet.)

As with Mother Goose and her king, Papa Lenin and his like-minded tyrant-chefs never questioned whether it was any of the state's damned business to make omelets. Concerning the eggs, all the king's horses and king's men are able to do is destroy them.

Rare is the Canutian leader like Ronald Reagan, who came to power during one of those great falls but held the king's horses and men at abeyance. The situation Reagan inherited in 1981 was worse than what Barack Obama faced in 2009. Nevertheless, he stated in his first inaugural address, "The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we as Americans have the capacity now, as we've had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom."

In other words, stand back and watch; Humpty will pick himself up.

Reagan continued: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

We'll never know how Humpty would have fared without the king's stampede. But God help us when government thinks its job is to make breakfast.


Jon Sanders

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