Judging a book by its cover

The Government Giveth and the Government Taketh Away is ‘bad’ Peter Saunders’ latest book. He argues that the welfare state once supported the poor by taxing the rich. Today it attempts to support the non-poor with their own taxes. He calls this ‘tax-welfare churning’:

Churning… is the price that social policy conservatives are willing to pay in order to maintain middle-Australia’s support for the high-spending, mass welfare state. Quite brazenly, they hope to bribe the mass of voters with their own money, buying their support for a welfare they do not need by shoveling more and more benefits and services in their direction (p 59-60).

Thomas Sowell once described the welfare state as a political shell game where taxpayers always end up getting less than they pay for. And if you look on the cover of Saunders’ new book you’ll see an early depiction of the game in a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. Rather than argue with Saunders’ position, let’s look at the painting. It’s an inspired choice for the book’s cover.

The Conjurer
The game in Bosch’s painting isn’t what it seems. The conjurer begins with three cups (in the painting you’ll see two on the table and the third in the conjurer’s left hand). He places a pea under one of the cups and shuffles them around. Then, he invites onlookers to bet on the cup they think the pea is under. Although the game looks easy, the player almost never wins because the game is rigged. The conjurer has confederates who place bets. Sometimes they win, and sometimes they lose by betting on a cup that is obviously wrong.

An old woman in red bends over as she stares at the cups. And if you look to the left of the painting you’ll see that being conned by the conjurer is only one of her problems. The man with the spectacles is stealing her purse.

So who’s who in this painting? If it’s an analogy for the relationship between the state and citizens in the 21st century let’s decode it. Here are some things you might want to pay attention to:

  • The boy to the left of the table.
  • The small dog at the conjurer’s feet and the hoop leaning against the table.
  • The animal in the basket that’s attached to the conjurer’s belt.
  • The man with his arm around the red haired woman (the woman is second from the left).
  • The frog(s).

And since we’re talking about analogies — Saunders has a sly dig at the Fabian socialists by reversing one of Richard Tawney’s literary analogies. In the Arabian Nights Sinbad agrees to carry a frail old man across a stream. The man climbs on Sinbad’s back, but on reaching the other side, he refuses to get off. Tawney likened Sinbad to the working class and the old man to the class of capitalist parasites. Saunders has a different reading:

Like the Old Man of the Sea who implored Sinbad to help carry him across a stream but who then refused to get off his back, the welfare state started out as a reasonable and manageable strategy for relieving hardship, but has become increasingly onerous and parasitic on our whole society (p 60).

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16 years ago

as perverse as this may seem, my immediate impression of that last graphic was of Lt.Commander Montgomery Scott in his red-shirted USS Enterprise engineering uniform. Pity it turns out to be a photoshopped Johnny Howard parody.

16 years ago

As an example of how little things really change, Hieronymous Bosch & the folk saying/proverb paintings of Breughel show there is very little new under the Sun.
I discovered HB’s garden of Heavenly delights as a 12yr old and never looked back. Even those 2/3rds of the imagery was not at the time familiar to me it was easily, frightening intelligble.
Now we have if not the Rodent as the Conman, $weety telling us everything’s economically hunky-dory, the A dollar only dropped 10% in the last week so clearlythe world thinks our economy is basically RS, ie Rilly Strong…

16 years ago

What’s your constant problem with Saunders Don? Are you stalking him? It’s a bit weird.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
16 years ago

Talisker – Your comments are almost always nasty and uninteresting. A bit like cheap grain alcohol.

But I’m curious. Do you think a vatted malt can be as good as a single malt?

16 years ago

Actually yes.