Meet Me In St. Louis

by L. Neil Smith
Patronize Me!

Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

Reprinted from Issue Number 32, August 1, 1997

Sometime soon, I want you to do something for me — and for yourself.

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I want you to go someplace that rents classic films and check out Meet Me in St. Louis, a swell old MGM musical with Judy Garland, Leon Ames, Mary Astor, Marjorie Main, and I don’t know who-all, about an ordinary family at the turn of the century who happen to live in St. Louis, Missouri, when the 1904 World’s Fair is about open.

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It’s a pretty good flick; you may want to watch it the first time just for the color and the music, the pretty songs and the prettier dresses. The story concerns a chance the father has to advance himself by moving his family to New York. Trouble is, they don’t want to move (and you don’t want them to) and leave their hometown — the daughters their suitors, and the sons their various enterprises — and they especially don’t want to leave the fine old house they grew up in, which is practically the star of the movie.

My favorite is little Margaret O’Brien, baby of the family, when she goes trick-or-treating for the first time, but I’m a daddy, and a natural-born mark for that sort of stuff.

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The second time through, take a good look at that house. It’s the reason I’m writing this. You see a lot of it and it has a lot to say, more to Americans of the 1990s, I think, a century after the time of the movie, than to those of the late 1940s when the movie was made. To them, it was the kind of house they’d grown up in, too. If our families made it through the Depression, it’s the kind of house lived in by our grandparents or great-grandparents, whom we went to visit.

It’s a great, big, sprawly house, wide and deep, decorated in Victorian gingerbread, three stories tall, with a huge wraparound porch and splendid cupolas and gables. At a guess, I’d say eight bedrooms, a front parlor, some kind of family or music room, a dining room, study or library, and a kitchen the size of a basketball court.

Upstairs, in addition to bedrooms, there’d be box rooms and other storage, and far below, about an acre of wonderful scary basement. Out back, facilities of the homely sort, a carriage house cum horse barn, maybe a workshop. In those days, it wouldn’t have been unusual to find a chickenhouse right in the middle of town.

It’s beyond my purpose here to discuss the fact that the doors of this house in 1904 — or in 1944, when the movie was made — would never have been locked. By now, most of us know why, don’t we? One of the few positive signs of our times is that the American productive class is finding out all over again, too.

Hollywood sometimes overglamorizes the circumstances of its characters. Our Hero gets off the bar room planking after a knockdown, dragout brannigan, and his coiffure is still neat and tidy. Writers in the movies all live in penthouses and wear dressing gowns and ascots in the middle of the day. (I wonder where I put my ascot? My dressing gown is a bathrobe my wife made for me out of camouflage material. That’ll give you an idea where our militia plays its wargames.)

But as usual, I digress.

I don’t think Hollywood exaggerated much with the house in Meet Me in St. Louis. They were trying to generate an ambience with it which would have been lost otherwise. I’m fifty-one years old; I remember houses like that. My grandmother lived in one that’s still standing a few blocks from where I’m writing this. She was a war widow (World War I) who raised three children all by herself. It wasn’t a rich family.

The father of the story, played by that quintessential Victorian papa, Leon Ames, is an attorney, but it’s important to remember that lawyers in the 1940s weren’t as numerous and dominant as they are now, nor did they earn as much, compared with the general population. They were even less important in 1904. This isn’t a rich family, either.

It’s a big family, though; I don’t recall how many boys and girls. Nor do I recall how many servants. A cook, I think, whom they couldn’t afford to take with them to New York. Yes, and Grandpa the Civil War veteran (likely the main reason the doors never needed locking) lived with them, too.

The question is, how could a productive-class family of 1904 afford the kind of home that gets broken up into apartments today, or reserved for cutesy office space or the families of millionaires? Hasn’t there been any progress in the last century? Aren’t we a wealthier nation now?

As Tonto observed to the Lone Ranger at the start of the Indian attack, it depends on who you mean by “we”. I know individuals, some of whom consciously realize they’re Marxists and some who don’t, who’d argue that the ill-gotten, hoarded wealth of Leon and his family has been redistributed to deserving workers over the past century, and that the way we’re all compelled to live represents progress, and more social justice than was manifest in 1904.

I’d argue back that there seem to be more poor people now. That, if this famous redistribution really occurred, it doesn’t seem to have helped much. I’d rather walk naked through the poorest section of St. Louis in 1904, than fully armed in the South Bronx or Denver’s Five Points today. And so would you. And so would every member of the parlor politburo I’m pretending to argue with here.

Somebody else might argue that we’ve chosen to put our money into things that weren’t available in 1904, like the Subaru wagon parked outside my window, the Compaq computer I’m writing on, the Fisher stereo I’m listening to, the 27″ Sony my daughter’s watching in the other room, or the Kenmore washer and dryer in the basement.

I’d argue back that, in terms of real wealth, Leon’s horse and carriage represented a bigger investment to his family than our car does to us. My computer cost a mere fraction of what a typewriting machine did then (I once owned a typewriter from that period, a marvel of fragility and unnecessary complication). My stereo and TV are cheaper than their Victrola and piano (in those days the major centers of home entertainment). And even our washer and dryer are less expensive to obtain and operate than their washtub, woodstove, washboard, wringer, and clotheslines.

All of this before we get to important questions about labor: who fed and groomed the horse; who made perfect copies of typescripts (and what a pain in the ass that was); who wound the Victrola and played the piano; what poor soul drug dirty clothes, soaked in hot, soapy water, across that washboard again and again, poured the water out, rinsed them in hot unsoapy water, wrung them out laboriously, and hung them on the line, praying it wouldn’t rain.

In terms of real wealth, everything is unimaginably cheaper now. And women have become wage earners right along with men. Most of us live in cheap little shoeboxes or tin cans. We should all be vastly wealthier. So the question changes from, why aren’t we all living in great big beautiful houses to, what the hell happened to our money?

Here’s a hint …

Click on: Waco: The Rules of Engagement

What do you suppose it cost to confine 80 innocent people in their church for 51 days, torture them all night with multi-megawatt searchlights and the amplified sounds of rabbits’ throats being cut, punch holes in their walls with tanks, pump the church full of poisonous, flammable particulates, set it alight with shoulder-fired missiles, and when the victims — two dozen of them little children — tried to escape, mow them down with machineguns?

It takes a lot of money to run a police state.

It takes a lot of money to illegally deprive innocent people of the free, unrestrained exercise of their unalienable individual, civil, Constitutional, and human rights, terrorize them, torture them, beat them up and kill them, even when you steal everything they have and — if they live to be acquitted of whatever trumped-up charge you used to justify your atrocities against them — refuse to give it back.

It takes a lot of money to run a police state.

It takes half of everything your victims labor eight hours a day and overtime to earn, half of everything they dare spend on themselves and the families they hardly ever have enough time with, plus half of whatever they have left to pay for your “services”, which as I say consist of terrorizing, torturing, beating up, and killing people, while pretending to help them.

It takes a lot of money to run a police state.

It takes so much that seven-eighths of everything is tax.

The average member of the American productive class winds up handing over half of what he earns to one government or another in the form of income, sales, excise, property, “insurance”, or other taxes. Everyone he does business with — the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker — loses half of everything he makes the same way, except that he builds his losses into the price of the goods and services he charges for. Which means that the average member of the American productive class ends up getting half as much for his work, and paying twice as much as he should for everything he gets.

For every dollar he earns, he has to find a way to live on only a quarter.

It takes a lot of money to run a police state.

But it gets worse. On top of being deprived of the fruits of three quarters of his labor, government regulations imposed on him and everyone he does business with cost him yet another half of whatever he thought he had left. The horrible fact is that, out of every dollar he makes, he may keep only twelve and a half cents!

One eighth of what he earns.

Because it takes a lot of money to run a police state.

Americans are an amazing people. Lately we’ve been encouraged to think of our countrymen as lazy, ill-educated, unproductive, stupid, yet they maintain the wealthiest, most powerful culture on the face of the earth, the greatest rate of progress and the highest standard of living history ever witnessed, and they do it all on one-eighth of what they really earn, while the rest is confiscated and squandered by the least productive sector of any economy — politicians — on debauchery, depravity, death, and destruction.

Squandered on bureaucrats to administer welfare programs to people who wouldn’t be poor if the taxes hadn’t been collected to begin with. Squandered on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to prove that Americans can be the same international assholes the Macedonians, the Romans, and the Brits were before us, and the Germans, the Japanese, and the Russians all tried their best to be but couldn’t keep it up. Squandered on cretins who can’t run their own lives intelligently, courageously, or decently, but who insist on telling us what to eat, drink, breathe, and think, and now, when we show the least resistance, terrorize, torture, beat up, and kill us — and steal our children if they haven’t killed them, too.

Seven eighths of everything is tax — because it takes a lot of money to run a police state — and we’d all be better off if every dollar were burned in the town square or poured into the sewer. At least that way it couldn’t be used to do any more harm.

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For more than twenty years, I’ve asked people to imagine what their lives would be like if they could keep the other seven-eighths of what they earn. Would they buy a big, sprawly frame house, wide and deep, two stories tall, decorated in Victorian gingerbread, with eight bedrooms, a front parlor, some kind of family or music room, a dining room, study or library, a kitchen the size of a basketball court, a huge wraparound porch, and splendid cupolas and gables?

Or would they back off, work an hour a day instead of eight to maintain their current living standard, and spend the rest of their time making love to their spouse and playing with their children, as human beings were meant to do since the day we came down from the trees?

My wife points out that they could put money away, retire in a few years to “live on the interest” as people did in England during the greatest period of progress the world had seen up to then, and spend their time listening to that Victrola or playing that piano. The bottom line is, they’d have a choice, of those alternatives, anything in between, or something else altogether. Of a magnificent home or world travel or both. Or anything else they might want, that eight times as much wealth could get for them — wealth you must remember that they already earn but which is taken away by the welfare-warfare police state.

Lately I’ve come to realize that they’d have something else, too. It takes a lot of money to run a police state, money that would be better spent, more safely and less destructively spent, on eight bedrooms, a front parlor, a family or music room, a dining room, study or library, a kitchen the size of a basketball court, splendid cupolas and gables, and a huge wraparound porch with a big, white, gliding swing.

It takes a lot of money to run a police state.

And it’s hard to raise enough to oppress people when you’ve been limited — as government must be if civilization is to survive another generation — to a lonely street corner, selling pencils from a tin cup.

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