A Terrible Parable: Stone Soup
You’ve probably heard of the stone soup folk tale, where villagers combine their resources to produce a bounty for all. But would such a thing work in America today?
Once upon a time, after a pandemic had ravaged the land, a traveler driving across the great plains stopped in a small town. Parking his beat-up cargo van on the main street, he looked around for a place to eat, but all the restaurants were closed. Perplexed, he knocked on the door of a nearby house.
The old woman who opened the door greeted him with a suspicious expression. “Excuse me,” he said, “I’m looking for something to eat…”
“We can’t spare anything!” the old woman interrupted. “We barely have enough for ourselves.”
“Oh,” the traveler replied, “then perhaps I can share my dinner with you? I’m making stone soup, and I just need several gallons of water. Could you give me that?”
The old woman considered, then agreed that she could let him have some water. The traveler returned to his van, set up a plastic table on the sidewalk and a propane burner, then brought out a large pot. A few townspeople began to gather nearby, talking amongst themselves and speculating about what was going on.
After the water was heating, the traveler withdrew a smooth black stone from his pocket, and with a dramatic flourish, dropped it into the pot. “What’s the rock for?” a curious teen asked, looking up from her cell phone.
“I was told there are hungry people in this town,” he replied, “and the magic stone will turn this water into a delicious soup.”
“Cool,” the teen said, snapping a picture to share on social media. “When do we eat?”
The traveler dipped a spoon into the pot and tasted the result. His face brightened. “Mmm!” he exclaimed. “It’s off to a good start, but it could use some more salt.”
The teen reached into her backpack and withdrew some salt packets from a fast food franchise. “Would these help?” The traveler thanked her and poured them into the pot.
As more people gathered, the traveler repeated the process of tasting the soup and describing what would make it better. Again and again, in anticipation of the delicious soup, people donated what they could spare. Potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, 11 herbs and spices; all were chopped up and added to the pot, and one woman even contributed some chicken. The smell rising from the soup became more and more enticing, and soon several dozen people were clustered nearby, clutching their bowls and spoons in anticipation of the stone soup.
Finally, the traveler announced that the soup was ready. He caught a glimpse of the old woman when he did so. The suspicious look on her face that he had first seen when she opened the door was gone. Her mindset of scarcity had been replaced with a mindset of abundance, and a thin smile played across her face.
“Okay, everyone line up!” the traveler announced, taking up a position behind the table, a plastic ladle in his hand. The townspeople formed a queue, and a small boy stepped up, holding out an empty bowl. “Hello, young man,” the traveler said, stirring the pot enticingly. “And what does your father do?”
“He lost his job when the factory closed,” the boy replied, his eyes fixed on the steam rising from the soup.
“Then you must be hungry,” the traveler replied, and ladled a full portion into the child’s bowl.
The next to the table was the old woman and her husband, whose potatoes were among the ingredients simmering in the pot. The traveler spooned out full portions into their bowls, and they beamed. “I’ve never heard of stone soup before,” the woman admitted, “but thank you for sharing the magic stone with us.”
Then a heavy-set man stepped forward with his empty bowl held in front of him. “And what kind of work do you do?” the traveler asked.
“I’m a blogger,” the man replied.
“And why should you get any soup?”
The blogger looked back questioningly. “I’m hungry.”
“Ah, but can you prove you’re hungry? The evidence in front of you,” he said, gesturing at the man’s midsection, “is that you’ve already had plenty to eat. Shouldn’t your share go to others more deserving?”
“But I haven’t eaten today,” the blogger replied, “Why does it matter if I had plenty to eat before the pandemic?”
“Well…,” the traveler said, “I suppose you can have some.” Dipping the ladle into the soup, he carefully measured out a half-sized portion into the man’s bowl. “Here you go. Enjoy!” The blogger accepted it without further objection.
More people came by the table, and the traveler questioned each in turn before ladling out different sized portions. As the contents of the pot began to diminish, the teen girl stepped forward empty handed. “I don’t have a bowl,” she said.
“Then, how can I give you stone soup?” the traveler asked.
“Isn’t there an extra bowl?”
The traveler chuckled politely. “This isn’t a restaurant,” he explained. “I have stone soup for all the hungry people, but if I included bowls, it would be cost prohibitive. So everyone has to bring their own.”
“But I don’t have a bowl,” she repeated.
“Then, how can I give you stone soup? It’s not my fault that you don’t have a bowl; you’re certainly welcome to share in the stone soup, but you have to have something to put it in.”
“But,” the teen repeated, getting frustrated. “There’s an extra bowl right there,” she said, pointing inside the traveler’s van. “Can’t I use that one?”
“Hmmm…,” the traveler pondered. “Maybe we could make a deal. All of these cooking utensils will need to be washed soon; I could let you use the bowl temporarily, if you’re willing to work.”
“If I don’t agree to work, I can’t eat?”
The traveler shrugged. “I could put the soup in your hands. But you’re free to make your own choice.”
The teen’s shoulders slumped. “Okay,” she conceded. “I’ll wash dishes, can I please have some food now?”
The traveler retrieved the bowl and presented it to the teen magnanimously. “Here you are,” he said, spooning a full portion into her bowl. As she walked away silently, he called after her, “You’re welcome!”
After a few more deserving people were served, a tall woman approached with her bowl. The traveler immediately recognized her as the person who had donated the chicken for the soup. “What a great afternoon this turned out to be,” the woman said smilingly, holding out her bowl.
The traveler made no move with the ladle. “You’re not hungry,” he accused. “If you have so much food that you can give away chicken, you don’t need this.”
Her smile vanished. “But I thought…,” she began, then asked, “What?”
“Look at over there,” he commanded, gesturing towards the little boy, who was now scraping the last bits from his bowl. “Why would you want to take food away from a hungry child?”
The woman grew more confused. “I don’t want to take anything away from him. We all kicked in to make this, and now I’d like a bowl of soup. Please.” She held out the bowl.
“If you’re taking something you don’t need, it leaves less for those who do need it,” the traveler explained patiently. “That’s not fair. So just keep moving.” When the woman started to respond, he barked at her, “No soup for you!” At that, she slunk away carrying her empty bowl.
When the line was gone, the traveler put the leftovers in mason jars, and served the last to himself. The black rock clinked against the side of the bowl, and he carefully picked it out, wiped it clean, and tucked it back in his pocket.
The teenage girl who was now washing the dishes watched this. As he brought the soup pot over for her to clean, she asked, “What are you doing with the leftover soup?”
“I’m taking it with me,” the traveler said, spooning soup into his mouth. “I’ll reheat some for dinner.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” she told him, “when there are other people here who didn’t get any.”
The traveler seemed shocked. “I did all the work in deciding who deserved soup and who didn’t,” he said. “Why, it’s thanks to me that there are any leftovers at all. Of course I should be compensated for my work. What are you, some kind of socialist?” The teen had no response.
As the traveler drove off, the townspeople watched him go with mixed emotions. The young boy was thankful and content, knowing his full stomach would help him concentrate on his schoolwork. The old couple, even though they’d essentially received back the same as they’d contributed, were happier and more trusting. The teen girl felt she’d been coerced into “volunteering,” and the heavy-set blogger was frustrated that he’d been treated unequally based solely on actions in his past.
The tall woman, however, was angry for three days straight. No soup for her? She resolved that, for the rest of her life, she would never again willingly do anything nice for those less fortunate than herself, because they were all greedy and ungrateful.
The moral of the story? From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs is a terrible recipe for stone soup.
Want to see every American lifted up equally, with no bureaucrats deciding who’s worthy and who isn’t? That’s UBI — universal (or unconditional) basic income, and the way to lift every American above the poverty line.
The American Union is a block of swing voters supporting a legislative package that ends poverty with UBI of $300/week for adults, $100/week for kids. It also ends mass incarceration through police and prison reforms, and ends the endless wars by bringing our troops home.