Over the past 4 Thursdays, we’ve highlighted some of the most original and prolific writers in the history of economic and political thought. Ayn Rand, Frederic Bastiat, Thomas Sowell, and Lysander Spooner inspired us all and helped lay the foundation for the modern liberty movement.
But today is not an ordinary Thursday. In the United States, today is Thanksgiving, and no Thanksgiving is complete without Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie.
Arlo followed in the footsteps of his better-known father, Woody, who released the open-borders anthem This Land Is Your Land, recorded in 1944 with a guitar that read, “This machine kills fascists.”
Arlo was born in 1947 and came of age in the turbulent 60s. He has been releasing protest folk songs since 1967, when Alice’s Restaurant came out.
It’s far from a typical song; at 18 minutes, 34 seconds, it comprises almost an entire album side. But no better spoof has ever been written of heavy-handed police officers, petty local ordinances, the Vietnam War, and the draft.
It’s worth a listen all the way through. You can watch it here, via YouTube, but you can also likely catch it on your local classic rock radio station; many throughout the U.S. have made a tradition of playing it on Thanksgiving Day.
Closer to spoken word than folk song, Alice’s Restaurant tells Arlo’s absurd-but-true story of running afoul of the law, just by trying to do a good deed. It all starts when:
“We decided it’d be a friendly gesture for us to take the garbage down to the city dump.
So we took the half a ton of garbage
On toward the city dump.
Well we got there and there was a big sign and a chain across the dump saying, ‘Closed on Thanksgiving.‘”
Arlo and Company proceed to get arrested for illegal dumping. As he describes:
“We was fined $50 and had to pick up the garbage in the snow, but that’s not what I came to tell you about.
Came to talk about the draft.“
When Arlo presents himself to the draft board, he satirically portrays a rabid killing machine — exactly what the draft psychiatrist wants.
“And I went up there, I said … ‘I want to kill. I mean,
I wanna see blood and gore and … Eat dead burnt bodies.‘
And I started jumpin up and down yelling, ‘KILL, KILL,’ and
He started jumpin up and down with me and we was both jumping up and down
Yelling, ‘KILL, KILL.’
And the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me,
Sent me down the hall, said, ‘You’re our boy.’
Didn’t feel too good about it.“
Arlo swears the Thanksgiving Day garbage dump story is true, whereas we can all admit the hijinks at the draft board seem … a bit apocryphal. But they ring true; at least, they dovetail with the nature of the institution of war and the people who perpetrate it.
Arlo has proven himself a perfect cog for the war machine. But then, he lampoons the draft board as incompetent (in addition to evil), because its own, internal standards contradict its mission.
“[The draft commissioner said], ‘Kid, we only got
One question. Have you ever been arrested?‘”
Later, an army sergeant asks: “Kid, have you rehabilitated yourself?”
“You want to know if I’m moral enough join the army, burn women,
Kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug?
He looked at me and said, ‘Kid, we don’t like your kind.‘”
Listen to the song to find out what happens. Or, you can watch the full-length movie, which came out in 1969:
The liberty movement would be nowhere without economists like Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard and their iconic, 1000-page tomes of pure reason, Human Action and Man, Economy, and State.
Bastiat and Sowell, 150 years apart, specialized in pith, while Rand brought captivating plots and personalities to the ideas of liberty. Spooner personified his ideal by creating a company that challenged the federal government’s postal monopoly.
But as we gather around the Thanksgiving dinner table, we might find ourselves trying to communicate the virtues of free markets and free people to family members who aren’t familiar with those writers and their works. For those settings, let us remember Arlo Guthrie and the art of humor and satire.