In A Bug’s Life, Disney and Pixar’s second project together, they retell the classic tale from Aesop’s fables “The Ant and the Grasshopper”… with a twist. In the original story the ant is hard at work all summer long gathering food for the coming winter, while the grasshopper does nothing but sing and dance and use the good weather to enjoy himself. When winter finally does come the grasshopper comes knocking on the ant’s door asking for food and shelter but is turned away.
A Bug’s Life takes the age old fable and makes some small, yet significant changes. In this telling the ants still work hard all summer, and the grasshoppers still wile away their time in leisure, but instead of asking and being turned away from the ants when winter comes, the grasshoppers use the threat of force to take a portion of the ants’ harvest every year.
This particular year Princess Atta (Julia Louis Dreyfus) is training to become the next queen. When they hear the grasshoppers coming everyone hides in the ant hill leaving “the offering” up top on the “offering rock”. Atta, who is constantly nervous, is calmed by her mother, the queen (Phyllis Diller). She says: “It’s the same year after year, they come, they eat, they leave; that’s our lot in life.” The ants are resigned to have a portion of the fruits (or in this case grains) of their labors taken from them year after year.
This year, however, an innovative, non-conformist, but also clumsy ant named Flik (Dave Foley) accidentally destroys “the offering”. When the grasshoppers arrive and see that “their food” is missing, they break into the ant hill and Hopper (Kevin Spacey), the leader demands “Where’s my food?!” After it’s discovered that the food has been destroyed Hopper demands that the ants provide double the normal offering by the end of the season. He also tells the ants “if you don’t keep your end of the bargain, then I can’t guarantee your safety and there are insects out there that will take advantage of you! Someone could get hurt.”
Hopper makes an appeal to the ants’ fear, making reference to some vague, potentially menacing outsiders that may come and terrorize them, but also fear that they will be the victims of direct violence at the hands of the grasshoppers themselves. Lawyer, entrepreneur, and legal commentator Lysander Spooner recognized the violent nature of taxes and the “protection” that is provided with tax dollars:
The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: ‘Your money, or your life.’ And many, if not most, taxes are paid under the compulsion of that threat.
The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the roadside, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful.
The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a ‘protector,’ and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to ‘protect’ those infatuated travelers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful ‘sovereign,’ on account of the ‘protection’ he affords you. He does not keep ‘protecting’ you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.
The grasshoppers’ threats against the ants are clearly immoral, they are robbing other insects while presenting their victims with the flimsy excuse that they are protecting them when in reality they themselves are the perpetrators of violence. There is, however, room for criticism of more than just the grasshoppers and their real life counterparts. The ants exist in a society that rewards conformity, submissiveness, and tradition and discourages individuality, different ideas, and innovation. This causes the ants to accept that their lot in life is to give a portion of their harvest to the grasshoppers, without thinking about whether or not there is a another way, such as increasing production, (as Flik tries to do at the beginning with a harvesting machine he invents) or negotiating with the grasshoppers. This mindset even prevents them from realizing (as Hopper knows all too well) that the ants outnumber the grasshoppers 100 to 1 and could stand up, defend themselves, and keep all of their harvest.
I’ve heard plenty of times the argument that we need government (and therefore taxation) because it provides essential functions like roads, a social safety net, or education. Besides the fact that, like the ants and the defense of their colony, the innovative and industrious among us could provide these services more efficiently than the government, there is a larger moral issue at work. Should needed goods and services be paid for via the forcible confiscation of property? Should violence be used to fund libraries, public parks, and fire fighters? Or is there a better, more peaceful way to provide these services? If there is not, then will we be like all the other ants and accept idly the fact that the grasshoppers take our stuff? Or will we be like Flik and attempt to innovate around the system of violence? If there is a way to organize a society around peaceful, voluntary action will we help those around us realize their own power to help themselves and shake of the chains of the state?