Listening to music can be a great way to help pass the time for everything from reading to exercising to driving. But if you listen closely, you will find more than just melodies: Important lessons can be learned from some of your favorite songs. The next time you are shuffling through your iPod, take note of some of these songs that celebrate the fundamental principles of the free market.
The Beatles’ "Taxman," from the 1966 album "Revolver," is a straightforward condemnation of excessive government taxation, which the band members fell victim to on their rise to stardom. Although the song was written more than 40 years ago, its message is still relevant as today’s government taxes almost everything we come into contact with. The Beatles address this when they write, "If you drive a car, I'll tax the street. If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat. If you get too cold, I'll tax the heat. If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet." Taxes like these cause distortions in the market that can alter the supply of and demand for goods and services, leading to shortages and surpluses. High taxes also drastically diminish the incentive to innovate and produce, since much of the rewards for investment will be siphoned away by the government. The Beatles recognize this latter truth when the taxman in the song ends with "And you’re working for no one but me."
"Fortunate Son," from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 "Willy and the Poor Boys," offers a slightly more complex message. While parts of the song do exhibit anti-capitalist sentiments, it still contains valuable messages. Although the song was written in the era of the Vietnam War, its comments on government power are still relevant. The song mocks the special powers and privileges that government officials can reap by force and leads band member John Fogerty to write "It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son. It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one." In a market economy, a person or business prospers only by providing something that others want, thus adding to the overall wealth of a society. The government, by contrast, can only give to one by taking away from another. This opens the door for a great deal of corruption by virtue of the system itself.
"Support Your Local Emperor," from Blues Traveler’s 1991 "Travelers and Thieves" also illustrates the fact that coercion underlies every government action. The song encourages listeners to "Support your local emperor. Pay him tribute every time," because "he holds your fate." This brings up an important distinction between the government and the free market. The former must operate by force, but the latter, if truly free, only facilitates voluntary transactions. Blues Traveler’s song serves as an important reminder that nothing provided by the government is truly free, whether it be welfare or public parks.
Buffalo Springfield addresses the real fears associated with an ever-growing government in their Vietnam-era song "For What It’s Worth," first featured on a 1967 reissue of their self-titled album. The song recognizes a growing government presence with lyrics like, "There's a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware," and "Step out of line, The Man come and take you away." But the song does more than play the doomsayer role. It encourages its listeners to be aware of what is going on around them and to stand up for freedom: "I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down."
Staying consistent with the band’s recurring themes of individualism and freedom, Rush’s 1981 "Tom Sawyer," from the album "Moving Pictures," addresses the importance of individual thought. About the title character, drummer Neil Peart writes, "No, his mind is not for rent, to any god or government." Many of Rush’s songs pay tribute to the importance of thinking for oneself. That is one of the best lessons we can learn from these songs: awareness. It is important to realize that behind every government highway and handout is a curbed freedom and a displaced incentive.
Music is a great way to celebrate freedom and free market, and these themes inhabit our music more than we may realize. Perhaps the bureaucrats in Lansing and Washington should take a break from taxing and regulating and instead sit back and listen to the radio.
Christina M. Kohn holds a B.A. in economics and history from Hillsdale College and was a summer 2006 intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and education institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.