During this last week, thousands of Washingtonians have flocked to one of the world’s greatest artistic events, ‘The Ring” by Richard Wagner. Much has and will be said, musically and theatrically, about this performance. But the bread and butter of Washington is public policy. Thus, it is also appropriate that we note the strong roles palyed in this cycle by key free market arrangements, the right of contract and private property.
A plot review is useful. Wotan, the most powerful of gods, has arranged with Fafner and FasoIt. the hard-working giants (“sweating with horny hands”), to construct for him a new home, Valhalla. That agreement is contractual. (“… by a contract I tamed their insolent race into building me this sublime abode”) and involves as payment Freia, Wotan’s sister-in-law. Not surpnisingly; Fricka, Wotan’s wife, has reservations about this (“Had I known of your contract I would have prevented the fraud”).
When Fafner and Fasolt complete their labors and demand that Wotan fulfill his side of the agreement, he seeks a way out. He first claims that the deal was not serious (Wotan: “How cunning to take in earnest what was agreed to only in jest!”). The giants are not amused. (Fasolt: “Do you now upset our bargain?”). The giants are mene laborers, no match for the power of the gods; yet, certain that their contract will be honored, they press their claim even when threatened with force by the brother gods, Froh and Donner. Wotan is forced to recognize the legitimacy of their claims and protect them (“My spear shaft protects bonds”).
Contracts, as Wagner well understood, benefited the common laborer as well as the powerful. Indeed, gods have less need; of contracts—they have both wealth and power and can more easily attain their objectives in a world Licking the right to enter into binding agreements. In contnast, the giants are guarnteed payment only if contracts are respected and enforced. Thus, one Loge, Wotan’s attorney/adviser, had inspected Valhalla and found it well constructed (“not a stone but was firm in its place”), the contract had been materially performed, and Wotan was bound to deliver Freia.
Since Wotan cannot violate the contract, he seeks to renegotiate it. The laborers are willing to accept the Rhinegold in lieu of Freia. Unfortunately, the Rhinegold is possessed by Alberich, the wicked dwarf, who has stolen it from. the Rhine Maidens. Wotan, aided by Loge, gains (by trickery) the stolen gold from Alberich and, after a tense negotiation period during which contract talks almost collapse, gives the gold to the giants:. That transfer satisfies the giants (although triggering an unfortunate fratricidal quarrel) hut leaves Wotan in jeopardy. His castle has been paid for with stolen property—not a sound foundation for a lawful empire.
Wotan throughout the rest of the cycle seeks to retain his power, while eliminating this title defect. He cannot once again simply steal the gold, this time from Fafner,. the surviving giant. His theft from Alberich might have been justified as a citizen policy action, but as Fafner has accepted the gold as substitute payment from Wotan, Wotan no longer has that option. To do so would violate the contract that led him into the Alberich venture in the first place.
Like all great artistic works, “The Ring” has many levels of meaning, but one of these is this public tragedy, the story of Wotan’s struggling with a contract he cannot accept and property he cannot legally acquire. Ultimately, he fails, and the empire of the gods falls. “The Ring” tells us that a society that fails to respect the right of contract and private property faces dim prospects—indeed, Gotterdammerung. If Washingtonians absorb that lesson, “The Ring” will have done much to improve public policy.
By Joe Miller and Fred L. Smith Jr.