Charlotte’s Web Is Full of Economic Wisdom

Charlotte’s Web is a story about a pig named Wilbur who is friends with a spider named Charlotte. The friends grow close while living in the barn. Charlotte tells Wilbur stories while she waits for flies and he lies in a pile of manure.

Wilbur’s life is idyllic, but eventually one of the older sheep tells Wilbur what happens to pigs once the weather gets cold. Charlotte, being Wilbur’s friend, promises that she will save his life. The story is simple, but it contains a lot of social science, especially economics.

The Story

Wilbur and Charlotte need help if Wilbur is to avoid becoming bacon. While hanging upside down waiting for a fly to come along, Charlotte hatches a plan. She will write words about Wilbur in her spider web. When the humans see the miracle of a spider web with words like “some pig,” they will spare his life.

Eventually, Wilbur wins a big prize at the state fair. The farmer, Homer Zuckerman, hangs the trophy over the barn where Wilbur lives. Wilbur and Templeton the rat both get fat and happy. Charlotte dies, however, because spiders don’t live very long.

The other animals don’t do much of anything. They offer advice, and they stand by. But they don’t really lift a finger to help Wilbur. They don’t offer to break down the pen so Wilbur can escape to the woods, for example. Yet Wilbur and Charlotte need help if Wilbur is to avoid becoming bacon. They turn to the rat, Templeton. The rat is even less interested in helping than the other animals. He wonders why he should help.

What’s My Motivation?

The old sheep appeals to Templeton’s baser instincts. The sheep tells Templeton, “You’ll worry all right on a zero morning next January when Wilbur is dead and nobody comes down here with a nice pail of warm slops to pour into the trough. Wilbur’s leftover food is your chief source of supply, Templeton.” And “If Wilbur’s trough stands empty day after day, you’ll grow so thin we can look right through your stomach and see objects on the other side”( pg. 90). The sheep knows that telling Templeton about Wilbur’s desires won’t help but that appealing to Templeton’s self-interest will.

Because he wants food from Wilbur, it is Templeton the rat who helps. Templeton has external motivation. He’s motivated to help Wilbur not by friendship or by general good feelings towards his fellow creature. Templeton is motivated by the fact that Wilbur’s leftover slop is his main source of food. Without Wilbur, Templeton will grow thin.

Internal motivation, on the other hand, is when you do something because it makes you feel good. Charlotte promises to help Wilbur because she wants to help her friend. This is universal. We work hard to help our friends and loved ones.  We rarely expect pay from them. They might return the favor, but in this case, Charlotte can’t count on Wilbur to return the favor because she knows she’s dying. She knows she won’t live past the state fair.

Because he wants food from Wilbur, it is Templeton the rat who helps. It is not the goose or the sheep or the horses, but Templeton. When Charlotte can’t think of anything to write except “Some Pig,” Templeton is the one who goes down to the dump to get magazine scraps. Charlotte uses these scraps for inspiration to find a word that will make humans value Wilbur more than bacon. Templeton is the one who bites Wilbur’s tail when Wilbur faints at the fair. And Templeton takes real risks. We know that there are rat traps. We know that the hired man, Lurvey, despises rats and would kill Templeton. Lurvey, the hired man, says “How I hate a rat!” (pg 74)

Selfish Motivations Can Lead to Unselfish Acts

Unfortunately, Templeton gets no gratitude or respect for his efforts. He’s even despised. This is common. Society looks down on people who have external motivations. This is odd since we all have external motivation, and it is external motivation that causes us to help the most people.  Still, the animals who don’t lift a finger are considered okay, but Templeton is the despised rat.

“...and with good reason. The rat has no morals, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything. He would kill a gosling if he could get away with it” (pg 46).

These motivations aren’t necessarily at odds. People are greedy and self-interested. We get them to provide services to us by appealing to their external motivation. But often the reason people are motivated by external forces like money is that they are also motivated by internal forces like taking care of their family. The sheep and the goose want to take of their family.

No one is planning on turning us into a Christmas ham, but we have the same problem that Wilbur has. We can get some of our needs met from friends and family. But we need to convince others to help us, too. Most of our needs are met by people who are not so different from the farm animal characters. The people who help us don’t wish us harm. They are happy to interject, but they don’t go out of their way. The reason is that those people or animals are busy helping the ones they care about. The sheep is helping the lambs. The goose is tending her eggs or her goslings. The way to get anyone to actively help is to appeal to their baser side.

The moral for kids is that our friends do great things for us, but if we need even more help, we must appeal to others’ baser, external motivations instead of the internal motivations that work with our friends. As much as economists love Adam Smith, Charlotte’s Web is a better way for kids to learn this. Children can apply this knowledge almost immediately. They learn that it is better to appeal to both internal and external motivations when negotiating with others. This is a valuable life skill.