Of mice and humans
Saipan — Lawrence W. Reed, president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education, says national and state parks all over the U.S. display signs that tell visitors, “Please Don’t Feed the Animals.” In an essay posted a year ago, he says the National Park Service’s website for Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan explains why: feeding animals transforms them “into habitual beggars. Studies have shown that panhandling animals have a shorter lifespan.”
Because he is a free-market economist, Reed asks the following question: “What would happen if animals in the wild could count on human sources for their diet and never have to hunt or scrounge? What if, in other words, we humans imposed a generous welfare state on our furry friends? Would the resulting experience offer any lessons for humans who might be subjected to similar conditions? Not having to work for food and shelter sounds appealing and compassionate, doesn’t it?”
Ethology is the scientific study of animal behavior, and Reed says one of the more famous ethologists in recent decades was John B. Calhoun (1917-1995).
When he worked for the National Institute for Mental Health in the 1960s, Calhoun conducted mouse experiments for which he became well-known in the scientific community.
In one of his experiments, Reed says, “Calhoun enclosed four pairs of mice in a 9 x 4.5 foot metal pen complete with water dispensers, tunnels, food bins and nesting boxes. He provided all the food and water they needed and ensured that no predator could gain access. It was a mouse utopia.”
The mice, at first, did well, and their numbers doubled every 55 days. However, Reed says, “After 600 days, with enough space to accommodate as many as another 1,600 rodents, the population peaked at 2,200 and began to decline precipitously — straight down to the extinction of the entire colony — in spite of their material needs being met with no effort required on the part of any mouse.”
On Day 315, Reed says, Calhoun observed the first signs of a breakdown in social norms and structure. “Aberrations included the following: females abandoning their young; males no longer defending their territory; and both sexes becoming more violent and aggressive. Deviant behavior, sexual and social, mounted with each passing day. The last thousand mice to be born tended to avoid stressful activity and focused their attention increasingly on themselves.”
These mice remind me of the Western world’s underclass as described by the British prison psychiatrist and physician, Anthony Malcolm Daniels a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple, in his outstanding collection of essays published in 2010, “Life at the Bottom.”
“This underclass,” he says, “is not poor, at least by the standards that have prevailed throughout the great majority of human history. It exists, to a varying degree, in all Western societies. Like every other social class, it has benefited enormously from the vast general increase in wealth of the past hundred years. In certain respects, indeed, it enjoys amenities and comforts that would have made a Roman emperor or an absolute monarch gasp. Nor is it politically oppressed; it fears neither to speak its mind nor the midnight knock on the door. Yet its existence is wretched nonetheless, with a special wretchedness that is peculiarly its own.”
Their “patterns of behavior [are] almost entirely self-destructive ones,” he adds. “Day after day I hear of the same violence, the same neglect and abuse of children, the same broken relationships, the same victimization by crime, the same nihilism, the same dumb despair.”
Everyone’s favorite “root cause” — poverty — is irrelevant. “Not only is the underclass not poor,” Dalrymple says, “but untold millions of people who were very much poorer have emerged from poverty within living memory — in South Korea, for example. If being poor really entailed a vicious cycle, man would still be living in the caves.”
But Dalrymple also believes that the “role of the welfare state in the rise (if that is quite the word for it) of the underclass is likewise overstressed. At most it might have been a necessary condition for that rise; it made it possible, not inevitable.”
The main culprit, he says, is the now widely popular notion “that one is not an agent but the helpless victim of circumstances, or of large occult sociological or economic forces.”
Today in the prosperous Western world, Dalrymple says the “aim of untold millions is to be free to do exactly as they choose and for someone else to pay when things go wrong.”
He noted that in the past few decades, a peculiar and distinctive psychology has emerged in England. “Gone are the civility, sturdy independence, and admirable stoicism that carried the English through the war years. It has been replaced by a constant whine of excuses, complaints, and special pleading.”
One can say the same thing about many other prosperous Western countries. Yes, I’m looking at you Uncle Sam.
As for Lawrence Reed, if we “take away the motivation to overcome obstacles — notably, the challenge of providing for oneself and family,” then we also “deprive individuals of an important stimulus that would otherwise encourage learning what works and what doesn’t, and possibly even pride in accomplishment.”
In the case of Calhoun’s mice experiment, Reed says perhaps “personal growth in each mouse was inhibited by the welfare-state conditions in which they lived.”
Reed says Calhoun himself noted “the paradox of a life without work or conflict. When all sense of necessity is stripped from the life of an individual, life ceases to have purpose. The individual dies in spirit.”
In his equally enlightening (and depressing) book published in 2017, “The High Cost of Good Intentions,” economist John F. Cogan discussed the history of U.S. entitlement/welfare programs, and concluded that the “system needs to be restructured to become a safety net that preserves the dignity of recipients and rewards self-reliance.”
Is that still possible?
Someone — no one knows who exactly — once said, “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury.”
In a democracy, who would vote for truly significant cost-cutting and other austerity measures that will shrink the government-created “safety net”? Who among today’s politicians would dare blame voters for “the current mess”? Who would dare blame the “victims” — or compare them to mice?
Zaldy Dandan is editor of the NMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety, and author of three books available on amazon.com. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org