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Opinion

The Mice That Roared


  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Nov. 24, 2020 - 4:40 PM

The Mice That Roared

Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at lreed@fee.org .

Signs in parks warn visitors, “Please Don’t Feed the Animals.” Some provide further explanation, such as, “The animals may bite,” or, “It makes them dependent.” The National Park Service advises, “It transforms wild and healthy animals into habitual beggars. Studies have shown that panhandling animals have a shorter lifespan.”

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 lessons for humans under similar conditions?

Our personal pets live in a welfare state. Moreover, they seem to like it. My rat terriers get free food and free health care, though I am not only their provider, I am also their “master,” too. In fact, my loving domination is a condition for the free stuff. Maybe a welfare state can work after all.

Or perhaps the human/pet welfare state only works because one of the parties has a brain the size of a golf ball.

One of the more famous animal behaviorists was John B. Calhoun, best known for his mouse experiments in the 1960s when he worked for the National Institute for Mental Health.

Calhoun enclosed four pairs of mice in a metal pen complete with water dispensers, tunnels, food bins and nesting boxes. He provided all their food and water and ensured that no predator could gain access. It was a mouse utopia.

At first, the mice did well. Their numbers doubled every 55 days. But 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.

The turning point occurred on Day 315 when a breakdown in social norms and structure commenced. Aberrations included females abandoning their young; males no longer defending their territory; and both sexes becoming more violent and aggressive. Deviant behavior mounted with each passing day. The last thousand mice to be born tended to avoid stressful activity and focused their attention increasingly on themselves. They could not cope with unusual stimuli.

Because of the abundance of water and food, combined with zero threats from predators, the mice’s life skills necessary for survival faded away.

The culprit was the lack of a healthy challenge. Take away the motivation to overcome obstacles — notably, the challenge of providing for oneself and family — and you deprive individuals of a critical stimulus. Personal growth was inhibited by the welfare state conditions in which the mice lived.

By relieving individuals of challenges, which then deprives them of purpose, the welfare state is an unnatural and antisocial contrivance. In the mouse experiment, the individuals lost interest in the things that perpetuate the species. They self-isolated, overindulged themselves or turned to violence. Does that ring a bell?

Reminds me of something Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1935:

“The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence … show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

Food for thought?

Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at lreed@fee.org .