BY MARK W. HENDRICKSON
We all have probably imagined a life of ease at some time in our lives. The dream or notion of arriving at the proverbial “Easy Street” has been a recurring theme in America for generations.
The Democratic Party seems to want to make that dream a reality for all Americans with its plans for government to ensure that all Americans have cradle-to-grave security (e.g., their proposed $3.5 trillion expanded “safety net” bill).
This paternalistic welfare state, in which the state assumes economic responsibility for citizens, aligns with progressives’ long-standing utopian goal of legislating a risk-free environment. As one wit commented: 50 years ago, owner’s manuals told you how to change various fluids in machines we own; now, they tell you not to drink the fluids. Think of the woman who successfully sued McDonald’s when she spilled their hot coffee on herself. The utopian desire to guarantee protection even from one’s own mistakes and poor judgment prevails today.
Allow me to ask an important and perhaps inconvenient question: Is paternalistic government trying to do too much for Americans? That question may be heretical to the many progressives who entertain visions of utopia, but we need to consider it.
The Need for Challenges
I don’t wish adversity or hardship on anyone, but human beings need to grapple with at least occasional, if not frequent, challenges in order to achieve anything close to their full potential for growth. It’s the struggle itself that makes one stronger. Think of professional athletes: They will tell you that the only reason they became as proficient with their skills is because of all the competition they faced along the way.
A lack of challenges—a too-easy life, in other words—can weaken one, at times even fatally.
Consider the bird struggling to peck open its shell at the beginning of its life. If a kindly intentioned person, wanting to spare the poor little birdie a struggle, were to peel away the shell, the bird would die. It turns out that the strenuous effort the bird expends to break out of its shell is a key step in developing the necessary strength for it to survive.
An even more suggestive lesson comes from the John B. Calhoun “mouse utopia” experiments in the 1960s. Conducted under the auspices of the National Institute for Mental Health, Calhoun set up a comfortable, predator-free mouse community. He gave the mice all the food, water, and nesting material that they wanted. The mice, so to speak, were on Easy Street. They had no need to forage for food, to defend against natural enemies, or to search for nesting material.
For several generations, the mice population doubled. Then some surprising developments occurred: Even though there was still plenty of space and unlimited supplies provided to all the mice, their population began to implode. Although they were physically healthy, there were signs of psychological dysfunction. Females abandoned their young. Mice tended to avoid any stressful activity. They became antisocial and increasingly self-absorbed, even abandoning sex and procreation. Basic survival skills, being unneeded, atrophied so that new generations of mice never received instruction in those life skills. Eventually, the colony went extinct. Those results were replicated numerous times, proving that what happened wasn’t a fluke.
Commenting on Calhoun’s experiments, biocybernetician Jan Kubán wrote, “Utopia (when one has everything, at any moment, for no expenditure) prompts declines in responsibility, effectiveness, and awareness of social dependence and finally … leads to self-extinction.”
Ah, but does this lesson apply to humans as well as to mice? While we won’t be able to conduct a controlled experiment, most of us have seen anecdotal evidence of this syndrome. Have you ever envied the rich kid who never had to work because his folks gave him all the money he needed to have a comfortable lifestyle? One example: He was a contemporary of mine. His father, whom I got to know as well as the son, was a senior executive for a major corporation. The son never found work that excited or challenged him, so he coasted through life indulging in various creature comforts that his dad always paid for. The last time I saw the son, we were in our 40s. He looked terrible and passed away a few years later of no apparent physical cause.
He seemed to be an example of what Calhoun—the man who conducted those mice experiments—wrote: “Herein is 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.”
I realize how fortunate I have been that I have always had to work for a living.
Just as the lack of challenge seemed to have lethal consequences at the micro/individual level, so it may be destructive at the macro/societal level, too. Consider the lifecycle of civilizations often attributed to Alexander Tytler (1748–1813):
From Bondage to Spiritual Faith,
From Spiritual Faith to Great Courage,
From Courage to Liberty,
From Liberty to Abundance,
From Abundance to Selfishness,
From Selfishness to Complacency,
From Complacency to Apathy,
From Apathy to Dependency,
From Dependency back into Bondage.
Is it possible that the great affluence of our era has put us on the path to complacency, apathy, dependency, and bondage? Like the mice that quit procreating, dozens of countries are now experiencing falling birth rates that will result in their populations shrinking in coming decades. Believing that modern welfare states will take care of them in retirement, there appears to be less of an economic imperative to have children. But what if societies don’t produce enough children overall to fund the vast welfare states on which people are becoming increasingly dependent? Oops. Short-term convenience can lead to long-term disaster (a point to remember in regard to our ever-swelling national debt).
We need to ask what the implications are of the Democrats’ proposed $3.5 trillion expansion of the welfare state. It would make millions more Americans dependent on government (and perhaps specifically on the Democratic Party), while strengthening the belief that Americans no longer have to exert themselves or strive to acquire what they want. This could produce a demographic swath of weaklings. The lessons from Calhoun’s mice experiments and Tytler’s cycle of civilization suggest that these ostensibly helpful government programs may actually end up killing Americans with false kindness and toxic compassion.
Indeed, there are worrisome signs around us. I’m haunted by a mundane memory from 15 to 20 years ago. Friends I was visiting took me to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. I was struck by the vivid contrast between the young, fit, well-groomed, well-dressed Chinese servers in the restaurant and the overwhelmingly older, obese, slovenly Americans wearing ragged T-shirts and flip-flops and packing in astounding amounts of food. It seemed to me that these pitiful, sleepwalking folks were eating themselves into an early grave, while the young Chinese were on their way to a bright future.
The bottom line is that people need challenges in their lives, not a life on Easy Street. Human beings are happier and achieve more when they have to work hard to attain a difficult goal. Unlike my tragic contemporary who withered on the vine on Easy Street and died prematurely, people who work themselves up from an impoverished childhood to financial success are proud and feel fulfilled. Others, feeling that their material needs are being met without any particular challenge to them, seek out new challenges—marathon events, mountain climbing, innovative ways to help others, etc.—and so enrich their lives by accomplishing what most people would consider “too hard for me.”
I’m not trying to be moralistic when I say that it looks like life has gotten too easy for too many Americans. I do believe, though, that affluence poses its own special set of dangers, and that a big-spending, paternalistic government that attempts to take care of tens of millions of Americans as if they were helpless children is exacerbating that danger.
Congress should take a hiatus from trillion-dollar spending binges in futile attempts to make life easy for people. We can’t afford it economically and politically, and we can’t afford it psychologically and spiritually. Let’s not allow Big Government to kill us with cruel “kindness.”
This article appeared first in The Epoch Times. Used with the permission of the author.
Self-Educated American Contributing Editor Mark Hendrickson recently retired from the faculty at Grove City College where he remains Fellow for Economic and Social Policy at The Institute for Faith & Freedom. He is also a contributing editor of The St. Croix Review, sits on the Council of Scholars of the Commonwealth Foundation and writes opinion commentary for TheEpochTimes.com
Mr. Hendrickson’s most recent books include: The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change (2018), Problems with Picketty: Flaws and Fallacies in Capital in the 21st Century (2015), Famous But Nameless: Inspiration and Lessons from the Bible’s Anonymous Characters (2011); and God and Man on Wall Street: The Conscience of Capitalism (with Craig Columbus, 2012).