Growing up one of my favorite stories to read was “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” The book’s simple illustrations and the ingenuity the young boy used to accommodate the insatiable mouse made it a fun and enjoyable read.
As I’ve gotten older and my understanding of government has grown, I find myself continually drawn back to this story. Perhaps this speaks volumes about my simple-mindedness, but we’ll leave that for another discussion.
[pullquote]The trajectory of a minor action is often unforeseen and may have many devastating unintended consequences.[/pullquote]For those unfamiliar with the story, a young boy is approached by a mouse who asks if he can have a cookie. The boy obliges the mouse’s simple request. But then the mouse asks for a glass of milk to go along with his cookie. And then a straw to drink the milk with, and a napkin to clean his mouth, and a mirror to check to see if he has a milk moustache, and on and on and on until before you realize it, the boy has provided the mouse with food to eat, milk to drink, safe shelter, and the expectation that when he wants something – no matter how big or small it is – the boy will provide it for him.
The story provides a very simple, yet appropriate commentary on the pitfalls associated with the ever-expanding role of government, and the people/groups who ask the government to accommodate their “needs.”
One of Sutherland Institute’s seven governing principles is “limited government.” The Institute’s description of this principle includes the following:
A free and prosperous Utah requires accountability from its people. This means that every Utahn should … seek to solve their own problems and work voluntarily with their neighbors to solve community problems … that every Utahn should support public policies that limit government spending, limit the role of government programs in our lives, limit the authority we delegate to governments, and limit the physical and legal expansion of governmental presence.
“If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” is an excellent example of the need for limited government in our lives. Where once a lone mouse was able to function quite adequately by his own means, his desires led him down a path of dependency and complacency that would prove difficult to break.
In our own society, how often have we witnessed a minor request or “need” from a particular group that snowballs into a great behemoth that begins to sap precious tax dollars and energy from citizens? How often have vicious dictators been empowered by governments “looking the other way” or appeasing them? The trajectory of a minor action is often unforeseen and may have many devastating unintended consequences. One rock that falls off a truck – with no harm to the truck – has the potential to damage many windshields.
This potential for creating an insatiable appetite for government involvement in people’s lives is a hazard against which many political philosophers have warned. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his seminal work, Democracy in America, wrote about American society in the early 1800s. In one of his many warnings about the potential pitfalls of democracy, he spoke of an “immense” governmental power:
It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-sighted and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like it, it had as a goal to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to fix them irrevocably in childhood; it likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only about enjoying themselves. It works willingly for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent for it and the sole arbiter; it attends to their security, provides for their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, settles their estates, divides their inheritances; how can it not remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living? (emphasis added)
If images of Occupy Wall Street protesters sleeping in tents popped into your mind while reading that, you’re not alone. The idea that a group of people would take up residence on public (and private) land and occasionally engage in violent behavior to force capitulation to their will not only flies in the face of our laws and institutions, it’s just plain dangerous. President Obama’s decision to revamp the way student loans are paid back is likely to be the first in a line of many cookies offered to this group. Remember the harmless rock spoken of earlier? Once society capitulates one time, the expectation that it will do so again is even greater, and the unintended consequences can be catastrophic.
These are just a few examples I have seen that seem to parallel the events in this children’s story. To our readers, what examples in government or history can you think of that are analogous to this story? What lessons from life have you learned from children’s stories that have become more apparent the older you get? Please leave your ideas in the comments section. I look forward to reading them!