May 27, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes

In 1974, the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick wrote one of the most influential books since WWII: Anarchy, State, and Utopia, in which he argued for a minimal state. He reasoned that when a government’s function expands beyond protecting individuals against force and fraud, it violates individual rights. This is a deep book, a book that won the US National Book Award in the “Philosophy and Religion” category, and when I glanced at a copy, I noticed something unusual in its bibliography.

Right after listings from Murray Rothbard, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and John Rawls—who was then the “go to” champion of income redistribution as justice in academic circles—was good ‘ol Dr. Seuss, whose name normally doesn’t line up on the same bibliography as Immanuel Kant and John Locke. 

The book was Seuss’s Thidwick, the Kind-Hearted Moose.

Now there’s a book I can read, I thought. 

I put the Nozick back on the shelf, opened up Thidwick, and ten minutes later, I got it.

I’m not sure I “got” all of Nozick’s ideas, but I did get something: an explanation of the politics of niceness, an understanding of how states can collapse, and a prescription for reform, all in a book that scores of parents read to their 6-year-olds.

The book begins with a happy moose named Thidwick, who has a heart of gold and plenty of moose buddies. A certain Bingle Bug approaches him, asking to ride “on his horns for a way.” 

“There’s room to spare,” Thidwick smiles, “and I’m happy to share.”

But the bug invites a Tree Spider (“There’s plenty of room,” Bingle tells the spider, “and it’s free!”)  Then along comes a Zinn-a-zu bird, who gets married and makes his nest from moose hair, and his uncle, a Woodpecker, and then Herman the squirrel and his family, who lived in the holes Woodpecker drilled into Thidwick’s horns. 

Meanwhile, Thidwick’s moose friends leave him to search for more moose moss to munch, and as his stomach growls, he decides to join them in their swim to the south shore of Lake Winna-Bango.

Not so fast. The animals vote, and Thidwick loses, 11 to 1. He stays, despite his increasing hunger and the increasingly weighty burdens on his horns.

In effect, Seuss teaches toddlers that democracy can enable free riding activities which treat scarce goods as free goods and result in a tyranny of the majority and economic collapse.

Thidwick’s situation gets worse.

A bear, 362 bees, and a fox join in, and heavy is the head who supports free riders. 

It gets worser, as Seuss might write. 

Hunters looking for additions to the Harvard Club wall eye Thidwick’s impressive rack, and he is not only burdened by the weight of a mini zoo on his head, he’s starving and being shot at. At this point, this children’s story doesn’t seem destined for a happy ending.

It happens that, 75 years after Seuss wrote it, Thidwick turns out to be a good metaphor Western democracies. In a democracy, politicians vote for bills with obvious benefits to their constituents and uncertain, diffuse, and understated costs to taxpayers—who are often the same as their constituents, though clever cost shifting can cure that potential problem.  As a result, the state grows into a Leviathan. In a 1989 Reason article, Virginia Postrel wrote about the Americans with Disabilities Act (best known today as the ADA), describing it as exhibit one of the “politics of niceness.” This law passed both the Senate 76 to 8 and the House 377 to 28, and President Bush proudly signed it into law. One of the few opponents from the Chamber of Commerce lamented that “No politician can vote against this bill and survive.” After all, a host might be nice to his guests, as must a politician to his constituents.

As the Harvard hunters’ bullets zoom past Thidwick, his future only seems dire:  

He gasped. He felt faint. And the whole world grew fuzzy!

Thidwick was finished, completely….

…or Was he?…

Just in time, Thidwick remembers a thing he’d forgot, something that happens each year to the horns of all moose, and the horns of all deer: those horns shed. He gives his head a twist, flinging the free riders to the floor.

Thidwick is saved, swimming to the south shore of lake Winna-Bango for some moose moss to munch. The bugs end up mounted on the Harvard Wall, each of them with “X’s” in their eyes.

I imagine that Seuss’s likely intention was to take aim at young bullies who demanded too much stuff from their parents and friends, and perhaps other youngsters (and parents?) who were accommodating doormats. But what Nozick saw was a parable of a wrong view of justice—justice as charity, and entitlements as the currency of compassion. 

Of course, accommodations to the 50 million Americans with disabilities are both costly and beneficial to both buyers and sellers; in a free market, businesses that refuse reasonable accommodations will lose sales and profits. But when a mandate emerges, with neither cost-benefit calculations nor constitutional justification, the regulatory burden can become onerous. How many billions of dollars do ADA requirements cost businesses—and, of course, consumers, though we don’t really see it? That is nearly impossible to calculate.

When Thidwick shucks off his horns, “ripping the bandaid” off, those deadweights disappear. His impulsive approach maximizes short term pain but quickly solves his problem, suggesting that a quick shedding rather than a gradual pruning of entitlements might be better. The gradual approach may be easier in the short run, but gives time for opponents to coalesce…a point Machiavelli noted 500 years ago.

Yes, the more drastic solution will be more politically difficult to do—but perhaps not,  when and if we face national bankruptcy.

It’s nice to be nice. But as Postrel points out, “to say that it costs too much to accommodate the disabled is to admit that you value their happiness or sense of self-worth less than you value something else.” After all, we live in a world of tradeoffs. 

And what are the “something else” tradeoffs? Likely, “…raising salaries, devoting more money to R&D, or cutting prices.”

“And that,” she concludes, “is exactly the kind of admission the politics of niceness won’t allow.”

Though we never have a free pass to be insensitive, foisting regulations and compliance requirements on individuals legislates a faux sort of niceness. Over 500 pages of ADA regulations detail this niceness: our ADA-compliant toilet should be at least 60 inches wide and have a seat between 17 and 19 inches from the base of the unit to the seat top, and our urinals be in a “clear floor space 30 in. by 48 in.” One Senate proponent of the ADA admitted that a large company like IBM might be required to hire a full time reader to accommodate a blind employee, but they could afford that. Of course, doubling the cost of hiring a blind employee might just reduce IBM’s incentive to hire disabled individuals.

Nozick concludes his book by suggesting that “treating us with respect by respecting our rights…allows us…to choose our life and to realize our ends…aided by the voluntary cooperation of other individuals possessing the same dignity.” 

I’d like to think genuine niceness emerges from the human heart, not a legislator’s pen.

Bruce Rottman

Mr. Rottman has taught economics in secondary schools for over 40 years, and is currently Director of Brookfield Academy’s Free Enterprise Institute, in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

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