A Bird In A Cage

Tweety Bird, of Warner Brothers cartoon fame, was an adorable yellow canary with a speech impediment, whose constant tribulations made us laugh. He was content to sit on his swing, while Sylvester the cat was always conjuring ways to get him. Granny was his protector, at least when it worked into the plot.

The cartoon was cute, but it makes sense to us only because we can relate to it, because human characteristics and actions were superimposed upon animal likenesses. They are different yet recognizable. Tweety is comfortable in his cage, and it is satisfying to see the bad guy coming up short. We like happy endings. Granny keeps him safe, but a bird in a cage can’t do the thing that he was designed to do. Though he may be secure and live a long life, he can’t fly.

Individual human beings are designed to fly also, though in a different sense. Human intelligence gives people the ability to create, to design their own futures, and to make choices to alter their environments to get the results they want. They must, however, have latitude for their actions, to experiment, to try new things, to fail and then try something different. The purpose of human life is not security. It is accomplishment. It is being out in the wonderful world. It is progress and fulfillment. Being out in the world, though, necessarily means exposure to threats. Living without risk means living without the opportunity to fulfill a purpose.

Because everybody loves Tweety Bird, they think it is good when Granny puts him in a cage to protect him. It makes for a lovable character and a light-hearted, animated drama. It makes, however, a terrible paradigm for national policy. Society developed, over thousands of years, because people realized that they could do better than a zero-sum game. The gain of one person does not have to come at a loss to someone else. Voluntary commerce evolved because people saw that, if they give something of value to others in return for things that they got, it was more likely that beneficial trades could be made in the future. Productivity and trade are at the heart of every successful society.

The idea that politicians can be like Granny in the cartoon inherently assumes that the citizens are birds stuck in a house with prowling cats always out to get them. To protect them, lawmakers need to put legal bars around them, to restrict their activities, and make sure they only do what they are allowed to do.

Birds, however, evolved with faculties for self-protection. Birds, when in their own environment, can easily fly away, and most can escape even the stealthiest cat. They warn of approaching danger, they feign injury to lure predators away from young, and so many other survival mechanisms. Birds don’t need protection when they are not caged. Birds thrive when they are free.

Human societies have developed a set of rules that promote flourishing, rules such as “don’t take someone else’s stuff,” and “don’t injure other people.” Those rules maximize trust and the resulting benefits of cooperation. They work when they bind everyone equally, including the leaders. When those rules are violated, the violators must be punished.

Granny may be helping Tweety immediately by protecting him. She would help him much more by opening the cage and letting him fly out the front door. We are all Tweety Birds. We may be comfortable in our cage, but just imagine how much better society would be if we accept that life is risky, reject Granny’s well-meaning restrictions, and just fly.

Visit daniel-mclaughlin.com for more commentary, for links to other resources, or to leave a message.