The other night, while flipping through the tv channels, I happened to see some tiger cubs being raised in captivity. I don’t care who you are, one thing you cannot deny is how incredibly cute a small, young tiger cub is. Even if you’re a dog person, come on, they’re adorable. So, given the cuddly nature of a tiger cub, why don’t more people take them in as pets?
The answer is immediately obvious — we’ve seen full-grown tigers, and we’ve seen the way a housecat wakes you up in the morning to ask for his breakfast. One such wakeup call from a full-grown tiger and you won’t be serving breakfast, you’ll be dead. We’ve also seen the way cats show affection, nibbling on our fingers, or rubbing our legs with their paws. Again, we realize that we don’t want a tiger doing this to us.
Consider also the biological messages we send to pets. Given all the work we do for our pets, I would suggest it’s clear that the pets regard the house as their territory, and put up with our presence simply because of the tribute we pay them — that is, what we feed them. So, when a fresh, warm kill is on the table, the animals have a clear idea as to who should get to bite into it first. With a housecat, this doesn’t cause much trouble, as they can do little but sit and whine, or attempt to jump up only to be pushed down. Eventually, they give up and satisfy themselves with scraps after the meal, which is plenty given their size. A tiger, naturally, would be less tolerant of the situation.
However, the reasoning just employed might not seem obvious to some people. Imagine that a loved one of yours had decided to take in a tiger cub due to the cuteness factor. You try to explain to your beloved the folly in this course of action, pointing out that it will grow up. You even drag him to the zoo, plant him in front of the tiger exhibit, and exclaim "see — that’s what tiger cubs grow into! See the problem now?"
Imagine now that he turns to you and says, "yes, but what has that to do with me? That’s a very large predatory cat — I’m only taking in a small cub."
You try once again to explain the situation, "the cat you are taking in is small now, but that tiger in front of you was once just as small — he grew up."
Finally, your message seems to get across to your beloved friend, and you silently give thanks. He has seen the problem, and seems ready to abandon his plans. Then, however, a smile creeps across his face, and he shouts, "ah, but there is a way to handle this! I’ll simply demand that my cub not grow larger — in fact, I’ll write him a contract, explaining what he may and not do. I’ll enforce the contract with the power of my newspaper! Surely I can discipline a small tiger cub this way, and he’ll be contractually obligated not to grow up. If he does grow up, I’ll hit him until he stops."
It’s likely that your next stop would be the loony bin. This is clearly a preposterous idea. One cannot simply demand that a thing not grow to its full size, and hitting a tiger with a newspaper is a Darwinian tactic for removing yourself from the gene pool.
What if the situation were even worse, though? What if instead of one loved one, people all around you, important people in your life, were taking in tigers? All your family members began reporting to you that their adorable tiger cubs are just so much fun. In fact, they literally insist that you have a tiger, and forcibly place a tiger cub into your home, with strict instructions not to remove it. How long would it take before you stopped reasoning with such people, and instead cut them out of your life, tigers and all?
Yet, clever people fall for far more dangerous ideas of the exact same form. In Philadelphia, a group of remarkably intelligent men came together to form a government. These men had seen full-grown governments before, had in fact just freed themselves from one. Yet here they were, feeding and nourishing a small baby government, playing with it, considering it so cute and adorable that they just had to have one. Not just that, but their neighbors had to have one too, and their descendents, and their neighbors descendants. They pushed this dangerous creature onto all these innocent parties with the assurance that they had instructed the baby not to grow. What’s more, they had provided enforcement mechanisms. The states could secede, and if even that failed, well clearly the people could enforce the contract. Here’s your rolled up newspaper, good luck! As Party Leader Creedy taunts V in the film V for Vendetta, "you’ve got nothing. Nothing but your bloody knives and your fancy karate gimmicks. We have guns." Just change karate for newspaper and we have the situation faced by a citizen attempting to bring a government back into line after a contract violation, the situation faced by a pet owner trying to bring his tiger back into line when the beast won’t stop eating his legs.
But our Founding Fathers are not to blame, or at least not primarily. The primary blame rests with those who watched the tiger grow, who could have intervened while it was still small enough, but did not. As the tiger grew, it should have been clear to any observer that the supposed limits on tiger growth were not working, that it would become with time a full-grown tiger and a dangerous threat. Yet, with just a few scratches, it could have been removed from the home still. Now, it is fully grown, and cannot be removed, or even challenged. Attempt to take some food from it and you will feel its full wrath — don’t even think about asking it to change or think.
Despite that, our guilt runs deeper still. As we watched the tiger grow, not only did we not get rid of it, but we took advantage of each increment in size to request that the tiger do more for us. "Ah, now you’re big enough to get my slippers," we said, and then when it was a bit larger, we wondered why our slippers had become food — and with time, our feet as well.
When the tiger was big enough, we handed him our income and asked him to distribute it in a way he felt was more equitable. Not so surprisingly, we ended up with a lot of tiger food, and not much else. Even less surprisingly, we also ended up with floors that only a tiger can walk on safely, but which are difficult for a human to cross. The tiger also spent our money outfitting the house with booby traps which catch humans, but which tigers are able to easily avoid. We took this all in stride, and saw no danger in these developments.
Noticing the tiger’s large teeth and claws, we figured the tiger would be useful for settling debates with our neighbors. It bothered us that our neighbors carried guns, so we sent the tiger to go take the guns away from him. Never did it occur to us that now the tiger had the teeth, the claws, and the guns. When economic growth wasn’t as fast as we would have liked it to be, we asked the tiger to print money and give it out, but to do so at only the proper rates to speed growth without being selfish and enriching himself at our expense. The tiger laughed all the way to his bank. If we felt some businessman was being unfair, not extending himself enough to benefit us, or giving something away in a manner unfair to his competitors, we set the tiger after him to level the playing field. Little did we notice that now the tiger had tasted blood, and hungered for more.
Who is guilty in all this? The tiger, for acting like a tiger? No, of course not, the tiger did what came naturally. We are guilty, for giving all these tasks to a tiger, knowing a tiger’s nature. We are guilty for have tolerated the presence of this tiger in our homes, and we are guilty for having relied on this tiger to harm others, but then complaining when the tiger came after us.
Joshua Katz, NREMT-P [send him mail], is the newest member of the mathematics faculty at the Oxford Academy, Westbrook, Connecticut. He has studied philosophy of mind, logic, and epistemology of economics from an Austrian perspective, and is a former graduate student in philosophy at Texas A&M, as well as holding a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He still holds the title of Chief of EMS for the Town of Hempstead Department of Parks and Recreation, and will return to full-time service there in the summer. He enjoys a glass of port and a wedge of Brie, but has discontinued this practice on a regular basis, due to the sugar content of the port.