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Victory for California Coast?

July 2, 2001

Tags The EntrepreneurEntrepreneurship

After a federal district judge recently ordered the prohibition of all new oil drilling along the California coast, an anti-drilling spokesperson declared the ruling "a victory for the California coast." This is an interesting, if terribly confusing, notion.

There was no fight between the California coast and anyone, not even between the coast and the folks who wanted to drill. The California coast does not engage in battles, wars, fights, or games wherein a victory might be won. The California coast is a geographical and geological region that has no will of its own, no goals of its own to strive for.

As with most of the wilds and of nature in general, the California coast just lies there and grows, by dint of various geological, botanical, and biological laws, as well as of what people decide to do with it. To claim that the coast wins or loses is rank anthropomorphism, making it seem like the coast itself can benefit or lose from drilling. That's nonsense; only people can.

There is, of course, a fight afoot in which a victory might be claimed for one side. This is between those who want to do different things on the California coast. For the time being, the judge's prohibition favored one side in this conflict—namely, the side that wants to prohibit the continued use of the coast for certain purposes. This decision would please some of us but displease others.

So for now, new oil drilling has taken a beating, which means that those of us who favor lower gasoline prices lost and those who want to drive gasoline prices up but keep flora and fauna flourishing on the coast have won. Also, those who would like to increase recreational facilities and living quarters along the California coast lost, while those who want to have the region left undeveloped with housing prices driven up have won.

But the California coast didn't win any victory, nor would it have lost had the judge ruled differently. To claim otherwise is presumptuous and pretentious, as if it were clearly and absolutely established that not using the coast for oil drilling and other development is a good thing, while using it that way is bad. Nothing like this is established.

It's even worse: There is no clear idea of how to judge these decisions for us all as to what would make one a good or a bad decision. Rather, once the decision is left to politics, it is all a matter of whose will shall prevail, who will wrest power at the expense of others.

This is the way it goes with public policy: There are winners and losers and no one in-between. Governmental matters have the character of being dealt with this way, thumbs up or thumbs down, just as in the Roman coliseum where Caesar would rule for or against the death of a gladiator.

This contrasts sharply with the way the marketplace operates. There are many offering their products and services for sale; some do better at attracting customers, some worse, and some, none at all. But few get no chance at all to get what they want. When a judge decides that there will be no oil drilling, all those who would like some drilling lost and those who oppose it won.

But it is not at all true, despite the partisan claims to the contrary, that this is really a just result. More likely, there should be some drilling here, none there, a lot at another place, and so forth. And this can be decided only via letting us all cast a vote in the market place, where we spend money on oil.

If these decisions show producers that oil is not in high demand, that we choose to have less oil available and more of the wilds, in one or another place, that would be a good indication of how things ought to go. But judges and voters simply have no way of knowing to what economic use the California coast ought to be employed.

What they do have the power to do is favor some citizens over all the rest, and that is just what the judge did here: side with some against others.

It should be clear to us these days that politics is a bad way to tell what should be done, except in a few distinct cases—for example, who should go to Congress. Just as voting on whether you should go to the dentists, take a vacation, or send your child to Harvard Medical School is a bad way to reach such decisions, so it is with most other matters.

We are a very diverse group, we human beings, and the same size doesn't fit all. To pretend that it does is to foster injustice and anger among us. This is no less true in matters pertaining to the environment—what should be done with the California coast, for instance—than it is when it comes to what kind of medicine we need. There is no one answer for us all.

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Tibor R. Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. See his Mises.org Archive or send him MAIL.


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