Mises Daily Articles
How Dinosaurs Were Made Extinct
[Originally published December 1, 1998.]
I have just been reading W.J.T. Mitchell's The Last Dinosaur Book. Miraculously, it manages to use the subject of dinosaurs as a way of attacking capitalism. Don't ask me how he does it — Mitchell goes on and on about Barney, fossil fuels, Jurassic Park, off-road vehicles, McDonald's commercials, Andrew Carnegie — somehow it all adds up to an indictment of multinational corporations and what they have done to and with the great beasts of the Mesozoic Era. I didn't much like the book, but it started me thinking: does the Left now have a lock on paleontology too?
Take the case of the mysterious extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. Many theories have been offered to explain this event. Some have pointed to climatic changes, some to dinosaur overpopulation. Perhaps the most popular theory at the moment attributes the demise of the giant beasts to a killer asteroid, whose impact on the earth kicked up enough dust and debris to block out the sun and snuff out the lives of dinosaurs all over the world.
All these theories conveniently conjure up various subjects of left-wing paranoia — the grand antithetical fears of global warming and nuclear winter — and they all insidiously suggest remarkable new roles for the federal government, like protecting us from comets and other objects from outer space.
Are even the dinosaurs lining up against the cause of the free market these days? Well I for one, as a student of Austrian economics, have a more plausible explanation: the extinction of the dinosaurs must have been the result of government intervention in the marketplace. Though my speculations have met with some skepticism from the paleontological establishment, I am finally prepared to go public with my findings after a visit to Montana this past summer which allowed me to examine the fossil record firsthand and to reconstruct the true story of the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.
It all began in the late Triassic Period, when the government decided to come to the aid of cold-blooded creatures everywhere. Federal authorities were deeply disturbed by the appearance of the first warm-blooded animals, who seemed to have an unfair advantage over their cold-blooded brethren — they moved faster, were more alert, and generally seemed to get a lot more done, particularly during the winter months.
Concerned by the possibility that warm-blooded animals might end up displacing cold-blooded animals entirely, the government passed the Body Temperature Stabilization Act. Subsidizing cold-blooded animals at the expense of warm-blooded, this bill eliminated all federal taxes on the former and doubled them on the latter. The bill also tried to outlaw winter, but this move was declared unconstitutional by the courts.
The trouble with this seemingly enlightened piece of legislation began when the National Body Temperature Stabilization Control Board ruled that dinosaurs were cold-blooded and thus granted them enormous tax breaks. As one bureaucrat put it, "Their name means 'thunder lizard,' doesn't it? That makes them reptiles and therefore cold-blooded. Case closed." Of course the latest scientific evidence today suggests that the dinosaurs were warm-blooded and closer in some respects to birds than to reptiles. Thus the dinosaurs, as the only animal group combining warm-bloodedness with tax breaks, prospered and soon were overruning the earth.
Alarmed at this new development, the government decided to impose a head tax on the dinosaurs. Well into the late Triassic Period, all animals subject to taxes had been assessed by the pound. Government officials figured they could reduce the proliferation of dinosaurs by taxing them by number instead of by weight. Still concerned with the uncompetitiveness of cold-blooded animals, the government also instituted a new tax penalizing the increase in brain size that was occurring as a result of evolution.
The impact of this new tax legislation on the dinosaurs was immediate and dramatic: taxed by number not weight, they found it expedient to grow fewer but larger. At the same time, with the new tax penalty on intelligence, their brains grew smaller. In the end the policy of the federal government succeeded in producing a remarkable mirror image of itself in the Jurassic dinosaur: a large, sluggish, bloated, overgrown body animated by a brain the size of a pea.
You might think that the government would have been overjoyed with this result. But as soon as federal policy resulted in colossal land animals bestriding the earth, the cry went up everywhere: "Break up the dinosaurs." Resentment was particularly strong against one species of dinosaur, the Tyrannosaurus rex, which as the largest predator ever to walk the face of the earth was accused of predatory pricing by the Justice Department.
Oddly enough, the campaign against the dinosaurs was led by one particularly horrifying species of dinosaur, the dreaded Algorosaurus. This creature actually managed to convince its fellow dinosaurs that they had become too large for their own good and were consuming an unjustifiably large portion of the earth's resources. With their morale broken, and faced with the prospect of hundreds of millions of years of litigation, the dinosaurs eventually signed consent letters with the Justice Department, agreeing to break themselves up into several pieces, no fewer than five or six in most cases.
Many have dated the demise of the dinosaurs from this moment. The fossil record seems to bear them out. To this date a whole intact dinosaur specimen has never been found anywhere. Indeed, judging by the fossil evidence, by the time the federal government was through with the dinosaurs, it had picked them to the bone. Once the most successful creatures on the planet, the dinosaurs ended up wiped out everywhere across the globe approximately 65 million years ago.
At that point the government placed the dinosaurs on the Endangered Species list. To be fair to the government, they actually made this declaration some 3 million years before the dinosaur extinction. Unfortunately, the official notices protecting the dinosaurs were sent by regular mail. Then as now the slogan of the Post Office was "When it absolutely, positively has to be there in roughly the same geologic era." Since the mail delivery in this case was off by some 5 million years, the dinosaurs were already extinct when the federal government invoked its protection over them.
Such is the story of the extinction of the dinosaurs, at least as I have been able to reconstruct it.