Mises Daily Articles
Land Socialism: Playing With Fire
How fashionable it is to love nature.
Down with industry, development, internal-combustion engines, clear cutting, strip malls, and private ownership. Capitalists do nothing but ravage the beauty of mother earth. The hand of man only strangles and kills.
If you agree with the above, you will love the fires that have driven half a million people from their homes in California, and destroyed 1,200 houses. President Bush is dumping your money in the form of aid on these suffering souls, and the flames rage on.
In these wretched infernos that consume civilization, we see the truth about nature. It is beautiful when it is controlled and owned and put to our use. When it is left to its own devices, it is mean, dangerous, cruel, and often thoroughly evil. It is, as Albert Jay Nock said, the enemy.
The fires force us to choose. We thrive and rule nature, or nature rules and eats us alive. The tendency nowadays is to believe we can have it both ways. We can build great cities and gorgeous suburbs, amass glorious wealth, live in comfort, and meanwhile let the surrounding areas take their natural course. This allows us to sit in the safety of our homes with a pious sense that we have done right by Mother Nature and she will bless us.
In fact, she has not blessed Southern California. She has been unleashed, and she is gorging herself on civilization itself.
What went wrong? The problem is in the theory of environmentalism. Under it, ownership is the enemy. Nature is an end in itself. So it must be owned publicly, that is, by the state. The state, in its management of this land, must not do anything to it. There must not be controlled burning, brush clearing, clear cutting, or even tourism. We can admire it from afar, but the work of human hands must never intervene.
Then the brush begins to gather. It piles higher and higher. Old growth rots. Uncontrolled growing leads to crowding. When the weather gets hot the stuff combusts. Then the winds blow and the fires spread. It's been the same story for several decades now, ever since the loony theory that nature should be left alone took hold. (For a nice history of how these fires came to be, see Roger Sedjo's "The Fires This Time" from 2002.)
Next we come to the government's response, which amounts to "run for your life, or we arrest you." They say that evacuations are the best way to protect people. But this defies good sense because you are essentially abandoning everything you have worked hard to build so that nature can take its course. You just know that crazed environmentalists secretly love this approach, and think: "that's what you get for building those stinkin' houses in places where animals and plants should rule."
Next we turn to the government's glorious fire fighting units. As with all government bureaucracies, they resist new technology. They don't plan for and assess risks. They run around spraying water and chemicals on everything regardless of effectiveness or cost. But meanwhile, they crowd out private fire control efforts. They tell us to flee and then put an antique government bureaucracy in charge and expect us to be happy about it. Finally, when the disaster ends, the federal government dumps billions in aid as a way of placating us. This is an insane approach, or, rather, it is only a sane approach if the goal is to see civilization wiped out and meanwhile expand the state.
Oh: there is one more action that government takes: officials express profound sadness and regret that it is all happening. And we all just sit back and say, well, heck, I guess there is nothing that can be done about it.
Ridiculous! Are we under the impression that private markets can't handle risk management? Private markets specialize in protection of property, particularly against natural risks. If the land were privately owned, it would be protected against burning through better management. If it had to be burned, the burning would be controlled. Unexpected events like droughts and winds would be calculated into management decisions.
What's more, there would be serious liability issues. Any owner of property who let fires rage would be directly responsible for imposing fires on others. This is the way markets work. If my bathtub overflows, floods my house, and then the waters flood my neighbor's house, I am responsible via my insurance policy. So, yes, there would be a price to pay for fires on your land that harm others' property.
What do we have today? We have fires that are no one's responsibility. Oddly, and by some strange practice that dates back to, hmmm, the beginning of time, rulers are not to be held responsible for actions that take place on their watch. So the government is not liable. It should be but it isn't. So putting government in charge is always a perfect storm for disaster without responsibility.
Your job is to flee, pay, and obey. It gives new meaning to the famous quote from George Washington: "Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."