Of Swamps and Jungles
Ever notice something curious? There are no more "swamps" out there.
Swamps used to be bodies of water that smelled bad, were usually stagnant,
and often had creepy crawly things running around in them, sometimes even
alligators (or crocodiles, for the life of me I can't tell the difference
between them, nor do I want to learn enough about these beasties to be able
to make that distinction). While we were not looking, all the swamps have
been taken away from us, and been replaced by--wait for it--wetlands.
And jungles too. There simply are no more of them around, either. They
used to be places which featured big trees, parrots, tigers, monkeys,
spiders and other yucky species. They, too are long gone. In their place
we now have -- drum roll, please, maestro -- rainforests.
Is this just a case of a few words misplaced? Perhaps lost, somewhere?
Not a bit of it. By some act of legerdemain, best known to the experts
(our friends on the left), this nomenclature has been consigned to the dust
bin of history. We are now not to refer to swamps and jungles, but instead
to rainforests and wetlands.
I say, give us our jungles and swamps back again. Let us sing the song,
"Where have all the jungles and swamps gone, long time passing" (to the
tune of "where have all the flowers gone").
Now the reason for this theft of language does not take a genius to
discern. Wetlands and rainforests are good cuddly things, while swamps and
jungles are bad and dirty. Since we have to save these amenities no matter
what, and we dare not privatize them and leave their disposal to their
owners, for this would bring utter ruination not only on them but upon all
of mankind (don't ask!), obviously, the first order of business is to
change their names.
This is not to deny that there are problems with forests and jungles.
Yes, some of them are disappearing much too quickly. But this is due not
to capitalism, as our friends on the left are wont to claim, but rather to
the lack of this economic system. When these amenities are unowned, or
owned in common by government, the "tragedy of the commons" comes into
play; no one bears the full costs of dissipation, so this occurs to an over
optimal extent. Then, too, managerial decisions made in the public sector
are not automatically rewarded by profits when correct, nor penalized by
losses and bankruptcy when mistaken.
The recent forest fire, purposefully set by public authorities in the American southwest, is but one case in
point in a long train of abuses.
The "wetlands" argument is that if a farmer fills one in, then there will
be flooding downstream. Again, no one denies that problems of this sort
can arise. But the difficulty is "water socialism": there are simply no
private property rights in bodies of water such as lakes, streams, rivers,
oceans. But without such institutions, markets are unable to arise.
Economic actors are not able to coordinate their plans.
command and control modalities operated by the state, are no more efficient
or necessary on land than they are with regard to water resources. Too bad
that even scholars otherwise associated with free enterprise have not yet
learned this lesson.
We must be ever vigilant not to be prejudiced. This would be the worst
thing of all we could ever do. Even the very word, broken down
etymologically, seems to imply irrationality: it parses as pre judice. In
other words, acting without judging; or, making decisions without thinking.
To be avoided at all costs, presumably.
In point of fact, however, we do not, at least past the age of maturity,
approach matters with a complete "tabula rasa." Those of us with any
experience at all greet each new event with a wealth of background
information at our command.
Walter E. Williams tells the story of a man who walks into a room and
notices a tiger sitting on the couch. If he pre judges the tiger, e.g.,
uses induction, judges him on the basis of other tigers he has heard of,
seen in the zoo, watched in the movies, why, then, he is prejudiced. How
utterly evil. In sharp contrast, the non prejudiced person will not pre
judge. He will not condemn this poor tiger, and try to get out of that
room as quickly as possible before the creature pounces on him. Instead,
he will boldly approach the tiger, offer to shake hands with it, or perhaps
pet it like a pussy cat.
Save me from a lack of prejudice. It's just another name for induction. Or learning from experience.
Professor Block teaches economics at the University of Central Arkansas. Send him MAIL.
More Walter Block Columns are available at the Walter Block Archive