All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1970

“For the Best Interests of Man”

Dr. McLeod is Economist and Director of Business Affairs, Institute of Paper Chemistry, Appleton, Wisconsin.

In this land of abundance, peo­ple generally have lost sight of the fact of scarcity. They have been bemused so long by tales of con­spicuous consumption, overproduc­tion caused by the misallocation of resources (never due to inter­vention, always due to malfunc­tioning markets), they have been assured that the problem is one of distribution—that they are in fact unable to accept the fact of physi­cal scarcity let alone economic scarcity (it’s really the only kind). Oil existed in abundance before our forefathers discovered it. As soon as it was discovered it be­came scarce. Who can comprehend that kind of perversity? Scarcity, they have been taught, is caused by malevolence because “science” knows enough to permit every man to live like a king!

The “scarcity” that concerns the typical conservationist is usu­ally that scarcity having to do with a resource that men did not have the wisdom and foresight to bring under the rules and stric­tures of private property. Often these resources are psychic and aesthetic in nature and pose ex­tremely difficult problems to bring them into an exchange mechanism.

You and I have, in our lifetime, seen air and water pass from a category of free goods to economic goods—in other words we have seen the metamorphosis of scarc­ity. It has happened rather sud­denly and our institutions are not in shape to cope with air and water as we did with land. Al­though the institutional frame­work is not the barrier in the case of the oceans, the system that has worked so admirably for land isn’t being given a thought for its ap­plicability to oceans.

The much used phrase, “in the best interests of man,” is the crux. Nothing can filter the infinite needs of man better than the mar­ket; the market demands ex­change, and free exchange de­mands private property. For this reason there can never be a wide­spread conservationist movement. To conserve—what?—somebody has to decide whether to mine coal and use pit props, or to preserve the forest and let the coal lie un­used. The myopia of the conserva­tionist never permits him to grasp the principle of substitution.

Conservation has too many in­gredients that are incompatible to each other and that are complexly interrelated for it ever to be at­tractive as a broad regulatory field. Regulatory attempts are primitive in that the objects of their violence must be discrete and discernible, i.e. airlines, railroads, farmers, post offices. The little zealous preservationist interven­tions are annoying, cause some misallocation of resources, but are no great threat because the job is simply overwhelming. For ex­ample, during World War II the W.P.B. chronicled the fact that there were at least 700,000 sepa­rate uses for paper. Since then per capita consumption of paper has risen from 306 pounds in 1941 to 565 pounds in 1969. Who would like to guess how many more than 700,000 ways we are using paper today?

There is a great similarity be­tween some aspects of pollution and violence. We have polluted our environment because our account­ing has been in error. We have overlooked certain costs. We have assumed a costless situation that now suddenly tenders its bills, bills we acknowledge. We have made these mistakes, indulged in these abuses, because we thought they were costless. Recovery from pollution will be slow until we get the bills in shape and enter them into the proper accounts.

So it is with violence. People are under the mistaken idea that their particular conservation (vio­lence) is costless. In large part they have seen that the conserva­tion in Viet Nam (a very particu­lar kind of conservation—aren’t they all?) is indeed not costless, and they are recoiling from this special violence. So violence will be used (and abused) until its costs come to light. Then, as with pollution, recovery from the abuse will be slow and painful. Freedom is unthinkable for those who only think coercion.