Modern Soothsayers

Mr. Siegan is the author of Land Use Without Zoning and many articles on the subject. He practiced law for 20 years in Chicago before moving in 1973 to La Jolla , California where he is professor of law at the University of San Diego Law School .

It is exceedingly hazardous to decide current policy on speculations about the distant future. We already encounter enough difficulty simply trying to understand the here and now.

Although these observations may appear self-evident, many apparently disagree. They urge the adoption of restrictive laws over human conduct on the basis of their predictions of the future. They are our modern soothsayers, and their prophecies are widely disseminated these days, in the learned as well as the unlearned journals. The universities are filled with them where they are often called scholars.

I find two things particularly disturbing: First, the advocacy of certain environmental and conservation measures for the sake of "generations yet unborn." Second, forecasts of what materials and resources will be available to future generations.

In the absence of special occult powers, it is rather foolish to describe the wants and desires of people who still have not arrived on this earth, the unborn generations. How many parents can know the course any of their children, whom they observe daily, will follow?

Such forecasting is usually part of some discussion pushing severer environmental regulations, and the world these writers and speakers contend the unborn will want usually is no different from the one they seek for themselves. What it amounts to essentially, is that they are talking about only their own desires and preferences, not anyone else’s.

Of course, our children should inherit the best of all possible worlds, and it should include clean air and water, beaches, parks, open space, scenic areas. But it should also be one of good living and economic conditions; jobs, desirable housing conditions and fewer slums, among other things.

Tomorrow’s children will be stronger in body and mind if the economic circumstances of their parents and grandparents are satisfactory. The world they inherit also will be infinitely superior if it is a freer one, without government coercions stifling its citizens’ aspirations. Accordingly, these discussions of the future are really about the present, the needs and priorities of our own society.

Similarly many writers are mixing in much of their own feelings and inclinations when they demand strong conservation controls over our resources to prevent depletions in the future. These people frequently are hostile to technology and materialism, and would prefer a world more oriented to nature. They tend to ignore the problems that would be created for those having a different perspective.

It is impossible to foretell the future on the basis of what exists today. The story of Reverend Thomas Malthus needs frequent retelling. He was a prominent British economist and sociologist, who predicted in 1798 that the food supply would not keep pace with population growth, and consequently the world was doomed to widespread starvation, poverty and distress.

Although his analysis seemed plausible in light of the information then available, his fundamental error was in making a prediction on that subject. No matter how wise he was, he could not have envisioned that man would be so resourceful that a time would come when a government would pay farmers billions of dollars not to grow crops.

We enjoy vastly more material comforts than our great-grandparents did because of human skill, ingenuity and creativity. The basic resources of the world have dwindled since then, but the knowledge and understanding of how to obtain, amplify and substitute for them has increased enormously. So long as incentives exist, man’s wisdom will operate to create the new and improve the old.

Historical experience discloses that substitutes or new products normally replace essential materials and resources as they become scarcer, and that when necessary, man will adjust reasonably well to a reduction in the supply of particular items. To live a life of self-sacrifice based on other premises is an abuse of a precious organism: Man. Who not very long ago would have conceived of antibiotics, space travel, atomic energy, synthetic fabrics, plastics, TV, computers, lasers, jet propulsion?

To accommodate the modern soothsayers requires considerable inconvenience and hardship, especially on the part of the less affluent who depend for a better life on more production and growth. Soothsayers preaching such human sacrifice should lose their licenses.

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