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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Human Achievement that is Las Vegas

That Las Vegas is a tribute to human freedom

For lovers of human freedom, and critics thereof, Las Vegas is often pointed to as the epitome of that freedom. Typically both defenders and skeptics are thinking of the city’s liberal attitude toward sex, gambling, alcohol, and various other vices and forms of debauchery. Throw in the possibilities of a quickie marriage or a quickie divorce, and both praise and criticism of the libertinism of Las Vegas are easy to understand.

Vegas is a symbol not just of human freedom, but of human achievement.

Although human freedom surely should include the freedom to engage in voluntary transactions such as prostitution, gambling, and 24 hours-a-day alcohol purchase, these freedoms are not the best reasons to see Las Vegas as a symbol of human freedom.

Vegas is a symbol not just of human freedom, but of human achievement and the role of economic freedom and markets in making that achievement possible.

I love Las Vegas. I love that it has all of those freedoms noted earlier, even if I indulge mostly in blackjack with just enough alcohol to keep me happy. But every time I go, I remember what it is that I really love about the city: the capacity of humans to have built this playground in the desert and what it takes economically to make Las Vegas continue to be Las Vegas.

Let’s start with two things we often take for granted but shouldn’t when we are in Las Vegas.

Taming the Desert

First, humans have brought water to the desert. My recent trip there saw high temperatures around 110 without a cloud in the sky, yet every time I took a shower or turned on a faucet, there was water. There was water in the swimming pools and there was the beautiful and entertaining water dance of the Bellagio fountains. We have brought enough water to the desert that we can use it for what might seem the most trivial of things – pure entertainment.

The miracle of fresh seafood in the desert is not to be taken lightly.

If the water weren’t enough, there is the air conditioning. Every building on the famous Strip has air conditioning of course and many of those buildings have restaurants or casinos with their doors open to the outdoor heat enabling those walking by to feel the cool air blowing out. If air conditioning weren’t enough, many of the restaurants along the Strip have misters going to keep their patrons and passers-by cool. There’s yet another use of water in the desert, complementing the air conditioning.

What’s even more impressive is thinking about the resources it takes in 110 degree heat to cool a giant hotel/casino complex down to the low 70s indoors. I once stayed at the Rio and my room overlooked the giant air conditioning units that helped cool the building. Their sheer size was impressive, but just pondering what it took to cool all of that square footage by 35 or 40 degrees was breathtaking. Then multiply that by the dozens of hotels in Las Vegas, and tack on the water they use, and the resources it takes to make Las Vegas possible becomes staggering.

All that water and air conditioning is only a small part of the electricity it takes to make Las Vegas be Las Vegas. All those garish bright lights on the Strip that make Times Square seem reserved and understated, as well as every light bulb in all of the tens of thousands of hotel rooms and dozens of huge casinos, use an incredible amount of power.

Another challenge for Las Vegas is food. In recent years, it has become one of the great food cities in the US. Consider what it takes to do that in the middle of the desert. Not only is it somewhat geographically isolated, there is the problem of seafood. Yet every decent restaurant in town gets its seafood delivered fresh every day.

The miracle of fresh seafood in the desert is not to be taken lightly. And then multiply what one hotel uses each day by the dozens in total and consider what it takes to make Las Vegas “run” every day.

Betting on Freedom

Finally, like all complex economies, there is something for everyone in Las Vegas. With so many visitors wanting to be there, what Adam Smith called “the extent of the market” is large, enabling a very fine division of labor among sellers. There is a seller for every possible desire, some of them highly specialized, such as the zombie burlesque show at Planet Hollywood.

We are wealthy enough to be able to devote all of these resources to entertaining ourselves, and doing so in the middle of the desert. We have created a “Disney World for adults” in the least likely of places. Even the very thing that makes Las Vegas unique is all about “paying to play.” The expected return to gamblers is negative, of course, but we happily (well, at least willingly) come to play and know we’ll pay for it in the long run.

That Las Vegas exists is tribute to two human achievements.

For most of its history, humanity struggled on the margins of survival. There was no way to tame the desert, no way to get food from fertile places to arid ones, and no time to devote to gambling, sunbathing, and zombie burlesque shows. We are now rich and comfortable enough to do that, and for it to be within the reach of ordinary Americans.

Ah, the critic might say, but what if we were to devote all of those resources to lifting more Americans, or other humans, from poverty rather than use them for human play? The answer to that challenge is to note that the same freedoms and economic institutions that made Las Vegas possible are the ones that have already reduced human poverty, and are necessary to continue to do so.

Las Vegas is not the cause of failing to reduce poverty; it’s the result of having already done so substantially.

As markets continue to improve human productivity so that we can satisfy more of our wants with less labor, we will devote more of our resources to finding ways to entertain ourselves. This is the best sign of progress there is.

Finally, living in a free society means that we might often not like the things other people do with their freedom, but the very existence of Las Vegas is symbolic of how freedom means we have to tolerate what we might not like personally. Las Vegas takes away nothing people would have had without it, and it is a reflection of the power of the liberal order to create wealth and discover endlessly creative and fun ways to use it.

That Las Vegas exists is tribute to two human achievements: the wealth that market capitalism has made possible and the toleration that is at the core of the liberal values that underlie markets. Market processes will continue to alleviate poverty and produce more fun if we give them the freedom to do so.

That’s one bet on which I’d definitely double down.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.