This morning on my drive to campus I was flipping through radio channels when I stumbled upon someone who described water as “our most precious resource.” Such talk is maddeningly mistaken.
Water, Water, Everywhere
While it’s true that water is a scarce resource, it is simply untrue that water is a precious resource. Potable water is sufficiently abundant today in most places where human beings live that it can be acquired at a low price. Indeed, given modern techniques for delivering and safely storing potable water, water is widely available today even in some desert areas, such as Las Vegas and Tucson.
A person can survive for hours without water; no one can survive for more than a few minutes without air.
And while I don’t defend (quite the contrary!) government subsidies that make water more available where and to whom it would be less available, it remains silly-talk to say that water is “our most precious resource.” The market price of water testifies powerfully to the contrary.
Lest you think me all wet in submitting this complaint, I point to a practical ill-consequence of shallow thinking about water: government-mandated low-flow faucets and showers. I despise such contraptions, not only because they are stupid (to get the jobs done, people respond by keeping low-flow faucets and showers running longer than regular, proper faucets and showers) and not only because they are mini-monuments to monumental arrogance (What business is it of politicians and self-proclaimed ‘environmentalists’ how much water I choose to use?), but also because these low-flow nuisances are a product of an economically poor understanding of reality.
In most places on earth where people live, water – while not superabundant – is nowhere close to being “precious.” Again, for compelling evidence, witness the price of water. It’s very low in most places and very high almost nowhere.
More Essential Than H20
I suspect that what people have in mind when they proclaim that water is “our most precious resource” is the biological reality that water is essential for life. Well, yes. It is indeed essential for life. But if that’s the criterion, then breathable air is a resource even more precious than water.
A person can survive for hours without ingesting water; no one can survive for more than a few minutes without ingesting air. Fortunately, air is so abundant on the surface of the earth that it is truly super-abundant; breathable air is not scarce. Air’s market price of $0 testifies to this happy truth.
And yet if the mistaken suppositions of the “water is our most precious resource” crowd were to be applied to air, then the government would mandate that each person’s nose be fitted with a low-flow air governor to ensure that the amount of air that each person inhales each minute is less than each person would otherwise inhale. Politicians and environmentalists would applaud themselves for their foresight in mandating these low-flow air governors.
Bottom line: if you understand that no good purpose would be served, and much unnecessary inconvenience would be unleashed, if government mandated that each of our noses be fitted with a low-flow air governor, then you should come to pretty much the same conclusion about government-mandated low-flow faucets.
Reprinted from Cafe Hayek.