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Thursday, September 8, 2016

Zika or Not, Don’t Ask Government to Eradicate Mosquitos

As much as you hate mosquitos, government exterminators are not the answer.

Mao began China’s infamous Great Leap Forward campaign in 1958. Like all socialist attempts to direct progress, the “leap forward” was a colossal failure. Mao had proclaimed that “progress” demanded eradication of “Four Pests”: sparrows, rats, mosquitoes, and flies. He mobilized the population with his “Kill a Sparrow Campaign.”

Like all socialists, Mao had little respect for anything but his own proclamations. He had contempt for nature; “Man Must Conquer Nature” was one of his slogans. Mao said in 1958, “Make the high mountain bow its head; make the river yield the way.” Nature was to serve his will, to produce what he deemed important. The Maoist legacy lives on in China. In 2004, China fought the Sars virus through a “patriotic extermination campaign against civet cats, badgers, raccoon dogs, rats and cockroaches.”

The War on Sparrows

What was the strategy to kill the sparrow? Bang pots and pans, beat drums so that the sparrows were scared to land. Eventually, exhausted, the birds fell to the earth and died. Other were shot or their nests destroyed.

In a short while, millions of sparrows were killed and the sparrow was nearly eradicated from China.

Peking People’s Daily exhorted the population to follow what they saw as Mao’s great vision: “No warrior shall be withdrawn until the battle is won. All must join battle ardently and courageously; we must persevere with the doggedness of revolutionaries.” One teenager, 16 year-old Yang Seh-mun, became a hero. “He had killed 20,000 sparrows by sneaking around during the day locating nesting trees. At night… he then climbed trees and strangled whole families of sparrows with his bare hands.”

During the campaign, a Shanghai newspaper headlined the socialist mobilization: “The whole city is attacking the sparrows:”

“In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labor force was mobilized into the anti-sparrow army. Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning, and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch. The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels. In the parks, cemeteries, and hot houses where there are fewer people around, 150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows. The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques for shooting birds. Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows.”

In a short while, millions of sparrows were killed and the sparrow was nearly eradicated from China.

Sparrows were among the Four Pests because they were seen eating seeds and stored food supplies, thus reducing farm yields. “Chinese scientists had calculated that each sparrow consumed 4.5kg of grain each year — and that for every million sparrows killed, there would be food for 60,000 people.” The killing of sparrows is a classic case of the unintended consequences occurring from collectivized actions driven by those who see only the immediate impact of their actions. Unseen were sparrows eating insects, such as locusts. Without the sparrow, locusts had no predators; they devoured the Chinese farm crop.

Estimates are that up to 45 million people starved to death in the famine that resulted from the “Kill a Sparrow Campaign.”

Mao had little respect for human life. He told his senior leadership, “To distribute resources evenly will only ruin the Great Leap Forward. When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half the people die so that others can eat their fill.”

Our Own Patriotic Extermination Campaign

Almost 60 years after the tragic “Kill a Sparrow Campaign,” today in America, as fears of the Zika virus mount, some are advocating eradication of another of Mao’s Four Pests—the lowly mosquito. See examples here and here. Congress is being urged to appropriate billions to fight the Zika virus. As is usual from those who demand a larger role for government, officials have been criticized for what has been called a “fragmented and uneven” response to Zika.

While they are at it, why not dome our cities so we can enjoy 70° temperatures all year round?

The harmful effects of the mosquito are obvious. At best they seem to be a nuisance, giving us painful, itchy bites while we attempt to enjoy the outdoors. At worse they spread disease, such as malaria and now the Zika virus. Why not eradicate this pest? Why stop at the mosquito? There are far more cases of Lyme’s disease in the United States than there are of the Zika virus. There are 300,000 new cases a year compared to 16,000 Zika cases. Why not eradicate the deer tick that causes Lyme’s disease?

In New England, where I live, early summer outdoor activities are hampered by “no see um” black flies, whose bites leave welts. Why not eradicate the black fly or, as Mao advocated, all flies?

What could possibly go wrong?

In the case of mosquitoes, they are pollinators. They play a role in the food chain for bats, as well as animals in the Arctic. Some experts tell us those roles in the ecosystem could be assumed by other insects. But, is any individual or group of experts wise enough to be certain of the net impact on the ecosystem of the eradication of the mosquito? Further, eradication of the mosquito would currently require the use of chemicals harmful to humans and the ecosystem. The ecosystem, like the spontaneous order of the market, is beyond the comprehension of any individual.

Beware of “Four Pests Campaigns” in America under a future socialist regime. While they are at it, why not dome our cities so we can enjoy 70° temperatures all year round? After all, extreme heat and cold are harmful to the health of some. Of course, I am being sarcastic in posing these questions, but there is the serious question: what should be the limit of government in altering the environment in attempts to protect us from potential harm?

The Market’s Check on Collective Actions

Does uncertainty about the impact of our actions mean that human beings should never alter their environment? Of course not. However, there is a big difference between collective actions led by the State that violate property rights of others and actions taken by individuals or voluntary collective actions that respect property rights.

Only the government can dream of a solution that exposes all pregnant women to a known poison in order to protect a few pregnant women from the Zika virus.

You should be free to spray your yard or your body with substances that protect against mosquitoes. In Florida’s gated condominium communities, members of those communities voluntarily agree to collective actions decided by their local condominium boards. Those boards might decide to spray the condominium grounds. Although individual condominium owners might not agree with the decision, their rights are not being violated.

In reaction to the Zika threat, in the United States, aerial dispersal of insecticides is violating property rights. Late in August, in one day of aerial spraying of the insecticide Naled in parts of Dorchester County, South Carolina, millions of bees in the country were killed. At Flowertown Bee Farm alone “46 hives died on the spot, totaling about 2.5 million bees.” In addition, Naled is toxic to many birds particularly Canadian geese. Echoing the socialist disaster in China, Naled is also toxic to beneficial insects.

Many citizens in Miami Beach and Puerto Rico are opposed to the proposed aerial spraying of Naled. Some understand that Naled is a neurotoxin and is especially dangerous to pregnant women. Human beings have various sensitivities to the chemicals in their environment. Involuntary exposure to these chemicals by forced collective actions is a violation of the right of self-ownership to one’s body. Only the government can dream of a solution that exposes all pregnant women to a known poison in order to protect a few pregnant women from the Zika virus.

Potentially there are innovative solutions to the mosquito problem that do not violate property rights. For example, bees and butterflies produce a harmless bacteria that can stop mosquitoes. Only the market process will allow those technologies to emerge. Governments, however, favor incumbent technologies that crony capitalists sell. Who is more likely to adopt innovative solutions: individual homeowners and condominium boards or government agencies captured by special interests?

Currently there is no way to eradicate the mosquito without violating property rights and echoing past environmental disasters caused by socialism. You may think it can’t happen here. You may believe our scientists and officials are wiser than those in China. Perhaps so. But apologists for socialism always say, “Mistakes were made but they won’t be made this time.” We should be concerned that collectivists may soon have access to technology that can engineer the destruction of entire species, thus irrevocably altering the ecosystem.

The market provides checks and balances, making large, rash actions difficult. Market-based solutions to the mosquito problem are superior—they are bought voluntarily and they don’t violate property rights.

  • Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. 

    To receive Barry's essays subscribe at his Substack, Mindset Shifts.

    His essays also appear at the American Institute for Economic Research, Intellectual Takeout, Learn Liberty, The Epoch Times and many other publications. Barry’s essays have been translated into many languages, most frequently Spanish and Portuguese. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.

    Barry holds a Ph.D. in economics from Rutgers University and a B.S. in mathematical statistics from CCNY.