Mt. Redoubt, a volcano near Anchorage, Alaska, has erupted.
Conservatives like Bobby Jindal criticized spending in President Obama’s stimulus package for “volcano monitoring” as wasteful. Now, of course, with a relatively large eruption relatively close to a good-sized metropolitan area, such reasoning sounds suspect, especially to those in the mainstream.
Of course, the state sees this as justification for expansion. Consider Interior Secretary Ken Salazar:
This is an indicator and proof of the importance of earth science to the United States of America and to the Department of the Interior… Through the work of the USGS and being able to monitor what was happening with Volcano Redoubt, we were able to actually forecast this event . . . to prevent the endangerment of people and places that would otherwise have occurred.
It’s true that the USGS performed some beneficial public function. But the larger question of private property rights remains unaddressed: would a private individual (a mountain or volcano owner) necessarily do worse?
I don’t see the presence of a volcanic eruption and related government monitorings and warnings as categorical evidence that private individuals are inferior to central economic planning when it comes to resource management, including land. In fact, the government’s actions were completely involuntary, both in payment (paid through compulsory taxation) and in administration (consider the completely monopolistic administration: no one could buy a volcano, as it is not for sale; the government is the sole owner).
As Henry Hazlitt would say, a bad economist sees what it seen only. A good economist sees what is unseen. And what is unseen? We do not see the additional wealth and jobs that we be voluntarily created if USGS funding were reduced or eliminated altogether. We don’t see the positive effects of private land ownership. We don’t see a market approach (individuals freely economizing and exchanging) to resource management, including land, water, and air.
There is great irony in the head of the Department of the Interior (responsible for much of the analytical, scientific work being accomplished domestically) to refuse to use reasoned, critical, analytical analysis to consider the effects and morality of his policies.
Considering what we don’t see (namely, the effects of free markets), how can we categorically say anything of substance about what we do see (government land management) when it is of necessity incomparable to its alternatives?