Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bear Market

Perhaps I'm reading things into a guileless documentary, but the subtext to PBS's The National Parks: America's Best Idea seemed to be: "Look what big government (in this case FDR and his bulldog Ickes) did for us, and look how foolish, in retrospect, populist resistance to such massive government initiatives appears." Please don't misunderstand me - I'm quite the National Park enthusiast and I'm glad they were created - but PBS's not-so-subtle attempt to use the Ken Burns effect to endorse our current political arrangement was difficult to ignore.

Inadvertently, however, the same documentary provides one of the finest fiscal analogies on offer, one that very nicely illustrates the danger of unnecessary government intrusion. In one episode, we learn of the young George Melendez Wright:
In 1930, he persuaded his superiors to let him and two colleagues conduct a four-year survey of wildlife and plant life conditions in the national parks, funding the ambitious program with his own funds. His first-of-a-kind survey resulted in two landmark reports that urged the Park Service to change ingrained practices such as feeding bears at dumps and killing predators, in order to allow nature to take its course in the parks.
Wright was ultimately successful in his campaign to stop well-meaning but harmful interventions, and his policy caused wildlife to flourish. After all, survival of wildlife in its natural habitat was more of a likelihood thanks to the newly established boundaries of the National Parks.

The analogy to free markets is, I hope, an obvious one. Socialism is like the city zoo. Animals (in this case, businesses), having lost the instincts gained in their natural habitats, are deadened beasts waiting for the daily dole. On the other extreme, capitalism, unfettered by any kind of government regulation, is like Jurassic Park, where T-Rexes rip down electric fences and raptor twins consume any token Australian actors who try to stop them. But the ideal fiscal environment is like a National Park after George Melendez Wright's necessary reforms. Government in this arrangement is very involved, establishing and enforcing the boundaries wherein businesses can flourish; but not so involved as to, for example, incentivize a loan company to reckless decisions by guaranteeing a payday.

Should the nutshells and excrement of the fiscal zoo prove unappealing, perhaps our government will one day return to doing for businesses what we do for bears.