A recent op-ed in The New York Times about wilderness areas raises important questions about the ethics of public access and environmental preservation in the national park system. Its author sharply criticizes what he feels is overzealous enforcement of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Citing cases of deaths caused by lack of signage and vast expanses of wilderness, the article suggests that the laws once intended to preserve areas of natural beauty and promote easy access to them have instead needlessly endangered lives. Further preservation efforts, enacted as recently as 2009, only exacerbate the problem:
“… agencies have made these supposedly open recreational areas inaccessible and even dangerous, putting themselves in opposition to healthy and environmentally sound human-powered activities, the very thing Congress intended the Wilderness Act to promote.”
There is significant ideological tension between encouraging access to wilderness and the efforts to preserve it. Activists talk about the vital importance of the wilderness experience, but realistically, the only way to preserve that experience is through limiting access to it. But how much space do we really need?
A conflict inevitably arises. On one side, there is a kind of wilderness elitism. Its goal is to maintain the purity of large swaths of the natural environment for the privilege of a select few. It is, on a basic level, impossible to sustain for everyone. Its counterpart is wilderness populism, which maintains that these natural areas should be easily accessible for everyone. This idea of mass access, while egalitarian, threatens to destroy the qualities that make the wilderness so precious to enthusiasts.
So far, the government has struck a good balance, and accomplished great things with wilderness preservation. Refusing to put up signs, however, needlessly endangers people. More than that, it isn’t helping anyone to more fully experience the solitude of the woods.
Image used under a Creative Commons Attribution License from Flickr user Jagger
Charles asks some provocative questions in his post today about the role of government versus the power of the market to lift people out of extreme destitution.
But his approach, which focuses on individual responsibility and government constraint, begs the question by assuming, first, that all government action counts as a constraint on liberty and, second, that all individuals are capable of personal responsibility.
This account is not baseless, but it leaves little space for one reason people may suffer: structural barriers to opportunity and liberty. Read more
A story over at Newsweek profiles three people who want to bring the estate tax back. The main arguments for this tax concerned the deficit:
To Julian Robertson, the founder of hedge fund giant Tiger Management and a major philanthropist, the economic and moral case for an estate tax increase was simple. “You get out of a credit crisis by getting your house in order, and in America’s case bringing your deficit down. This implies tax increases.” The fairest way to do it, he said, is to tax “the least deserving recipients of wealth, which are the inheritors.
I’ve written earlier this week about the concept of desert, but it is interesting to consider where the concept of fairness combines with desert in this and similar arguments.
Photo by Flickr user propertytaxonline used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
Theories of desert and the distribution of wealth
An op-ed in The New York Times laments the existence of “dynasty trusts,” which allow rich Americans to provide generations of heirs with tax-free estates. The article argues that this will result in the rise of a new aristocracy, which is un-American.
Americans have always assumed that wealth comes and goes. A poor person can work hard, become rich and pass his money on to his children and grandchildren. But then, if those descendants do not manage it wisely, they may lose it. “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” the saying goes, and it conforms to our preference for meritocracy over aristocracy.
The assumption here seems to be that meritocracies are preferable because they only bestow wealth upon those who deserve it. What exactly does the concept of desert amount to? I will explore three possibilities. Read more
On Wednesday, the EU’s highest court ruled that Monsanto cannot prevent the importation of soy meal from Argentina, despite the fact that it is derived from a genetically modified soy bean patented by the company. In effect, the court decided that the offspring of patented seeds are not subject to the same legal constraints as the originals.
New knowledge can be costly to develop. Enticing private parties to innovate requires some mechanism by which initial costs stand a good chance of being recovered. Patents accomplish this by conferring a lawful (but temporary) monopoly on its holder.
But what is the proper scope of a patent? Should Monsanto be entitled to royalties from the offspring -pure or hybrid- of their proprietary seed design? Or does it unnecessarily stifle further innovation to give a patent holder unlimited control over their discovery and all derivatives of it?
Image used under a Creative Commons attribution license from Flickr user skasuga
We’ve long called for philosophical issues to play a larger role in public debate. Well, on Wednesday, recently crowned Kentucky Senate nominee, Rand Paul, got himself into a bit of trouble trying to do just that. Paul was discussing the legitimate role of government in regulating private institutions and ended up suggesting that government shouldn’t be able to stop a restaurant from discriminating against African Americans The Washington Post’s Chris Cilliza concludes that “theoretical arguments are stone cold losers in the context of political campaigns.” Of course, political campaigns are only one aspect of the public debate – philosophy can play a less problematic role in these other domains. And while we don’t think philosophical arguments are necessarily losers in the campaign sphere, they clearly have their perils. So be careful out there campaign managers – philosophy has an important place in public debate; just make sure you know where it will take you.
When you shovel a parking spot out of the snow, should you own it? Jonathan Chait discusses at TNR.
The ethical implications of buying and selling organs
Richard Thaler writes in Sunday’s New York Times about the shortage of organ donors in the U.S. Though Thaler mentions that some economists advocate “a market allowing the buying and selling of organs,” he dismisses the idea as unrealistic. Politicians and the public, he says, would never support such a proposal. Thaler may be right that buying and selling organs is “a political nonstarter,” but would a system be defensible—even desirable? Read more
Who’s less rational–Washington or Wall Street?
National Review editor Kevin Williamson attacks the one-sided application of arguments about investor irrationality to justify government regulation of private markets:
The fallacy implicit in the conventional argument for more robust financial regulation is that animal spirits – the whole menagerie of greed, panic, pride, thrill-seeking, irrational exuberance – distort only profit-seeking activity. But they are at least as likely to distort efforts to regulate profit-seeking activity. In truth, the animal spirits of regulators probably are more dangerous than those of Wall Street sharks: Competition and the possibility of economic loss constrain players in the marketplace, but actors in the political realm have the power to compel conformity and uniformity among those under their jurisdiction. The entire economy is yoked to their animal spirits, and the housing bubble was a consequence of that fact. We have bred an especially dangerous hybrid creature in the “too big to fail” private corporation, the bastard offspring of a union between Wall Street’s animal spirits and Washington’s.
Williamson makes a good point. Politicians to do not soberly survey the landscape and objectively diagnose the causes of our financial ills. They are instead attempting to respond to and even anticipate outraged constituents. They’re also jostling with each other to have the most dramatic, headline-grabbing “deliverable” in today’s cluttered national spotlight.