John Singleton with Bob Howard, Rip Van Australia (Stanmore: Cassell Australia, 1977), pp. 43-49, under the heading “Conservation.”
The issue of conservation arises in three different areas: natural resources (iron ore, uranium, coal, oil, timber); nature itself (“national” parks, beaches, wildlife); and man-made structures (bridges and buildings).
In the area of resources the genuine conservationists’ concern is with ensuring future supplies of natural resources while allowing current uses; whereas in the areas of nature and man-made structures the concern is to ensure the continued existence of things that could otherwise be destroyed for all time.
The main problem in conservation groups today, however, is that almost all groups have been taken over by Communist leaders like Mundey, Carmichael and Halfpenny, while the well-meaning misguided youth follow blindly. We hope they are not yet too blind to read and think about the real issues.
Oil — If the free market price mechanism was allowed to operate, natural resources would be conserved automatically. To see what would happen on an open, competitive free market (there is no such thing in Australia) let’s consider a hypothetical example using oil.
There is a huge demand for oil today. The relative balance of this demand with the existing supply, on a free market, would determine the price level. Let’s assume that supply is small and, thus, the price high. People and institutions with money to invest always seek to maximise the return on their investment (the good old profit motive). After appropriately considering the relative risks involved in the various investment opportunities, they make an investment decision. Because the potential profits of oil discovery are high (because, in this example, oil prices are high) a huge amount of investment money would be channelled into Australia in a number of areas (the higher the potential profits, the larger the amounts invested). These areas would be: (1) oil exploration, (2) research in and development of better extraction and refining methods, (3) research in and development of new means of producing oil, (4) research in and development of better ways to use the oil so that existing supplies go further, and (5) research in and development of alternatives to oil, such as, solar, wind, sea, geothermal and nuclear energy supplies.
Continuous monitoring of the situation by investors would determine how much money was invested in each area. This would vary in relation to the relative advances in each. For example, if, as a result of the exploration, a big oil strike was made, activity would tend to drop off in the area of developing alternatives. On the other hand, if no strikes are made, then, as the existing supplies diminished, prices would rise. This would automatically lead to a reduction in usage and subsequent conservation of the supplies. It would also greatly increase the activity in all five areas previously mentioned.
Because this situation would develop gradually in a free market, there would not be a mad last minute dash when the supplies were almost exhausted. Chances are, in the event of supplies running out, suitable alternatives would already be available. Certainly, enormous amounts of money would have been spent to try to ensure that they were.
As always, this free market operation is structured around natural human incentives. These same incentives operate if the government interferes and doesn’t allow the market to operate, except they would in a perverted way. For example, suppose the supply of oil is running out, but the price of oil is fixed (our current Australian situation). The market would demand that the price be high. But, for political reasons, the government would “fix” the price below the market level (to prevent “profiteering”, “excess profits”, or “price gouging”). Because the price is held artificially low, there would be little incentive for consumers to reduce their consumption. Appeals to their “awareness” would, by and large, be useless. In other words, it would be just like Australia is today. No new oil and no incentives to find any, all in the name of the “public good”.
And today in Australia the situation is made even worse by the added effects of inflation, excessive taxation, indecisive and inconsistent policy making by the government, and the consistent threat of nationalisation or expropriation. In short, the automatic correcting mechanisms of the free market are short circuited and the situation goes instead from bad to worse. It becomes a political football and none of the coaches have ever played the game. The normal route for governments to follow as the crisis inevitably develops is one of increased intervention and involvement.
If this type of government interference is allowed to destroy our own chances of being self-sufficient in energy, then we are thrown to the mercy of a cartel such as O.P.E.C., thus fully compounding an already tragic situation. And you can watch it happen right here in Australia in front of your very eyes.
In summary then, the best way to conserve supplies of raw materials is to let the free market price structure operate. Government intervention has so far succeeded only in aggravating the situation and there is no reason to expect that more of the same will be of any help.
Timber — Another important aspect of the problem of conserving the existing supply of any resource is the question of who owns the resource. Let us consider timber supplies in forests. If a company owns a forest, that forest represents a capital value. If the company was to systematically move through that forest and cut it to the ground to realise the value of the timber, it would destroy its capital asset and potential future earnings. No businessman in his right mind does that to his own assets. Instead, the company would pursue a planned and balanced cutting programme, replanting as it went. In this way, it would conserve its current timber supply and use it in the most economical way, and at the same time ensure a continuous future supply.
On the other hand, if all the timber company has was a lease over government owned forest, the company does not have to worry about protecting and conserving its capital asset. So there is no direct economic incentive for it to scientifically cut or replant. Its only incentive is to cut as much as possible as quickly as possible, and then move on to a new lease. And this incentive to get as much as possible as quickly as possible is even greater when the continuation of the lease depends on the decision of a fickle bureaucrat or politician. The indecisiveness of our governments in their natural resources policies is in fact a major factor working against conservation.
The Sea — The damaging effects of all governments’ refusal to allow private property rights is seen clearly in the commercial use or non-use of the sea: aquaculture. No one can farm the ocean. As far as aquaculture is concerned, we are still in the primitive, unproductive hunting and gathering stage that characterised human existence on land prior to the agricultural revolution.
The development of electronic fencing techniques has already made aquafarming feasible, but without some system of property rights nothing will be done and the majority of the earth’s surface will remain unproductive, while this year one billion fellow humans die of starvation.
Maybe we could send their relatives a photo of an historic, eighty-year-old cockroach-ridden monster our conservationists have saved for mankind? We’re sure they’d feel much better for it.
The first thing to be noted about current attempts to use the government to ensure that certain natural areas be conserved are: (1) governments can’t be trusted, as they vary their actions with whatever pressure is brought to bear; and (2) exactly what is done and how it is done is a numbers game (whereas some people may prefer that a nature area be left alone, others may prefer it “developed” as a more viable tourist asset). So there can be no security and no abstract principles by which decisions are made. It is instead, a matter of politics.
As in the case of natural resources, the best principle that can be used to resolve issues of this kind is that of inalienable property rights. And the most efficient method of allocation of all resources is the free market.
Beaches — Currently we are told everyone owns them, which means no one does. But anyone can use them and the costs are borne by taxpayers in general and local ratepayers in particular, which is neither fair or even practical. In addition, most beaches have few, if any, facilities, and what lifeguard arrangements do exist are financed by chook raffles or similar efforts and manned by unpaid volunteers.
As an alternative, let us imagine Bondi Beach being owned and operated by a company. (There is always the remote possibility that an eccentric might buy the beach for his personal use and not allow anyone else to use it, but the chance is so remote as to be not worthy of consideration. A person would be eccentric indeed to pay millions of dollars for such a beach and keep it for personal use only — and anyway there are many more beaches than eccentric billionaires).
If a company owned Bondi Beach, it would run it as a profit making enterprise. Facilities would be provided to attract customers — changing rooms, showers, shops, carparking, bus access. The sand would be kept clean. Lifeguards would be contracted or directly employed, probably all week round, as a high safety record would be an additional attraction to customers. Because the company owned the beach, it would set the rules for the beach — only neck-to-knee swimsuits permitted, for example. It would set aside areas for board riding and provide facilities for board riders, such as board storage space. Because the company was in business to make a profit, the policy of the company with regard to rules would reflect market demand. The issue of nude beaches would present no problem — they would exist or not depending on whether the demand was or was not there.
Take a look at the ugly concrete jungle that is Bondi today under government ownership, and ask yourself if it could possibly be worse under private control.
The free market would also provide beach variety. There would be a majority of commercial, popular beaches, but there would also be select members only, club-type private beaches. There would be conservative beaches and progressive beaches. There could even be free beaches run by companies as a public service [the companies might run neighbouring businesses and figure the beach will attract customers for them]. Large beaches (such as Bondi) would probably cater to popular taste, while small ones catered for minorities.
Some of the attractions of this idea are (1) it’s moral arrangement, (2) it offers the best beaches, (3) it provides a clear-cut means of deciding policies, and (4) it is based on the user pays principle.
Parkland — Public parks should be placed on a similar commercial footing to that described for beaches. We agree it is unlikely that something like Hyde Park would continue to exist in its present state of commercially owned. However, not enough attention has been paid to what is perhaps a more feasibly possibility, which is to develop what could easily be a larger total park area in the city proper, but this area could be spread around as small pieces of park filling out the interstices that exist between buildings, on corners, etc. An enormous number of vines, trees, flowers, grasslawns, shrubs, could be planted around the city — in plazas, on shop awnings, in new building plans (as is currently happening in places), inside shops and office buildings, even on top of buildings. There is currently a great revival of interest in indoor and outdoor plants, particularly as an aid to decoration. The way that this is being incorporated into new building design offers the hope that it could yet turn our cities into garden cities.
The biggest obstacles to progress in this regard are the local councils and their contradictory, confusing and enormously restrictive building and development rules.
Similarly national parks and wildlife preserves should also be placed on a private, financial footing. If it is argued that not enough people care about them to enable them to be funded in this way, then that surely is the democratic decision of the population. On what grounds can it be asserted that they are “in the public interest”, if the people are not interested? There are, of course, always people who claim they know what’s best for the public. There’s no harm in that. But when one not only claims it, but then proceeds also to force it upon them, and make them pay for it, then one degenerates to the level of Adolph Hitler. He, too, thought he was doing the right thing. The use of force can never be justified.
If the national park is an isolated place — as many of them are — then there would be little alternative demand for the land and it would thus be relatively cheap to purchase. Just as public funds are sometimes raised to build Opera Houses or America Cup yachts, so too could funds be raised to purchase parks. But the obvious areas for them are those that have little alternative use potential, for example, mountainous areas unsuitable for grazing or farming.
One possibility that could be explored with all property that is currently public property is to convert it into public companies. Thus Hyde Park could be converted into a company and the shares offered for sale. Shares in this case could be first offered to people who work in the city area, and then to companies. Shares in national parks could be offered first to conservationists, bush-walkers, Scout groups, and so on.
Wildlife — Wildlife could be conserved in these national parks, or within more commercial parks. However, species have been disappearing for as long as life has existed, and the effects of such disappearances tend to be overemphasised. Too often ecological arguments are little more than emotional rationalisations and not enough credit is given to the tremendous adaptability of nature.
It is most certainly true, though, that nowhere near enough attention is given within our education system and business would to learning how to live in greater harmony with nature, rather than as if we were hell-bent on raping her. This is a great reflection of the dehumanising effects of our modern civilisation.
The same general argument applies here as in our previous sections, namely, that anyone who wants to conserve structures should purchase those structures on the open market. Conservation activity today is often a straight out form of robbery. Too often it directly violates property rights — always, of course, “for the public good” to preserve “our national heritage”. The only person or organisation that has a right to determine the fate of any piece of property, be it natural or man made, is the owner of that property. That’s what ownership means. For a group of other people to use the coercive power of government to preserve property for their pleasure, but the owner’s expense and against his/her will, is an act of robbery and authoritarianism. Ends do not justify means, and the humanitarian reasons put forward by the robbers do not change this basic fact.
We agree it is a very worthwhile experience to see and enjoy historical places and buildings. But that is no justification for immoral acts. Furthermore, it is no solution to argue that the government purchase these resources and hold them “in trust” for the population, because the government must fund its activities through general taxation. Apart from the immorality of taxation itself, there exists no relationship between those who value and use the resources and those who pay. Nor are there proper avenues for those who pay to determine just what the money should be spent on.
The activity of conservation of our historic buildings could be morally and successfully carried out by a public subscription fund operated by a body such as the National Trust. Certainly the use of the coercive power of government is effective, and much easier. But it has no moral base.
In any conservation activity, then, the combined workings of the free market and effective protection of property rights will give a moral solution to problems, and, in the long run, a far more effective solution.
Today, what is happening is the use of popular issues (ecology/conservation) to make essential development (such as mining) unpopular, and therefore to destroy mankind by re-introducing stone-age mentality to the nuclear age. Again you don’t have to read about it. You can and will see it happen for best/worst right here in Rip Van Australia, right before your very eyes.
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- John Singleton's 1986 reflection on the Workers Party
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