Only Who Can Prevent Forest Fires?

The raging Arizona wildfire, which was recently determined to be the largest in state history, makes an excellent case study for postlibertarian thought. Now here are externalities if I ever saw them: hundreds of thousands of acres across multiple states being burned, communities being disrupted or temporarily displaced… and just think about the opportunity cost of all the firefighters working on this thing! And all because of some irresponsible campers (at least that seems to be the running plausible theory, and we’ll go with it for the sake of thought experiment).

Clearly it is in society’s interest to prevent such things from happening. The general libertarian free-market approach is pretty simple… find who caused it and make their consequences very large. It may not change what already happened, but it will give everyone else the incentive to not let something like that happen again, right?

But what if that’s the fallacy of Assumed Information Flow? What if we never figure out who caused it? Or what if we figure out and lay hefty penalties but the next round of irresponsible campers doesn’t even know that all of that happened?

The statist response to preventing forest fires would probably involve something like requiring explicit permits to have campground fires, limiting all fires to within 25 feet of any tree over 6 feet tall, and setting up an agency with funds to initiate regular campground inspections to ensure that everyone is following the rules.

But like many other regulations, the cost to freedom might be very high. What if it incentivizes people to avoid campgrounds altogether? What if the arbitrary numbers in the rules aren’t optimal? What if the inspections aren’t actually carried out regularly, accurately, and bribe-free? (Oh, wait, I forget, that never happens with any existing regulation enforcements…)

Proponents of freedom believe that it comes with a price – the risk of some bad things happening – but they generally believe that it’s worth that cost because trying really hard to eliminate some kinds of risk just isn’t worth the cost and the negative consequences, and it’s not often not effective even if it was worth it.

Of course, that response is not going to give much comfort to anyone whose home was destroyed by the wildfire. And it’s not going to refill whatever coffers are currently being drained by the firefighting battles. The statist response above is a bit of a straw man, of course – I haven’t seen anyone honestly calling for such things to prevent forest fires, but maybe there is something that can reasonably done to enhance the flow of information about irresponsible campers and encourage them to take more responsibility without damaging freedom in an unacceptable way.

Ultimately, it’s true what Smokey the Bear has always said. Only you can prevent forest fires. If we tried to make the state responsible, I don’t think it would work. Postlibertarianism is not about trying to make the state responsible; it’s about being open to incentivizing responsibility out of other people who don’t want to be responsible. I don’t know how easy or hard that would be, but I’m open to smart personal-responsibility-encouraging regulation over “no-regulation-forever-and-ever.” The question is whether such “smart regulation” actually exists and has any more chance of being accomplished in the world than regular state-responsibility regulation…

3 thoughts on “Only Who Can Prevent Forest Fires?”

  1. “cost to freedom might be very negative”

    A negative cost would be a gain! You mean the cost would be very high, i.e., very positive.

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