The War and Wildfires

by Don Boudreaux on October 24, 2007

in Current Affairs, Reality Is Not Optional, War

This morning I heard a report on the radio of Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) complaining that the war in Iraq interferes with government’s ability to fight the wildfires in southern California.  No doubt.  But…..

I oppose the war in Iraq; I always have done so.  But this war, while it does interfere with efforts to extinguish wildfires, does not interfere any more so than does nearly any other government program you care to name.  Resources have multiple uses and are scarce.  To use a worker or raw materials fighting a war is to take that worker and those materials, at least for a time, away from other potentially valuable uses.

The same is true of using workers and other resources to fight the "war on drugs" — or using workers and other resources to administer agricultural price-support programs — or using workers and other resources to run the Departments of Education, Transportation, Commerce, and so on — or using workers and other resources to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

The question is not does fighting the war in Iraq reduce government’s (and private persons’) ability to battle the wildfires.  Of course it does.  The questions are, rather, are too many resources devoted to fighting the war?  Will Americans likely be made better off by taking some resources away from the war effort and put instead to other uses?

My answer to these questions is yes, mostly because I believe that the war is both unjustified and counter-productive.  But the fact that the war effort detracts from the ability to get other goodies is not itself a sound argument against the war.

I’m delighted that Senator Barbara Boxer is aware of opportunity costs — that she understands that resources used to do X become unavailable to do W,Y, and Z.   I hope that she’ll extend this insight to ask hard questions about the desirability — and about the costs — of the countless government programs that she supports.


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