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Riches in the Desert

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I’m sitting in the middle of a desert.  No joke.

And yet I’m quite comfortably cool, well-hydrated, and well-fed.

My son, Thomas, and I are at Las Vegas’s McCarran airport awaiting our flight back to Washington.  We’ve been in Vegas since Thursday for the largest annual Star Trek convention.  (Thomas is a huge Trekkie.)  Perhaps I’ll write more later on the convention.

But I write now about this desert in which Thomas and I are sitting — at the moment with me blogging and him doing some math exercises in preparation for seventh grade.  Every time I come to Vegas, I’m struck by how rich it is — by how much human creativity has been released and productively employed to turn this speck of the desert into a vibrant, wealthy metropolitian area that is home to nearly two million people and a vacation destination for millions more each year.

And the chief lesson that I always draw is that geography is not necessarily destiny.

Persons who say that sub-Saharan Africa is poor because its geography is in many (but certainly not all) places harsh — without arable land, lush forests, teeming rivers and oceans, and sea ports cannot be correct.  Las Vegas has no naturally arable land, no natural forests, no great natural access to fish and other seafood, and no deep-water port.  Yet Las Vegas supports millions of people in luxury that is historically off-the-charts high.  Clearly, geography is not necessarily destiny.

So why is Las Vegas so rich?  The answer is obvious: commerce, entrepreneurship, and markets that are free enough to unleash human creativity and to leverage that creativity into goods, services, and supply chains that enable people in this desert to barely notice that they’re in a desert.

It’s true that government built and maintains many of the roads, and it subsidizes much of the irrigation, that make Vegas possible.  The point of this post is not to argue over the necessity or usefulness of taxpayer-subsidized infrastructure.  (Such things are not inconsistent with a society being accurately described as ‘market-oriented’ or ‘market-driven.’)  Rather, I want to emphasize the fact that if merely building lots of roads, dams, and irrigation channels were sufficient to turn deserts into rich cities, then Africa would be planted thick with its own Las Vegases.  And if harsh geographic conditions were sufficient to make a place poor, then Las Vegas would be merely a mirage.