Arnold Kling  

The Park Ranger and the Museum Curator

Political Morality and the SS ... TSA: Totally Subjugating Amer...

Below is a metaphor I am working on. Feel free to comment.

I have been to two rain forests, one in Olympic National Park (the Hoh rain forest) in the state of Washington, and the other in the U.S. Botanic garden in Washington, DC.

The Hoh rain forest is natural. It is outdoors. The plants were placed there by an evolutionary process. Rainfall and temperature are not managed.

The Botanic garden rain forest is indoors. The plants were arranged by humans. Humans set the temperature and regulate moisture.

The Hoh rain forest has park rangers. They do not try to regulate the rain forest. They regulate other humans, to keep them from disturbing the forest.

Park rangers study the rain forest, but not with a view toward controlling it. They study it out of curiosity. They recognize that as much as they learn, they cannot know everything about how the rain forest works.

At the U.S. Botanic Garden, there are what I would call museum curators. They designed the indoor rain forest, and they implement the design. Nothing grows where it shouldn't, and anything that is at risk of dying will either be restored to health or replaced.

I see park rangers as a metaphor for how economists ought to stand relative to the market. We should study it out of curiosity, rather than from a desire to control it. We should not be inclined to regulate it.

The museum curators are a metaphor for mainstream economics. If they came to the Hoh rain forest, mainstream economists would look for "market failure'" in which some species overgrow and others fail to thrive. They would see a lack of organization. They would see a need to better regulate temperature and moisture.

As a park ranger, I am appalled by the museum curator mindset. I do not think that museum curators know nearly enough to attempt to control and regulate the natural process.

Anyway, how well does this metaphor work? I know that people think of the market as a man-made process, not coming from "mother nature." Therefore, there is not the mystical resistance to tampering with the market that there is to tampering with a rain forest. But I think that the museum curator mindset is just as inappropriate, and I think that a case can be made that economists ought to think of themselves more as park rangers.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)

I think that the metaphor works well.

The idea that economics is about "forecasting" is deeply ingrained in popular culture, and to indulge it, as way too many economists do, is obviously a recipe for being discredited by events.

Les writes:

I see the analogy and applaud the intent. But I think the analogy is not appropriate, because he U.S. Botanic garden in Washington,

1) Much too simple to represent the enormous complexity of an economy;

2) Functional, rather than being a miserable wreck. like the economies of North Korea, Cuba or Zimbabwe.

I think a better analogy might be real human life versus trying to create human life in a laboratory, like the Frankenstein monster.

Ted writes:

The only problem with the analogy is that it isn't clear why economists should mimic the park rangers. The U.S. Botanic Garden is actually a very nice place and, in fact, we do know enough about plant life to regulate and control quite a lot of it - even in something so complex as a true forest if we really wanted too. Your analogy would make sense if the U.S. Botanic Garden's sucked, but they don't.

More generally on whether economists should study ways to regulate the economy, I think the answer is most definitely yes.

The reason is that this is simply practical. If there is a perceived problem, the government is going to intervene. It is preferable we know the optimal policy so government can try to approximately mimic this benchmark. Also, in some cases, government intervention is inevitable. The most obvious cases are optimal monetary and fiscal policy.

It's fairly clear economists know enough to support some government interventions - to think the world is that complex we can't make any improvements is silly. And, of course, a laissez-faire system is anything but perfect. In fact, Stiglitz-Greenwald made a very strong case that for any economy with externalities there almost always exists some tax (or something that mimics a tax) that can correct the externality. My biggest problem with government intervention isn't that there isn't a possible intervention. My biggest problem is that no matter how simple the solution appears to be in an economic analysis, the government will somehow screw up it's implementation and not only not solve the original problem but it may even create new problems or make the original problem worse.

Also, just to make a point about terminology. I don't really like the term "market failure." What we identify as market failure is not usually a failure of free market mechanisms - but because it's too difficult to apply the free market to the problem at hand. Most market failures are because we cannot easily apply the concepts of the free market to the problem. Most market failures are due to ill-formed property rights (e.g. the environment, tragedy of the commons etc) or incomplete or unenforceable contracts (e.g. adverse selection and moral hazard). Those are failures to execute market mechanism, not failures of the market.

Jim Ancona writes:

Great analogy. Alston Chase's Playing God in Yellowstone describes what happens when rangers try to be curators.


Dale Moses writes:

Poorly for your purposes. The rain forests in WA are very well regulated. If they were not, they would simply not exist. (regulation in both in tree-replanting, and in old-growth exclusionary areas, regulations on what people can and cannot do in the bounds, etc etc etc.)

Beyond that park rangers also have the same job as the museum curator. Their job is to ensure that the wildlife grows and thrives. The difference is that the Park Ranger only has to protect against people intermittently (the primary concern being invasive species and fire) whereas a museum curator must protect against an entire city of people every day.

This is the problem your analogy has with regulation. Beyond that you have a problem of values. In your analogy, "people" are the species in a rain forest.

Half the people are going to hear that analogy and think "economists should not care when people get eaten by other people". Your analogy in these instances is going to turn people the other way. Which frankly is a good thing.

Now, you do mention that the "Park Rangers only have to regulate other humans". But in case you haven't noticed, we happen to be humans and it seems that without regulation we have a penchant for destroying the places we live in.

Philo writes:

Museum curators know enough to do their job. If economists don't know enough to be policy analysts (which, of course, implies that no one knows enough), there is a great disanalogy between them and museum curators.

Joe writes:

Have you heard of Biosphere II? A really tightly regulated ecosystem has even more problems.

Don writes:

Where would the plants prefer to live? Hard to know, and that's one place your metaphor breaks down. Though some of the 'happiness economics' surveys I've seen are about as useful as a survey of plants...

Steve Roth writes:

"The Hoh rain forest has park rangers. ... They regulate other humans."

By your reasoning, should not economists act likewise? You pretty much ignored that second sentence in your normative comments at the end of the post.

A possible supporting metaphor: Humans are the ants. The economy is the anthill.

It's definitely not perfect -- humans don't constitute the rain forest -- but ... ??

Frederick Davies writes:
Anyway, how well does this metaphor work?

Good metaphor, but a bit too long in explaining, which makes it less powerful. If you want to use it as a rhetorical device it should be shorter and more to the point.

I know that people think of the market as a man-made process, not coming from "mother nature." Therefore, there is not the mystical resistance to tampering with the market that there is to tampering with a rain forest.

You might want to talk to Matt Ridley about this 'not coming from "mother nature"' thing. In his TED talk "When ideas have sex" (see, the idea that The Market (call it Exchange, Trade, or whatever you want) is Homo Sapiens Sapiens' trick for evolutionary suscess pervades the whole thing (though he does not state it clearly at any moment). Who knows, maybe tampering with The Market IS tampering with Mother Nature's gift to Humanity.

Now that is an interesting idea: "We are human because we trade; if you stop trade you make us less human."


John Fox writes:

I think it works great! You may also want to point out how much more expensive the curator approach is. There are externalities in both scenarios in that, among other things, the plants are being subsidized via money paid to the rangers and curators. But the money per plant is obviously much higher in the curator scenario. Someone must bear the cost for paying for the curators.

Matt Brubeck writes:

Venkatest Rao takes the same idea (complete with forest metaphor) quite a bit farther, in a post on "Legibility":

"The big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.” We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility."
kebko writes:

I think the analogy can be very useful. It basically goes to our bias for design. So, I think it is very useful to use areas where conventional wisdom among sophisticates has accepted decentralized processes over design (evolution vs. creationism, ecological minimalism vs. heavy-handed resource management). Tactics like over-hunting aesthetically unpleasing or scary species or introducing invasive species to try to solve a problem are universally disdained now. Many economic controls are highly analogous to these tactics.

Ray writes:

Like many good analogies, I think this one is good if used properly and bad if not. It can be an analogy for the NATURAL aspects of market that no human has created (the distribution of knowledge, the function of monetary and non-monetary exchange), but it will be important to keep in mind that there are man-made aspects of markets too (specific products, specific money systems, court system, etc)

Steve Roth writes:

This one's had me pondering.

Here, I think, is where the metaphor breaks down: rain forests are not, mainly, made up of entities with sentience, hence the capacity for conscious suffering and feelings of well-being. (Yes, some animals including fairly sentient ones, but they're not thick on the ground, and a rainforest conceived in toto is not a thing that embodies sentience.)

As such, I think the metaphor/model kind of epitomizes what Haidt has discerned about libertarians: If not a lack of compassion, at least a yearning for a stylized world in which empathy and compassion -- less-dominant and less-comfortable capacities among libertarians -- are not so necessary.

Steve Roth writes:


If 20% of the ferns in a rain forest are wiped out one year, it's not a big deal as long as the overall well-being of the rain forest (and hence the long-term viability of ferns) is not threatened.

It's a very different world if the ferns are sentient beings with families and children.

Hyena writes:

I don't think this works well. A curator seeks to represent a particular system or period--art, botany, the curatorial mission is the same--to make it more accessible. The purpose of park rangers is precisely flipped: they work at preserving a system, interfering in it directly.

You should likewise flip your metaphor: the goal of a (libertarian) economist should be curatorial, they should be creating accessible representations so people can understand how larger systems work. A curator isn't wandering the forest thinking about where to place fire breaks, a park ranger is.

Mark writes:


This analogy has already been used, not to much success by the way.

fundamentalist writes:

Excellent metaphor! The botanical gardens illustrate the limits of what bureaucrats can manage. If we want bureaucrats to manage the market, the market can be be only as big as the botanical garden compared to the rain forest.

Also, the analogy shows that the market is natural. as natural law theory proposes, a free market agrees with the nature of mankind and allows mankind to flourish. It is not an alien imposition on mankind.

Of course the analogy breaks down if you get too much into the details. Analogies are intended to convey a single message or two in a dramatic fashion. Analogies are not dissertations or journal papers. But they are a powerful tool for communicating.

JP98 writes:

I would repeat the point made above: AFAIK, park rangers (and the US Park Service generally) aren't as non-interventionist as the metaphor appears to require.

Shawn writes:

Funny, I was a park ranger in the Hoh Rainforest for the past four years. I like it, but I agree that too often park rangers act as museum curators.

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