You’re cold. You start a fire. You use up your store of firewood. You toss in your furniture. You start taking the walls of your cabin apart and toss that wood into the fire, too.
The fire is really roaring now. You are nice and toasty warm. You feel good and congratulate yourself on your industry and ingenuity.
After a while, your fire starts to die down and you start looking for more fuel. You are really cold now, because you’ve destroyed your house to build your fire. And when you walk down the road and start pulling someone else’s cabin down with the idea of using that wood in your fire, well, that’s when someone is liable to come along and put a stop to your endeavor.
That is what some of the good people of Utah’s Escalante Valley are on the lookout for. Someone who might come along and start taking things apart, thinking it’s a really good idea for everybody.
As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune last week, some folks who don’t even live there have had an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb appear above their heads. They want to start rummaging through and around the town of Escalante, using technology that didn’t exist the last time someone looked, for evidence that it would be worth their while to start drilling for oil.
Such an enterprise would, of course, make some money for some people. Maybe just for the duration of the 3-D imaging process. Maybe for a lot longer, if the results are positive and the drilling rigs show up.
But there’s money, and there’s value. And it is far from clear that the money that might be made — and taken away — from oil development would be of enough boom-and-bust value to endanger an area that is not only beautiful but also starting to build a sustainable economy based on tourism and outdoor recreation.
It is not unlike what is happening in the more urbanized area of Salt Lake City. Here we have a handful of oil refineries that want to expand — spend money and hire people — at the cost of more air pollution.
Cultures and communities make these distinctions all the time. And the balance to be struck is as much one of the heart as of the head.
Utah is generally supportive of job-creating business interests. Hire people? Pay taxes? Sure. Come on in. The water’s fine.
So? Where are our casinos? Our brothels? Our free-market liquor stores and neighborhood taverns? Our state lottery? Our petition drive to legalize the sale of marijuana?
Don’t those activities make money? Hire people? Pay taxes that will support our schools? Of course they do. So why aren’t Utah’s leaders and Utah’s laws welcoming of such things?
Two reasons. One, a lot of people just don’t like them, think they are disgusting to be around and would feel dirty not only living near them but also driving on roads and sending their children to schools that were funded by such slimy enterprises.
Two, there are mathematical arguments to be made — not always by people who are morally opposed — that such vice-based businesses do not, in the long run, pay. There are human and social costs to the sale of sex, games of chance, alcohol and other mood-altering substances, costs that may not be apparent until long after the profits have all been spent. Disease. Crime. Police. Courts. Prisons. Early death. Broken families. Abandoned children.
Those costs can — and, in places that allow them, often are — at least partially mitigated by both the increased economic activity and, often, special taxes and fees that are dedicated to things such as substance abuse recovery or child welfare services.
Where to draw the line, a line between an unfettered free market, buying and selling whatever will raise the most money in the shortest time, and rules that would protect the best of humanity and the earth, is, and always will be, a matter of human judgement, with no strict mathematical formula that can give us a firm answer.
Which is why we often make the wrong call.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is much better at writing one-liners than drawing firm lines.
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