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F. A. Hayek on Conservation (beware of central planning with minerals too)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- December 28, 2011

“Running out of resources” has been a common refrain among the intellectual class and policymakers since the beginning of the oil industry. L. C. Gray (1913) and Harold Hotelling (1931) cemented the fixity-depletion view of minerals that swept the economics profession; so did the presidency of Jimmy Carter, in the (regulatory-induced) troubled 1970s.

Remember the lament of James Schlesinger, the  first energy secretary for Carter’s new Department of Energy: “We have a classic Malthusian case of exponential growth against a finite source.” And the confident conclusion of Amory Lovins:

All oil and gas resources should be carefully husbanded—i.e. extracted as late and as slowly as possible. Our descendents will be grateful. We, too, shall need a long bridge to the future.

But when surplus conditions with oil and gas returned in the 1980s, the lost voices of Erich Zimmermann and M. A. Adelman, and the new voice of Julian Simon, found an audience.

Planned Conservation (Conservationism)

The depletionist worldview raised the question of what was the ‘right’ consumption profile, which inevitably involved government intervention to correct the alleged ‘market failure’ of overproduction/overconsumption. Enter F. A. Hayek (1899–1992), one of the century’s leading critics of government planning.

In The Constitution of Liberty (1960), Hayek evaluated “the necessity of central direction of the conservation of natural resources,” a view that was “particularly strong in the United States, where the ‘conservation movement’ has to a great extent been the source of the agitation for economic planning and has contributed much to the indigenous ideology of the radical economic reformers.” [1]

While not denying that economic error could produce real waste in the “consumption of irreplaceable resources,” Hayek cautioned that government was unlikely to have the knowledge of future conditions of price and scarcity that would enable it to impose the “right” solution.

More Creates More. While speaking of fixity, Hayek’s dynamic analysis urged consideration of the resources whole, not its parts. “Any natural resource represents just one item of our total endowment of exhaustible resources, and our problem is not to preserve this stock in any particular form, but always to maintain it in a form that will make the most desirable contribution to total income,” he wrote. “The existence of a particular natural resource merely means that, while it lasts, its temporary contribution to our income will help us to create new ones which will similarly assist us in the future.”

This more-creates-more view was a missing piece of a thoroughgoing alternative to depletionism. Hayek was onto something bigger than he realized—at least until he discovered the work of Julian Simon, to which Hayek penned his first ‘fan letter‘.

A Circularity Problem. Hayek noticed a circularity problem in the conservation-planning argument: postponed consumption was still supply lost for the future.

Quoting a fellow economist (Anthony Scott), Hayek noted the irony that “the conservationist who urges us ‘to make greater provision for the future’ is in fact urging a lesser provision for posterity.”

In other words, consumption had to be avoided indefinitely, not merely postponed, or it was not conservation. Yet this would create perpetual non-usage in the present—an impossibility.


F. A. Hayek was one of the greatest social-science thinkers of the 20th century who briefly but cogently examined resource issues, as did Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and other Austrian-School economists (my Resourceship: An Austrian Theory of Mineral Resources.) But Hayek’s insights on conservation continue to inform the current public-policy debate on mineral energy and other ‘fixed’ resources.

[1] As did other economists of the time, Hayek defined conservation as preservation rather than more efficient or “sustainable” utilization, the latter being the common usage today. The changing meaning of conservation is discussed in my Internet appendix, The Rise of Conservation Economics.


NOTE: This section is adapted from my Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy (Scrivener Press: 2009), pp. 215–16, 390.

One Comment for “F. A. Hayek on Conservation (beware of central planning with minerals too)”

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