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To me, as to most Earth scientists (or at least of my generation) the name Mendocino is instantly recognisable. Cape Mendocino, in California, is where the Mendocino Fracture Zone comes ashore. Or, to the bafflement of the geologists of the 1950s, it fails to come ashore, despite evidence for offsets of the order of hundreds of kilometres out in the Pacific Ocean.

What I did not know until a day or so ago was that, even if the fracture zone does not come ashore, in that region something else does. As I have now learned, the area is, by California standards at least, an area of lush vegetation, watered not by rain but by the mists that roll in out of the Pacific. Today, however, despite that seemingly inexhaustible supply, it seems that the village of Mendocino (pop. ~1000 but multiplied many-fold by influxes of tourists at the appropriate times) is running out of water. As the wells run dry, a lady (pretty exactly) of my own age, who lives there, has been reported as saying “Right now I’m setting personal hygiene back several centuries”.

What, apart from going dirty, can the people of Mendocino do?  In Man, Economy, and State, Murray Rothbard presented his own solution to a similar problem, on a far larger scale. He analysed the challenges of supplying water to the whole city of New York, and came, of course, to his inevitable conclusion. Free, unfettered private enterprise would deliver. In so far as New York had a problem, it was because the water supply was controlled by the government. As he wrote (on p1260 of the edition I am using):

‘It is doubtful if any private enterprise would ever do what the government of New York and other cities have done: exhort the consumers to “use less water”. It is also characteristic of government operation that when a water shortage develops, it is the consumers and not the government “enterprisers” who are blamed for the shortage. The pressure is on consumers to sacrifice and use less, while in private industry the (welcome) pressure is on entrepreneurs to supply more.’

Here we have a quotation that in a few lines encapsulates the essential naivety of the Rothbard approach, along with that of his former mentor, Ayn Rand, and his co-disciples such as Alan Greenspan. As a UK citizen who has lived through the period during which the water supply, which in my early years was a public good bequeathed to us by our capitalistic Victorian forebears, was fashionably privatised, I have to say that it is not “doubtful if any private enterprise would ever …. exhort the consumers to use less water”. I have watched it happen. Nor is it very obviously the case that the response of private industry to shortages is always to supply more.  All too often, it is simply to jack up the price.

It is, however, possible to sympathise with the suppliers of water, whether private or public, in a way that Rand, Rothbard and the like were incapable of doing,because In their world there are no real shortages that private entrepreneurs cannot reverse. In the tight little world of Galt’s Gulch, the hidden-away free-market retreat in ‘Atlas Shrugged’, there were no shortages that could not be overcome. Petroleum? It was bleeding out of the rocks for Ellis Wyatt to collect. Copper? It was there waiting for Francisco d’Ancona to exploit  (meanwhile, the shortage in the world outside was of his making; He had blown up the mines that generations of his family had devoted themselves to developing). Food?  There was so much fertile land in the valley that even rank amateurs were producing enough to feed every member of America’s last band of entrepreneurs. Nowhere in Rand’s books, or in Rothbard’s, is there a recognition of the idea that there can be real limitations on the supply of goods such as water, or that even where these limitations are not fundamental, they may take time to rectify. The new owners of the UK’s water supply were not entirely to blame when, in a drought year, they pleaded with their customers to use less water. They may have been caught unprepared, but at least they knew that there was no quick fix.

And so, back to Mendocino,

What are they going to do (apart from going dirty)? The traditional remedy, according to reports, has been to truck water in from the better supplied and much larger town of Fort Brag. An expensive option that is becoming still  less attractive as Bragg itself runs short of water. Now it is the turn of the inland town of Ukiah to send even more expensive water over in tankers. There has been talk of bringing water in by barge (a solution adopted by Venice in the time of Galileo) or of rejuvenating a disused railway line to bring water in larger quantities from the town of Willits to Fort Bragg, but the mayor of Willits is on record as saying that her town “would have to look very closely at whether it would have been possible or advisable to send so much over, given our supply of reservoir water and groundwater”. Nor does Mendocino “necessarily have the money to cover the operational cost”.

There is, of course, another solution that right-thinking entrepreneurs should be contemplating (and perhaps they are). There is no actual shortage of water at Mendocino; its inhabitants have the Pacific Ocean on their doorstep. The problem is, of course, that Pacific water is too saline for most uses. Desalination is not a quick fix, and even with solar power (curse those fogs) not a cheap one. In Rothbard’s world it sometimes seems that no-one is ever unable to pay, but in the real world of Mendocino (or New York), if the price rises, more and more people will find the cost unaffordable. What are these people to do? In the unforgiving world of the Austrian school, they have just two options. Earn more, or move out.

And in order to earn more, they will probably have to move anyway.

And if they move, they will encounter another unforgiving world, with a considerable overlap on any Venn diagram. A world in which, in the terminology beloved of the British Home Office, mere ‘economic migrants’ fleeing death from resource shortages receive even less of a welcome than those fleeing death at the hands of the fellow men.