The Park Ranger and the Museum Curator
By Arnold Kling
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.