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Nature’s Law Cannot Be Overruled


The aroma of California’s Central Valley will endure in my memory. The scent of lettuce with a gentle undertone of soil arrives as a stark contrast to motorists heading west out of the desert.

Apparently that overpowering lushness is disappearing:

On the western side of the Central Valley, the effects of arbitrary cutoffs in federal irrigation water have idled tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land, leaving thousands unemployed. Manufacturing plants in the towns in these areas — which used to make harvesters, hydraulic lifts, trailers, food-processing equipment — have largely shut down; their production has been shipped off overseas or south of the border. Agriculture itself — from almonds to raisins — has increasingly become corporatized and mechanized, cutting by half the number of farm workers needed. So unemployment runs somewhere between 15 and 20 percent. 

Many of the rural trailer-house compounds I saw appear to the naked eye no different from what I have seen in the Third World. There is a Caribbean look to the junked cars, electric wires crisscrossing between various outbuildings, plastic tarps substituting for replacement shingles, lean-tos cobbled together as auxiliary housing, pit bulls unleashed, and geese, goats, and chickens roaming around the yards. The public hears about all sorts of tough California regulations that stymie business — rigid zoning laws, strict building codes, constant inspections — but apparently none of that applies out here.

It is almost as if the more California regulates, the more it does not regulate. Its public employees prefer to go after misdemeanors in the upscale areas to justify our expensive oversight industry, while ignoring the felonies in the downtrodden areas, which are becoming feral and beyond the ability of any inspector to do anything but feel irrelevant.

The water that made the area verdant was an endowment of law, not of nature. Change the law and nature will reclaim its territory. But the people living there because of the water laws may be unable or unwilling to move on.

In two supermarkets 50 miles apart, I was the only one in line who did not pay with a social-service plastic card (gone are the days when “food stamps” were embarrassing bulky coupons). But I did not see any relationship between the use of the card and poverty as we once knew it: The electrical appurtenances owned by the user and the car into which the groceries were loaded were indistinguishable from those of the upper middle class.

By that I mean that most consumers drove late-model Camrys, Accords, or Tauruses, had iPhones, Bluetooths, or BlackBerries, and bought everything in the store with public-assistance credit. This seemed a world apart from the trailers I had just ridden by the day before. I don’t editorialize here on the logic or morality of any of this, but I note only that there are vast numbers of people who apparently are not working, are on public food assistance, and enjoy the technological veneer of the middle class. California has a consumer market surely, but often no apparent source of income.

Incomes, no longer supported by water law that enables farming, become supported directly by welfare law. It is not natural income. It is legal income. In a sense, the subsidy is more direct. But also more pernicious, as there is no requirement to work the soil before receiving a payment. The connection to the land is lost—the story also talks about rampant dumping of garbage—as well as the self-respect that derives from productive work.

I taught at [California State University - Fresno] for 21 years. I think it fair to say that the predominant theme of the Chicano and Latin American Studies program’s sizable curriculum was a fuzzy American culpability. By that I mean that students in those classes heard of the sins of America more often than its attractions. In my home town, Mexican flag decals on car windows are far more common than their American counterparts.

I note this because hundreds of students here illegally are now terrified of being deported to Mexico. I can understand that, given the chaos in Mexico and their own long residency in the United States. But here is what still confuses me: If one were to consider the classes that deal with Mexico at the university, or the visible displays of national chauvinism, then one might conclude that Mexico is a far more attractive and moral place than the United States.

So there is a surreal nature to these protests: something like, “Please do not send me back to the culture I nostalgically praise; please let me stay in the culture that I ignore or deprecate.” I think the DREAM Act protestors might have been far more successful in winning public opinion had they stopped blaming the U.S. for suggesting that they might have to leave at some point, and instead explained why, in fact, they want to stay.

The people are not natural residents of the territory. They are in the Central Valley because of the water laws or the welfare laws or the general lawful order found in the United States.

A core principle in economics and psychology is that incentives matter. At first, natural incentives were amplified by legal ones. The sun and the soil were ready, if only the law could bring water. That manipulation led to the lettuce I remember. But law usually does not create, it only redistributes. And that water found a better lawyer.

And now, with the water flowing more as nature intends, the law is trying to defend what was built upon a foundation now removed. Nature’s law has both strength and patience. Man’s law would do better to respect her power.