Economics Lesson at Walden Pond

On a recent trip to New England, I had the opportunity to make my first visit to Concord, Massachusetts and Walden Pond where Henry David Thoreau got the inspiration and first hand experience to write his book, Walden. In his introduction to the 1992 edition of The Annotated Walden, Philip Van Doren Stern writes:

Thoreau understood clearly the essential nature of work. Observing, thinking and writing were what he wanted most to do. Hoeing his bean-field, carpentry, and surveying gave him enough money for his needs. To simplify things, he reduced his wants to the fewest possible. “I learned … that it would cost incredibly little to obtain one’s food,” he says in Walden.

As Stern’s analysis suggests, Thoreau invites the reader to learn a fundamental economics lesson in choice making: do what one needs to do efficiently to conserve as many resources as possible to do what one wants to do.

This lesson is borne out on an almost daily basis at the Walden Pond State Reservation. In Thoreau’s day, visitors frequented Walden Pond as a matter of personal choice and little cost other than the time and energy spent to walk there. Today, the number of visitors is limited by the number of spaces in the only parking area across the street. Once full, no more cars are allowed to enter.

Of course, the assumption is that visitors who want to go to Walden Pond need to take a car to get there. Through a twist of logic, the decision to visit Walden Pond is controlled by the availability of a parking place. This despite the fact that choosing to walk, instead, affords a more efficient means to get there and assures entrance upon arrival.

Thoreau knew all too well that people in his time and much later would struggle with these lessons in economic trade-offs. Do I walk and have more opportunities? Or, do I ride a horse; take a carriage; drive a car and compromise my range of choices as a consequence? Thoreau captures this dilemma quite eloquently in the opening commentary of his lecture, Walking, delivered in 1861 and posthumously published as an essay in 1862:

We have felt that we almost alone hereabouts practised this noble art; though, to tell the truth, at least, if their own assertions are to be received, most of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit. Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember, and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods, but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class. No doubt, they were elevated for a moment as by the reminiscence of a previous state of existence, when even they were foresters and outlaws.

Do I take to the path or stay on the highway? A good question to ask every day!

Originally posted to Open for Consideration on Tumblr by Steve Bosserman on August 18, 2010

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