Sunday, October 13, 2013

Surfing and Herman Melville's Moby Dick

In surfing, as in almost every other human endeavor, situations often arise in which there are a limited number of resources (in this case, ridable waves) which are seen as desirable by a large number of people (in this case, surfers who wish to ride those waves).

Even though there are no official government policemen sitting in the lineup to keep "law and order," surfers do not erupt into violence every time they are faced with crowded conditions, fighting over every wave that arrives.  Instead, a simple and effective informal "code" arose among surfers many decades ago, which enables surfers to peaceably cooperate so that everyone has an opportunity to catch waves.  

The etiquette basically dictates that when two or more surfers want to catch the same wave, it belongs to the surfer who takes off on the wave first and "deepest" -- that is to say, closest to the point at which the wave begins to break (the "curl" of the wave, where the blue or green water breaks and turns white and foamy).

In the image below, for example, two surfers have caught the same wave.  Surfer A, to the right as we look at the picture from our perspective, has caught the wave slightly before another surfer, Surfer B, seen to our left as we look at the picture.  Surfer A has caught the wave first, but even more importantly, he is closer to the curl of the wave, which can be seen fanning out to the right (as we look at the image -- the curl is really to the left of Surfer A as he rides the wave, because the wave is "a right" from his perspective: he is riding to his right, and Surfer B is to his right down the line of the unbroken wave).

In this case, the wave rightfully belongs to Surfer A and Surfer B is "dropping in" on Surfer A by taking off along the line that Surfer A wishes to follow, a line which proceeds down the still-unbroken  (green) barrel of the wave, away from the breaking curl of the wave.

This code is so well-known and so widely-used that it has been written about many times.  It is explained quite clearly on the world-renowned Surfline website, in a web page entitled "Don't drop in on or snake your fellow surfer." However, it is important to note that this widely-followed piece of surfing etiquette did not arise because it was first written down as a rule or passed as a "law" somewhere: it arose naturally among surfers as an effective way to govern the allocation of relatively scarce resources (waves) among relatively crowded conditions (in the image above, you can see that there are quite a few surfers at this particular break -- you can see several in the water to the left of the letter "B" as you look at the picture).

In fact, the situation in the image above had a happy ending: Surfer B realized he was about to drop-in on Surfer A, and he rapidly turned back over the wave to get out of Surfer A's way.  You can see this taking place in the images below.  In image 1, on the left, Surfer B is dropping in, and then in image 2, a split-second later, Surfer B turns and disappears back over the lip, leaving the wave to Surfer A:

This example of a natural code of etiquette arising among individuals who operate in an environment where there are no actual policemen or lawyers or other representatives of government, and yet who are able to peaceably allocate scarce resources amongst themselves, brings to mind the chapter in Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851) entitled "Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish."  There, Melville writes:
Perhaps the only formal whaling code authorized by legislative enactment, was that of Holland.  It was decreed by the States-General in A.D. 1695.  But though no other nation has ever had any written whaling law, yet the American fishermen have been their own legislators and lawyers in this matter.  They have provided a system which for terse comprehensiveness surpasses Justinian's Pandects and the Bylaws of the Chinese Society for the Suppression of Meddling with other People's Business.  Yes; these laws might be engraven on a Queen Anne's farthing, or the barb of a harpoon, and worn round the neck, so small are they.
I.  A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.
II.  A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.
In fact, it is remarkable that the code here articulated by Melville is precisely the same code which arose among surfers, it requiring only the substitution of the word "wave" for "fish" to admirably summarize the code of wave-catching etiquette just described.

Many philosophers have advocated the need for a political state -- often defined as an entity which maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of force -- by arguing that in the absence of a state, mankind would fall into a state of complete violent chaos.  This view was most famously and influentially argued by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan, published in 1651.  There, Hobbes argued that in the state of nature life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."  The last three words of this phrase have become almost universally known and cited.

However, the examples of the surfer's code and the whale fishery tend to refute this view of mankind's inherent brutishness.  Both activities (surfing and whaling) are conducted outside the reach of normal laws and legislators, and in both cases the participants "have been their own legislators and lawyers."

Proponents of voluntaryism and some forms of libertarianism (among others) argue that the institution of states actually leads to greater levels of violence and more "brutishness" than would occur in their absence.  While they don't generally cite either surfing or Moby Dick as evidence in favor of their arguments, it seems possible that they could.

The use of an example from the immortal Moby Dick is not meant to imply that the author of this blog in any way condones the killing of whales.  To the contrary, several previous posts have discussed arguments against the regular slaughter of animals for food or any other purpose -- see for instance: