Even as a young boy I cringed whenever I heard Joni Mitchell chirruping out her 1970 hit song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” which was released when I was 11. I have no idea why this song irritated me so much as an adolescent and teenager, but when my ears were accosted by it recently as I strolled through a supermarket I realized why I – who am now staggering into geezerdom – loathe this song still. This loathing isn’t of the song’s musical qualities, which I find to be a bit above average; it’s all about the atrocious lyrics, and especially this refrain:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone
They paved paradise put up a parking lot
The root reason for my loathing of the lyrics of “Big Yellow Taxi” is Mitchell’s arrogant presumption that, because she believes that the benefits of putting up a parking lot do not justify the paving of what she calls “paradise,” parking lots are a scourge.
Yet why does she so cavalierly discount parking-lots’ benefits? Surely people who use cars – as I assume Mitchell does – benefit from paved parking lots (as well as from paved roads, each of which covers what presumably were once strips of paradise). Of course parking lots provide a great deal of convenience, which is easy to look upon with contempt. But is Mitchell unaware that without paved parking lots parked cars would frequently get mired in mud, unable to move until towed out? The resulting landscape would be not only unsightly but also filthier. With our feet we’d track into our automobiles, and into our homes and other indoor spaces, much more mud and dust. Rain water trapped in the ruts left by tires would for much of the year incubate mosquitoes and other insects.
I might here, understandably, be accused of taking Mitchell too literally. Her beef isn’t only, or even mainly, with paved parking lots; her beef is with most of the many other edifices and practices of modern industrial society. We wouldn’t need so many cars (and, hence, so much paving of paradise) if we lived differently – more simply – less materially – in greater harmony with nature – in a manner that demands less from Mother Earth and leaves her with fewer scars. We’d then be much happier as we’d have vastly larger swathes of paradise to gaze upon instead of these being paved over and uglified to gratify our myopic lust for more growth, more building, more automobile driving, and more parking.
Mitchell’s belief that our insistence on building parking lots specifically – and pursuing economic growth generally – is rooted in our myopia is implied in her lines “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.”
She accuses many of us of very frequently (“always”) acting contrary to our own best interests. We think that the parking lot will satisfy us until we come to the cruel realization that it won’t – until we realize that we’ve destroyed nature. But this realization comes too late. Paradise is lost. And so it goes also with our use of chemical insecticides and other of the many (dangerous) tools and (poisonous) fruits of capitalism. How foolish of us. At least we have balladeers such as Joni Mitchell to scold us for our unenlightened materialism (as we help to make her enormously rich for delivering the scolding in such an entertaining fashion).
Property Rights and Market Prices Tell Us What We Got
But Mitchell is mistaken. Her refrain would be more accurate were it instead to read: Though it seldom seem to go / But we do know what we got ‘til it’s gone.
Although most people don’t grasp this reality, in nearly all cases we emphatically do know what we got ‘til it’s gone; we get this information from the prices that emerge in a system of private property rights. The builder of the parking lot had to purchase the land from its previous owner, who possessed every incentive either to use or dispose of that land in the most valuable manner possible. If the best use of that land was for something other than a parking lot – say, a cow pasture, a wheat field, a lumber forest, or an arboretum – a rancher, farmer, lumberjack, or conservationist with designs on selling his output to the general public would have outbid the aspiring parking-lot operator for that land. There’s a good reason why Kansas’s wheat fields, Texas’s hunting reserves, New Jersey’s cranberry bogs, and Florida’s orange groves aren’t parking lots.
There’s a good reason also why we have paved parking lots where we do. Suburban supermarkets would be of little use if shoppers couldn’t park their SUVs, minivans, and sedans close by, or if those parking areas were fields of mud or gravel. Likewise, automobile factories in Michigan, steel mills in Alabama, and oil-refineries in Louisiana would operate, if at all, far less efficiently if workers in these facilities were unable to park their cars nearby on sturdy pavement. Physicians’ offices, hospitals, schools, and government buildings throughout the land – not to mention restaurants, hotels, sports stadiums, airports, zoos (this list is practically endless) – would all be practically unable to operate without paved parking lots for their workers and patrons.
While I can affirm that I get genuine benefit from regularly using the Mason Pond parking garage at George Mason University – my affirmation is believable because I personally pay extra for access to this garage – it isn’t for me to say whether this parking garage occupies what was once a patch of paradise. Paradise is in the eyes of the beholder. But I do know that there was no beholder who so valued as unspoiled paradise that particular bit of northern Virginia real estate to pay enough to preserve it in its unpaved glory.
When We Really Don’t Know What We Got ‘til It’s Gone
Ironically, when we are most likely really to not know what we got – even after it’s gone – is when government obstructs individuals’ peaceful use of, and ability to voluntarily transfer, property rights. When government restricts the range of peaceful uses to which landowners can put their properties, it prevents the market from discovering and revealing the relative values of all the many possible different uses of each piece of land. This plot of land in California on which certain kinds of housing can no longer be built, that spread of real estate in New York on which fracking isn’t allowed, and this other tract of land in Montana declared to be off-limits to this or that commercial use, are pieces of property the optimal uses of which might, because of government decrees, remain forever hidden. The fruits of some particular possible uses of these lands are forgone not because someone spent his or her own money bidding the land away for other uses, the values of which are to be tested and revealed in competitive markets. No. These fruits are forgone because government officials, spending other people’s money, simply declare certain uses off-limits. There’s very good reason to believe that such declarations are made with inadequate information about the value of what is preserved compared to the value of what that preservation prevents from being produced.
Epilogue: Joni Mitchell’s Inspiration
In 1996, speaking to journalist Robert Hilburn, Mitchell said this about writing the song:
I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart […] this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.
Mitchell (presumably) flew to Hawaii across a vast distance of (unpaved) ocean in a commercial jetliner. The airport from which she took off and that at which she landed each occupied acres of land covered thick with pavement. She was driven to her hotel – itself relying for much of its stability on concrete – on paved roads, and if she performed in Hawaii, almost all of her fans no doubt happily took advantage of paved roads and paved parking lots to attend her concert. And did Mitchell pause for as much as a nanosecond to consider that, without the very same paved parking lot the sight of which so movingly broke her heart, the hotel from which she beheld those beautiful green mountains in the distance would not have existed? And therefore that “Big Yellow Taxi” might never have been written? (Alas, even valuable paved parking lots have their downsides.)