Ski Areas: The Perfect Example of a Libertarian Society?

My girlfriend and I went skiing last weekend up a series of areas in New York’s Catskills mountains. It was, naturally, a lot of fun, but the more we skied (and the more we drank beer between runs) the more I began wondering if ski areas, and maybe the ski culture itself, is not a perfect example of a “libertarian” society.

It’s probably wrong to ascribe a political viewpoint to a recreational activity that undoubtedly includes people from across the political spectrum but, because it’s done anyway with a range of “non-political” activities, I shall do it here. Also, I’m attempting to describe the ethos of the philosophy with real life examples not specifically call everyone who skis or snowboards libertarian in and of themselves.

So… here we go!

Personal Responsibility

Almost every state that I’ve been in with ski areas has passed a law that ski areas post almost everywhere they can that essentially describes downhill skiing and snowboarding as an inherently dangerous sport. As such, the participant assumes their own risks when they engage in it and the mere purchase of a lift pass does not imply liability on the area itself.

This, simply, is brilliant. It also goes to show how people will self-regulate their own behavior when having to assume the risks. Sure, you can get your first set of rental skis and attempt the double-black diamond, but if you break your legs or neck while doing so, you have only yourself to blame. Thus, beginners (like me), tend to skick with the green areas and small flirtations with the blue runs. Runs that, in my case, I had my expert skier girlfriend check out ahead of time to ensure that it would be within my skill level.

When you can’t assign blame for your own actions to someone else, you discover that your own actions actually become reasonable and measured. Which is not to say not fun, I had a blast spending a full day doing nothing but greens, just safely within my own level of comfort.

Helping Others With Nothing to Gain

The biggest critique I see of blue-sky “libertarian societies” is that they would be selfish societies in which no one would help their fellow human beings if they gained nothing from it. A ski area, I believe it puts the lie to that idea.

As one example, the ski schools often load up about a half-dozen lifts, and with the junior ski schools this can include children as young as four. They often ask skiers waiting in line to help get the kids on the lift, ride it up with them, and then help them get off. As a skier, you gain nothing from helping. In fact, you find yourself often having to wait longer as these kids take a little while to get on and off and delay the whole process. And, yet, my girlfriend and I both helped in this case.

It meant sacrificing riding the lifts together, the ten or so minutes we could have spent together on our holiday, and the ability to just hop off and ride our next run without waiting for each other just to help someone else’s kid safely ride the lift up.

Another example–as a beginning skier, I frequently pull off to the side of any run about mid-way down to give my legs and feet a chance to rest. My girlfriend, Shannon, being the kind and understanding woman she is, will often wait up for me or give me tips for the rest of the way. But to other skiers, these two people pulled over with one actively rubbing his aching thighs looks like someone in distress and they slow up and often ask, “Is everything okay?” To which we kindly reply yes and they’re on their way again.

Again, they accumulate no benefit to themselves by asking about our status. They don’t know us. We’re not going to buy them a beer at the bottom, if we could even remember what they look like. No authority is counting the number of times they offer to give them some kind of “community spirit” award. In fact, all they might be doing is accruing extra work by having to find the ski patrol or first aid if we’d answered that we, in fact, were in distress, taking away from their own wintery snowy bliss. And, yet, it’s done anyway.

Why do people do this? I can’t honestly say except that I believe people, if the cost isn’t too high will always help out others. Helping a four year-old on and off the lift only asks me to postpone my fun by a few minutes or spend a few minutes away from my girlfriend while doing so. Finding the ski patrol or first aid station only takes a few extra minutes for the helpful stranger. It’s not like they’re asking us to go through some kind of “trust program” before we help out the kids. Or making sure someone has a first aid certificate before asking another skier if they’re okay. Our time commitment is minimal.

But while it’s minimal on the mountain, I can think of other areas where helping out a fellow human occurs even though the personal cost is large. Think bone marrow donation. No renumeration and yet people do it anyway, often for perfect strangers.

The point is, that even though people gain little to nothing, and often lose a bit of their own time (perhaps the most valuable thing on a mountain where the lifts close at 4pm), people help each other out, regardless.

No Enforcement of Stupid Rules

Thus far I’ve basically explored how people react without an authority dictating rules. But what about when they do? At a ski area, they’re followed as long as they make some kind of logical sense.

We line up at the lifts because we’re all able to get on one faster if it’s orderly and go into the available lanes rather than pushing a shoving to get on one. We don’t smoke indoors because, let’s face it, our society doesn’t think smoking indoors is appropriate any longer. But what about a law or regulation that says you can’t smoke within fifty feet of the doors to the lodge?

Totally ignored. And not just by me, an asshole who wants to smoke. I mean by the staff of the area who’s job it is to enforce these rules. The same is true about smoking on the lifts. And drinking outdoors.

There may be rules (and I’m sure there are a lot more than the ones I’m anecdotally sharing here) but they’re only followed if the people who are to obey them believe some benefit will accrue. Be it a more orderly lift line experience or a more pleasurable time on the mountain. If there doesn’t appear to be a logical reason for the rule then it may as well not exist. Because people won’t follow it and the staff has better things to do than enforce arbitrary things that no one would do anyway.

And Yes… Beer

Consider this one the “freedom to put what I want in my body” section.

I’m sure one exists, somewhere, but I haven’t ever been to a ski area that doesn’t serve beer. And a lot of it. At Bellearye, the favorite brew of choice was a Polish one that, for two dollars more, was essentially a beer and a half. Meaning, people were drinking a lot of beer. Probably only second to this intoxicant was the amount of weed being smoked (primarily by snowboarders though I’m sure a skier or two toked up as well).

The arguments for making ski areas dry are not unlike those for outlawing drunk driving, honestly. You put others in danger when you act recklessly. So, consider this also a sequel to the personal responsibility section. And while I’m sure there were probably a couple of people who drank or smoked too much to be on the slopes, the fact is that most people acted responsibly. They judged for themselves whether to have one or two beers or any at all before braving the lifts and the ride down. And you know what? It worked.

It turns out you don’t need draconian penalties (or penalties at all except for the acceptance of any liability) against the small percentage of people who don’t act responsibly for the rest to do so.

In Summation

The point of all of this is not to say a “libertarian” society would be a perfect one. It’s to illustrate that most people, when interacting with others, do so in a responsible and civilized manner. Not because some overarching authority mandates that they do but because everyone has their own goals and, to achieve them, it behooves everyone to act in this way.

It’s a common sight at a ski area to find skis and snowboards stacked up like so much firewood along the walls of a lodge or in racks just outside. Some people lock them against theft but the vast majority don’t. Why? Because there is a social contract among everyone not to steal each other’s (valuable) equipment. I’m sure there is some thievery but it’s not so common as to make people doubt the social contract and change their ways and this is what I’m talking about.

The basic libertarian premise is that government isn’t society. Society creates government. And if the ski area example shows anything, it’s that a lot of government isn’t necessary for people to act the way we’d hope they would.

This is still just the germ of an idea I had while up in the mountains. And I’m sure there were problems that I didn’t see. But I’m curious what others may think about this and whether you believe this micro-example can be relevant on a larger scale.