The Salmon Trap: An Analogy for People’s Entrapment by the State

A salmon trap (also known as a pound net) is a setup for catching salmon as they return to their spawning places in the gravel beds of shallow inland streams. Such traps were used in Washington and Oregon until they were outlawed—by Oregon in 1926 and by Washington in 1934—and in Alaska until they were banned in 1959. They were highly efficient arrangements for harvesting salmon, outlawed only because the operators of competing types of gear and sportsmen’s groups ultimately had more political clout.

The traps can be constructed in various ways, but a common type was a carefully shaped arrangement of netting or wire mesh secured to driven piles, usually placed not far from shore along observed migration paths of returning salmon. The “lead” was a straight fence of netting, often several hundred feet long, extending from the bottom to the high-water level and running in a direction approximately perpendicular to the shoreline. After encountering the lead, the salmon swam along it toward the shore into the “outer heart,” a V-shaped semi-enclosed arrangement of netting; proceeding through the outer heart toward the shore, they squeezed into the “inner heart,” another V-shaped enclosure from which the only avenue of escape was the narrow passage through which they had entered. (Some traps had no inner heart.) From the inner heart, the determined salmon, whose instinctual reluctance to turn in their own wake made the traps so effective, proceeded through a narrowing tunnel into the “pot,” a shallow holding area from which almost no fish could escape. Some traps had a “spiller” adjacent to the pot, and connected with it by another tunnel, to facilitate emptying the captured fish into a scow. A few traps, so-called double-enders, had hearts and pots at both ends of the lead.

I have often pondered the analogy between the salmon’s being caught in a trap and a human population’s being caught in the institutional arrangement we call big government. Just as the salmon trap’s lead intercepts the fish in the course of their normal life cycle and directs them into captivity, so various political devices and entreaties intercept people in the course of their normal life and direct them toward dependence on the state. Salmon instinctively strive to return to their spawning places. Human beings strive to get wealth and security, and if they can get something seemingly for nothing, they may deviate from a normal, self-supporting life and support political appeals for plundering their fellows via the state. Only when it is too late, if ever, do people realize that the plunder-masters who have enticed them into supporting the expansion of government’s size, scope, and power are, along with their chief cronies in the private sector, the only ones who truly gain. The masses of duped people find themselves caught in a trap, dependent on the state for everything from food, housing, and medical care to education of their children and security in their old age.

Like the narrowing opening through which the salmon enter the “hearts” of the traps, the ways out of people’s helplessness and dependence on the state are narrow and hard to locate. Moreover, going out as they came in flies in the face of their natural proclivity to live at others’ expense and care. As the salmon’s “mind” tells him not to turn back, so the human mind, especially when it has been bewitched by government propaganda and statist ideology, tells people not to turn back. Having lost the capacity for assuming individual responsibility, people are fearful of taking on such responsibility as their forebears did routinely.

Ultimately, people find themselves in something like the salmon trap’s pot, an enclosure in which they can be disposed of as their captors’ decide. All imaginable avenues of escape have been eliminated by design, so that people can only mill about, dreaming perhaps of salvation, but unable to overcome the barriers the state and their own thinking place in the way of their true liberation.

People would do well to acquire a keener appreciation of institutional path dependency, especially of the irreversibilities inherent in political and institutional arrangements. It is very often much easier to get into something than it is to get out of it. To retain their liberty, self-reliance, and self-respect, people might well remember the poor salmon and skirt the leads that political plunderers construct to divert them from their normal, decent ways of life. Having entered the “heart” of the state, people have little chance of escape, even if they should seek to do so.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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