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Reflections on the piste

Blogger and libertarian authoress Virginia Postrel, in her recent book, The Future and Its Enemies, made a telling point that having fun and free enterprise are increasingly being fused in the same activities.

She cited the example of sports like professional beach volleyball. Now, there are few activities which might excite the moral scorn of the miserablists of the left and right more than a group of young men and women (the latter in rather fetching garb, ahem) punching a ball to and fro over a net. Well, if the idea of volleyball as part of an enterprise culture offends the scolds in our midst, then how about skiing?

I have recently had my annual fix of shooting down ski slopes in the French resort of Val D’Isere, a magnificent resort . I enjoyed a fantastic week. There are few adrenalin-boosting activities to match it, in my view. And putting aside the obvious points about this activity, one thing struck me – skiing is a classic part of a capitalist, fun-loving, life-affirming culture.

Skiing is ‘pointless’ to those who think we should devote our energies to ‘higher’ activities, or who think that all those resources spent on ski lifts, skis, hotels and airliners should be diverted to other, worthier goals. Skiing is a vast industry these days. Unlike spectator sports such as football or cricket, skiing is 99 percent participant sport. Millions of people of all ages – mostly being relatively fit – go skiing in places all over the world every year.

Many of the people who work in ski resorts – guides, holiday reps, lift attendants, bar staff and so forth – all seem to form part of a new culture remarkably similar to the sort of laid-back surfing culture made legendary in southern California. While affecting a sort of casual demeanor, most of the people seem in deadly earnest about ensuring they serve the skiers well. A lot of the holiday staff, many of whom have taken big salary cuts to go to the mountains, seem to speak a sort of ‘leisure industry slang’, a sort of hybrid of Australian ‘matespeak’, Californian ‘coolspeak’, and in France of course, overlain with that Galoise-smoking sang froid of the expert skiier with his nonchalant posture.

Skiing is a major triumph of capitalist organisation and enterprise. And even in the French Alps, in the homeland of the 35-hour week and dreaded bureaucracy, it seems one of the most successful businesses in France. In fact, I got the impression that many staff in the French ski businesses have to work for far longer than is permitted under the nation’s job-destroying regulations.

And as a final observation, skiing is risky. Good grief, allowing folk to go down a slope without a State licence – are we mad?

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14 comments to Reflections on the piste

  • “…having fun and free enterprise…” is a new thing?
    how does that work

  • Johnathan

    Er, David Sucher, either you are being sarcastic or whatever……….actually, the point I was trying to make is that a lot of defenses of the liberal market order that I support completely ignore the “fun” element.

  • Tedd McHenry

    You didn’t mention the environmental aspect of skiiing. Here on the left coast of North America, environementalists go apoplectic whenever a new ski resort is proposed. They see skiing as a bourgeois activity that destroys the environment.

    I’m not sure how the rise in popularity of snowboarding has affected that stance.

  • Gosh, Jonathan, at the level of the individual, that seems to be the main point: capitalism is more fun. (As individuals I don’t think “allocation of resources through market mechanisms” is very persuasive.)

    Why else would we do it? You get to try stuff, take risks and get the benefits if you judge correctly.

    Honestly, I wasn’t being sarcastic; I just couldn’t fathom what Postrel found so novel.

  • Kelli

    Methinks you have overstated the far-lefty anti-fun thingy.

    Provided that:

    no lift worker makes less than, say, 12 bucks an hour (few do)

    no male skier ogles or makes rude comments about ski babes (well…)

    no one drives a gas-guzzling SUV up the mountain to the resort (perish the thought…)

    the ski equipment was not manufactured by exploited third world children (who knows?)

    then skiing is okay (although, frankly, any bit of fun that cannot simultaneously be shared by those of lesser means is a slap in the face to fair thinking folk around the world…yada yada yada) and may even represent a chance to commune with nature in a non-invasive kinda way. And exercise, as the nanny state insists, is SOOO good for you.

    We’ll call it a wash.

  • There really is ski resorts in Australia, even though that is kind of like having beaches in Britain, but I’ve never heard any wailing or gnashing of teeth from leftists because of our ski resorts.

    Maybe the local leftists haven’t heard that they are politically incorrect.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Who pays for the very substantial infrastructure investments needed to make those huge French ski resorts viable?

    I’m only asking because I want to know…

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Andrew Duffin asks who pays for the infrastructure. As far as I know, it is mostly funded by ski passes or tolls which are paid by the skiers themselves, which seems fairly market-like. Although I would not rule it out in socialist France, I do not think state subsidies play a very big role except for paying for school children to ski on their vacations. There are thousands of the little kids skiing all the time and depressingly, they are often a lot better than we grownups.

    Sorry Andrew, I guess you were hoping to bash the French!

  • RAB

    We have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world in Britain, but alas, not the weather to enjoy them fully.And, like almost every other sport on earth(that we’re completely crap at) the British invented downhill sking.Oh yes we did!

  • toolkien

    And as a final observation, skiing is risky. Good grief, allowing folk to go down a slope without a State licence – are we mad?

    I undertand they put speed limits on skiers in some parts of the US since there was an unacceptable number of accidents happening. Once Sonny Bono (of Sonny and Cher) bit the big one they put them into effect big time. State regulation of the activity is pretty much a licensing in my book.

    As for capitalism being fun, it is many times. Regarding something as ‘fun’ is simply a value judgement and putting ones resources to use in a positive manner in conjunction with their value judgements is the foundation of individualism. Though, if one is short sighted and blows all their resources on ‘fun’ now versus investing (delaying satisfaction to some other time and assuring a regular supply of ‘fun’) then that is their funeral. That of course is the battle of economic theories, when to have fun and when to invest, and whose value system rules as to what constitutes them. Folding such judgements into the State is what libertarians try and avoid.

  • Matt

    Recently in France a 7 year old was killed using one of the rolling carpets on the beginner slopes. Apparently the safety trips were disabled. Last year a skier of the French National Team was killed after colliding with another skier (over 100kmh IIRC). Expect rules in France to be getting tougher. I personally wear a helmet now.

    Oh yeah another thing that’s pissing off the ESF guys: Brits, Russians and Eastern Europeans are coming over and instructing the tourists on lower wages than the ESF instructors – and remember, competiton is a no no in France.

  • “Skiing is ‘pointless’ to those who think we should devote our energies to ‘higher’ activities”

    That doesn’t imply someone’s political leanings, just whether they have a “functional” mindset or not. Some people might look down on downhill skiing as a gaudy, party down dude! kinda thing when they prefer something like cross-country skiing because it’s better exercise, or because it’s closer to nature than being surrounded by yuppies in spandex.

    (I’m not a good skier at all, but I have done backcountry snowshoeing. I wouldn’t mind doing some skiing, but it’s a lot of money and it doesn’t have much attraction for the above reasons.)