Privatizing natural resources

Dear Friend:

Can you imagine a greater example of incompetence than the federal government’s stewardship of the east coast fishery, where the cod stocks have been recklessly depleted and entire communities are now on welfare, losing both their economic independence and their dignity? When the welfare runs out in several years, many of the communities will become ghost towns, emptied like the fisheries nearby.

This east coast environmental disaster has counterparts on the west coast, where, just as cod was overfished, forests are being overlogged to satisfy short-term political needs for job creation. Because these are not sustainable jobs—the logging is often at a loss—forest communities will be devastated in turn, leaving us with ravaged lands and lost jobs. Then another way of life will be destroyed, with other communities put on the dole until they disappear.

As with the cod fishery, the forests are government-owned, and that’s where the problem starts. Unlike you or me, who value and protect our property to preserve it for our own use and for our children’s, a politician’s horizon tends to be as long as the next election. If re-election involves manipulating government resources to create a feeling of prosperity—the same kind of prosperity enjoyed by individuals who live the high life on their credit cards—governments will overlog and overfish like there’s no tomorrow. Because governments have four- or five-year terms, they are not suited to the ownership of resources, which require long-term commitments, and which deserve protection from political expediency. To make matters worse, governments (when owners) have also tended to ignore environmental rules and regulations to push their exploitation plans—a clear conflict of interest. Without this conflict, governments would be free to be honest regulators that upheld laws and public values.

For those of us who value the environment, and want to protect and nurture it knowing it underpins our economic and cultural values, reason and decency demand that resources be placed with private owners who have powerful incentives to protect their value. To secure those incentives, owners must be given strong property rights to allow them to fend off those who would destroy their property.

But one very large impediment blocks this change in ownership—big business, which has been the main beneficiary of government ownership, and which opposes placing power in the hands of individual owners.

“If people in Alberta had property rights, as you suggest,” a multinational oil company executive complained to me, “we’d have to stop most of our drilling. If you let individual property owners decide when we can drill on their land, they’ll hold us up to ransom.” The president of a mining firm told me that “People have too many property rights,” in saying that people object to debris that lands on their property as a result of his company’s blasting operations. This gentleman has good reason to fear stronger property rights rules: his company would need to change the way it did business if people had enforceable property rights. Forestry executives voiced similar concerns about property rights, as have other environmentally destructive industries, which know full well that the absence of strong property rights allows them to pollute with virtual impunity.

In the next few years, Environment Probe’s main focus will be educating Canadians Lawabout the role of property rights in our society, in order to promote a truly sustainable society. To this end, we will soon be releasing a major book that I believe will be profoundly influential in the coming years in changing public opinion in our country. Elizabeth Brubaker, its author and our current Director of Policy Research, will then become Executive Director to lead this all-important issue (I will be leaving my post with Environment Probe to become Executive Director of Consumer Policy Institute, a sister organization which was recently introduced to you by Jane Jacobs, who is a Director of Environment Probe).

Please welcome Elizabeth as your new Executive Director and please reaffirm your confidence in Environment Probe’s analyses and direction by renewing your support with another generous tax-creditable donation. For my part, in my last act as Environment Probe’s Executive Director, I wish to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your faithful support of Environment Probe during my years here as Executive Director—they have been among the most rewarding years of my life—and to assure you that you and Environment Probe will be in the finest possible hands with Elizabeth Brubaker at the helm.

Sincerely,

Lawrence Solomon

Executive Director

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