September 14, 1995
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LAST WEEK, this paper ran a full page commentary by Elizabeth Brubaker, executive director of a group called Environment Probe in Toronto. Like its parent Energy Probe, Environment Probe advocates market-based solutions, including private property rights, to critical problems facing our society. Sometimes they’re right, like in their analysis of nuclear power, which they oppose. On all counts, if the private sector were left to build nuclear plants, we wouldn’t have any.
As it is dangerous, however, to ascribe a single prescription for all illnesses, predictably they are sometimes wrong. Such is the case with Ms. Brubaker’s claim that giving individual fishing enterprises exclusive rights to a proportion of common fish stocks will save the commercial fisheries.
Environment Probe is part of a strong lobby for fish to be parcelled out to private interests through individual transferable quotas (ITQs), giving them an exclusive right to catch or sell their quota. The commercial lobby for ITQs is understandable; there is much to gain economically for the few who get adequate quotas. However, those who advocate privatizing public resources for conservation reasons are seriously misguided. Since one column won’t do this concept justice, I’ll take the next few weeks to prove my assertion of their error.
The modern (not the original) theory behind turning public resources over to private ownership is that ownership generates stewardship. Its adherents assume if you own property, in this case fish, you won’t squander your asset because you derive economic or some other benefit from it. Such privatization is meant to combat the widely mouthed yet little understood theory of “the tragedy of the commons,” popularized by the 1968 essay of the same name by Garrett Hardin. Mr. Hardin is interpreted as saying that everybody abuses public property, “the commons,” in their effort to get as much of it as they can before the next guy does, and that putting it in private hands is the answer to its complete ruination at the hands of greedy people. This is what happened to Atlantic fish stocks, according to proponents of privatization as they invoke the tiresome, misleading, yet ever-present refrain, “there are too many fishermen chasing too few fish.”
Like most simplistic explanations of complex problems, the “tragedy of the commons” theory is rife with false assumptions and misperceptions. I’m convinced that the vast majority of people who use it to justify privatizing resources have never read Mr. Hardin’s essay. If they had they would know that Mr. Hardin’s primary thesis “was that we must curb global population growth to avoid eating ourselves out of house and home, in a world where, except in China, there are no prohibitions, natural or otherwise, on human reproduction.
In attempting to argue for such prohibitions, he uses an unproven analogy; proposed by earlier philosophers that public access to the feudal village commons for pasturing livestock would , eventually destroy the commons because everyone will attempt to maximize their personal benefit without regard to the cumulative effect of this behaviour. Mr. Hardin makes two errors here. First, he casually suggests without proof that society developed a private property regime to address this problem, when in truth, this was not the motivation. Second, he fails utterly to prove that people take better care of their own property than they do commonly held property.
What Mr. Hardin really describes, seemingly unwittingly, is not the merits of private property over common property, but the danger of unfettered individual or corporate freedom in a world which is increasingly crowded and where resources are increasingly scarce. This freedom is just as potentially dangerous in the exercise of private property rights as it is in accessing public resources. Consider the widespread degradation of agricultural and forest land by private owners, individual or corporate. Individual landowners engage in a wide range of management practices. Some protect their land; today, the majority abuse it.
Each of these behaviours is very differently motivated, depending on the person’s economic needs and values. On land owned by pulp and paper companies or on corporate farms, land stewardship is virtually absent. Even tree plantations are used to justify overcutting today by promising more trees in the future. The corporate bottom line is not conservation or the availability of the resource for future use. It is to maximize profits over whatever business cycle the corporation establishes. Clearly, stewardship is not inherent in private ownership.
Instead of privatization to protect natural resources, Garett Hardin makes a much more convincing argument for curbing individual or corporate self-interest through “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon by the majority of people affected.” This is indeed the foundation of the body of law which governs us. As a society, we agree to be mutually coerced into doing the wrong thing. The goal is to discourage behaviour which is destructive to the common good or common resources.
Contrary to the notion that common resources such as fish are abused because they have no owner, in fact they are owned by us all, We have a collective obligation to ensure that common resources are not depleted by private exploitation and that benefits from private use accrue to the broad community, not to a select elite. The destruction of common resources by their users is not inevitable. It is only so when private use is not (or is ineffectively) controlled by the communal owners.
The real tragedy of the commons is the failure of government, on our behalf, to protect common resources. The answer is not to turn over our collective birthright to private interests (if you can’t beat them, join them), but to devise better ways to protect public resources from private abuse.
Next week, I’ll look at the European origins of privatizing the commons. It was not for conservation purposes but for maximizing economic returns to its new owners. This remains the primary motivation today.