Governments are ill-suited to protect our resources

Elizabeth Brubaker
Telegraph Journal
November 1, 1995

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I should feel honoured that my article on the environmental benefits of private and communal resource ownership inspired not just one but four columns from a prominent environmentalist. Unfortunately, Janice Harvey’s retorts, riddled with fallacies, do no honour to the environmental cause.
The theory that ownership generates stewardship, inaccurately described by Ms. Harvey as “modern”, predates the modern era by more than two millennia. In the 4th century BC, Aristotle wrote, “What is common to many is taken least care of, for all men regard more what is their own than what others share with them in.”
Experience has confirmed Aristotle’s wisdom time and again. Forestry practices over the ages illustrate the environmental benefits of resource ownership. Government-held forests have suffered far greater indignities than have privately owned forests or those owned and managed communally.
And much of the destruction that has occurred on private land can be traced directly to government incentives. Ms. Harvey’s fallacious reference to widespread degradation of forest land by private owners and her unsubstantiated claim that the majority of landowners abuse their land betray a misunderstanding of both history and current affairs.
Ms. Harvey inadvertently illustrates the trouble that ensues when rights to resources are either absent or overridden by governments. In describing the enclosure movement’s infringement on peasants’ rights and the seizure of their land, she describes problems that arose from an absence of clearly defined property rights.
Today’s rainforest destruction, also cited by Ms. Harvey, likewise exemplifies the environmental disruption that can occur when governments fail to recognize or respect property rights. The conversion of rainforests into ranch land owes much to government’s refusal to recognize the property rights of indigenous peoples.
Disregarding customary ownership and resource use regimes, governments have built access roads through and granted title to indigenous lands. The problem has been one of expropriation and redistribution rather than privatization.
Ms. Harvey also misunderstands the role of property rights in the fisheries. Her comments on Individual Transferable Quotas (fishing rights that can be sold by their holders) do not, as she claims, illustrate gaps between theory and practice; instead, they indicate gaps in her understanding of which fisheries problems are attributable to ITQs and which must be attributed to government mismanagement.
To blame excessive investment in boats and gear on ITQs rather than on government subsidies, or to blame unsupportable catch limits on ITQ holders rather than on the government that set the limits defies logic.
Also incorrect is Ms. Harvey’s assumption that high-grading (keeping only the best fish) need characterize a rights system. A system in which fishermen hold exclusive long-term rights to a percentage of a catch will reduce unsustainable behaviour that would come back to haunt the fishermen themselves. Any such residual behaviour calls for fine-tuning the system and implementing tough enforcement mechanisms, rather than abolishing a system that shows much promise.
Ms. Harvey is concerned that ITQs will end up in the hands of a powerful few. But nothing in a property rights system inherently discriminates against the small-scale fisherman. Rights may be allocated in any number of ways. They may be assigned to individuals, businesses or communities; they may be distributed equally among all fishermen, or, alternatively, in proportion to historical catches or capital investment. Initial holders may indeed choose to sell their rights. But if a fisherman would rather realize a capital gain than stay in the fishing business, who is Janice Harvey to stop him?
Ms. Harvey’s confusion over my recommending either private or communal ownership of resources reflects a world view that comprises just two kinds of ownership – common and private. In fact, there are many different property rights regimes. Resources may be unowned, centrally owned or managed (by a distant government), communally owned or managed (by a local government or a non-government body), or privately owned.
The regimes that work best are those with accountability mechanisms that internalize benefits and costs; resource users must have incentives to conserve, and must not benefit at the expense of others’ rights. Privately owned resources often meet these criteria. To the extent that communally owned resources also meet the criteria, they may be sustainably managed. In contrast, unowned resources or those owned or managed by distant governments – categories encompassing most of today’s dwindling fish stocks -rarely meet the criteria and are, accordingly, unsustainable.
According to Ms. Harvey, “The real tragedy of the commons is the failure of government, on our behalf, to protect common resources.”
I agree wholeheartedly. But I don’t agree that more government is the solution.
Governments, driven by short-term issues that affect their prospects for re-election, are inherently ill-suited to protect our resources. Anyone who doubts this has only to look at fisheries around the globe: Most fisheries are now owned and managed by distant governments, and most are in big trouble. To hope against hope – and against all experience – that governments will change is to ensure continued destruction of our precious resources.
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