Property Rights Won’t Save the Commons

Jonathan Alder writing in The Atlantic makes his case for property rights as a means of averting the Tragedy of the Commons. Jonathan Alder is a smart guy, and he often makes arguments I find compelling and agreeable. But here he makes an argument – made by many others before him – that is at the heart of why I started Free the Commons.

Here’s the passage Jonathan offers that I want to explore:

As Hardin recognized, where property rights are well-defined and secure, the tragedy of the commons is less likely for each owner has ample incentive to act as a steward, caring for the underlying resource and preventing its overuse, both for themselves, and others who may value the underlying resource. In this way, the institution of property rights “deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the earth.”

Like I said, Jonathan is not the first to make the argument for property rights as a solution to environmental problems. But the argument is contradicted by logic and the available evidence: I need only walk down my pleasant street in my very nice neighborhood and I will see unkempt lawns, broken windows, peeling paint, and generally some poorly maintained privately owned homes to understand the logic of the ‘environmental property rights’ argument is undercut by the available evidence.

The theory that a privately owned pasture will receive better care at the owner’s hands than would a commonly owned pasture at the hands of the public is intuitively appealing. It’s also flawed. There is no more incentive for an owner of private property to care for his holdings than there is for a community to care for commonly held property. This is because the economic incentive is to maximize gains from the property right now. For instance, the market for beef is not guaranteed from year to year. If you are in a good market for beef, you will turn out all the beef cattle you can possibly manage. Next year is not on your mind at the moment. Immediate and short-term gains are real. Long-term gains are abstract and may never be realized because markets are not stable.

I’ll go a step further with the beef analogy. The private property argument fails to consider all the potential uses for a property. A pasture that is used for beef cattle today may be a new housing development tomorrow. What incentive does the owner have to maintain the pasture in good condition when there are competing uses for the same property that do not depend on that property’s ability to produce grass and fatten cattle?

Look, the theory that property rights will protect the environment rests on the notion that we are long-term planners capable of taking a long-term view. This simply is not the case, as should be evidenced by the number of Americans who do not adequately save and invest for their own retirements. Individuals are far more likely to spend their earnings now than they are to save. The same situation applies to private property: owners make use of their property today; the notion that owners look ahead 30 years to the disposition of that property is just not supported by the evidence. Again, markets are not stable: you take advantage of market openings when they present themselves. Further, often there is more than one market and therefore competing uses for your property that may depend on factors unrelated to its ‘enviornmental’ value.

I will write more on this topic very soon, and offer additional rational for why property rights are not the solution for environmental problems like air pollution and overfishing. For now I want to close by stating as strongly and clearly as I can that I support private property rights. I am not making an anti-private property rights argument by any stretch of the imagination. I am making an argument against private property rights as a solution to environmental problems. If you have been reading this blog then you already know I view the regulatory state as a massive failure. The question I wish to explore on Free the Commons is how we protect our environmental Commons given the failings of the two leading management philosophies: private property rights and government regulation. More to come…

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