Private Property and the Tragedy of the Commons

Brought to you by the Missoulian, the paper of record for Missoula, Mont. Appears that a former pulp mill just outside town is a prime candidate for listing as a Superfund Site. And if it’s not a prime candidate for Superfund, it is a prime candidate for creating 3-eyed fish. From the “life imitates the Simpsons” department:

Potentially dangerous levels of dioxins, heavy metals and other hazardous chemicals turned up in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency review of the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. pulp mill in Frenchtown.

Nice, huh? I love the smell of dioxins in the morning. Here though is the important part that I want to discuss with you:

The first pulp mill started operating south of Frenchtown in 1957. By the time it closed in 2010, it had expanded to a 100-acre industrial complex bordering 900 acres of settling, sludge and wastewater ponds in the Clark Fork’s floodplain. At its peak in 1993, the mill processed about 1,900 tons of pulp a day into linerboard for cardboard boxes.

Final owner Smurfit-Stone went bankrupt in 2009. The company recovered in 2010, but closed the Frenchtown mill as part of a nationwide restructuring. MLR Investments bought the mill, and then sold it to Green Investment Group Inc. in May 2011.

What I want you to pay attention to, besides the awesome size of this pulp plant, is that this was a private operation, on private land, run by a private corporation. More after this caveat:

I appreciate private property, and I like the free enterprise system. The two together – private property and private enterprise – have done more to lift humanity out of despair and poverty and misery than all the combined efforts of the world’s governments ever. There is no system that is more fair, more productive, more ennobling and enabling than private property and private enterprise. But…

Awhile back I started an argument with Mr. Jonathan Alder, which you can read here. Mr. Alder is a hugely reasonable and thoughtful proponent of privatizing public resources in order to conserve them. It is a compelling argument, made by many, increasing in attractiveness (particularly given the U.S. budget deficit), and difficult to argue against.

Except by me. You see, this line of reasoning, that privatization could/would avert the Tragedy of the Commons, is a pet peeve of mine. Hardin was wrong to suggest it, and others are wrong to recommend it as a policy solution. And here in little Missoula, Mont. we find a perfect example.

That Smurfit-Stone property is decimated. It’s done. All the buildings are dead. If we’re lucky, the U.S. government will step in and spend hundreds of millions of your tax dollars to clean it up, tear it all down, and build an open space park on top of it. As I argued earlier in that Alder piece I link to above, there is no indication, none whatsoever, that those who hold private interests in property are able to plan for the long term any better, with any more foresight, than can the government. The Tragedy of the Commons is not averted simply by transferring ownership. Ownership is not the issue. True, Mr. Alder as well as others making his argument say that the incentives for long-term conservation are more strongly prevalent under a private property rights regime than under common ownership. My rebuttal is that the facts, the evidence from the world, do not weigh kindly upon this claim.

Now, to be fair, the Smurfit-Stone factory isn’t the perfect example, but it is very, very close. This is a factory, on land, that could have been protected, maintained, managed, and sold in the future for economic gain, as Mr. Alder and others argue would happen if private companies/individuals owned, say, forests, or range lands, or parks. But there was no long-term planning with this site, and no long-term gains. Because in business, you take short-term gains when you’re patient, and immediate gains when you’re like most of us. You don’t conserve for the long-term. There is no long-term on a balance sheet.

I keep promising to develop this line of reasoning more thoroughly. Eventually I will write an essay on this subject and try to have it published. But for now, on a Friday evening, after two glasses of Cabernet, you’ll have to settle for what I am able to offer, and I love you all for that.

Maine’s Wild Brook Trout Face the Tragedy of the Commons, continued

The potential decline of Maine’s native brook trout fisheries due to the illegal introduction of competing game fish – a story I highlighted yesterday –is a classic Commons problem. Here we have a common resource (brook trout) held in trust by the state (Maine) as a public good (for the people) that is at risk of degradation. How did we arrive at this point?

Garrett Hardin, whose work “Tragedy of the Commons” we have previously explored, would tell us that this outcome was inevitable: degradation and over-exploitation of Common resources is inevitable because individuals, acting in their own self-interest, will ultimately make the decision that their short-term gain outweighs the long-term interests of others.  

The tragedy undergoing Maine’s brook trout waters is interesting because the state regulates the fisheries (I assume here) to be sustainable, for the long-term benefit of the public. It’s not as if this were a free-for-all. And as stated in yesterday’s post, those who are risking the Common resources by introducing non-native fish are doing so illegally. The problem remains however that the state regulations intended to protect the fishery still leaves in place the incentive to exploit the  resource – in this case by introducing a harmful non-native fish – simply because it is in the individual’s interest to do so. Enforcement of regulations in such cases, it should go without saying, is incredibly difficult, because agents of the state can’t be everywhere at once.

So we see clearly that, in an instance such as the one highlighted here, even strict government management of Common resources is not a perfect curative for averting the Tragedy of the Commons. What Hardin and many others would recommend at this point is implementation or recognition of private property rights to the fishery. The private property argument has the merit that it resolves the self-serving interest of the individual seeking to introduce the non-native fish: what motivation would one have to introduce the fish if one could not fish in the private waters anyway. We assume in this line of reasoning that the private property is more closely regulated (watched over), and the regulation more strictly enforced, than occurs on public waterways.

But privatization also has a downside. Privatizing the Commons is a legitimate and valid response to the Tragedy of the Commons, but only if one believes the benefit of long-term preservation of the resource outweighs the costs to society from the loss of Common ownership of the resource, along with all that the loss entails. (And even here I maintain my thesis that private property has not shown itself to be a better system for maintaining resources intact over the long term compared to government control).

So what is the solution? We seem to be stuck in this either/or paradigm of government management vs. privatization. I realize there is some work out there by Elinor Ostrom and others that identifies a third way. One of my desires with our exploration of the Commons and public policy is to develop a framework in which the two outcomes – long-term maintenance of the resource and long-term open access – persist. The question remains though what to do about Maine’s brook trout in the meantime?

Maine’s Wild Brook Trout Face the Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons is playing out in Maine’s fabled brook trout waters. Today’s Kennebec Journal has the details (Hat Tip Moldy Chum):

More and more, big, voracious predator fish such as pike and bass have been introduced illegally in forested, cold mountain streams that flow through idyllic trout habitat. And state agencies find it nearly impossible to stop it.

If the rate of those illegal introductions continues, the number of wild brook trout waters in Maine will decline, biologists say. And if nothing is done, Maine one day could lose its distinction as a trout-fishing destination.

This illegal introduction of fish species is occurring throughout the United States: someone, usually an angler to be fair, one day decides to tote a bucket or pale or plastic bag full of his or her favorite game fish and deposit said fish into a favored fishing locale. These so-called “bucket biologists” do this because they prefer to angle for one certain species of fish over the species that may already be present in the pond or lake or stream. The act, though illegal, is happening with some frequency. Of course, fish and game agencies have a long history of introducing non-native fish into waters. The small mouth bass is a prime example. Neither the rainbow nor brown trout are native fish species, but are present in trout waters throughout the United States.

In many places, the introduction of a fish species is not a big deal because most of the water bodies being stocked are already disturbed systems. The addition of game fish is usually intentional, and when done by a bucket biologist, is generally harmless. Generally, but not always, because native fisheries still exist in the United States, and when someone introduces a non-native fish to these systems, the outcome is usually devastating for the native species and, indeed, can wreak havoc on the entire local ecosystem. This is the issue in Maine, where illegally introduced non-native species like largemouth bass and voracious northern pike may end up decimating the brook trout population.

But let me turn your attention to a part of this story that caught my eye. Read the way a Maine fisheries biologist describes the problem in this passage:

Since the glaciers retreated, our coldwater fisheries have had little competition from warm-water fish,” said Francis Brautigam, the regional biologist in Gray, “but the unique places are at risk now. The way it’s going, we’re going to end up with a situation where a lot of fishing opportunities around Maine are not that unique.

The entire story in the Kennebec Journal describes the problem in terms of amenity resources, such as (paraphrasing here): we’ll end up with fishing opportunities that are not unique; Maine could lose its distinction as a trout-fishing destination; brook trout are the number one fish species sought by anglers visiting Maine; we will become Connecticut – we will end up with a homogenous landscape.

Look, I’m a student of outdoor recreation theory; I understand the study and value of amenity resources and place-based management. (I also understand that this is a news article and may not fully present the concerns of the Maine fisheries scientists and policy wonks studying the brook trout issue.) There’s legitimacy to the argument that brook trout are important symbols of the Maine landscape and need to be protected for this reason. Brook trout have value to people because of tourism, because of economics, because of a way of life and an impression of what the Maine woods and wild waters should be like.

But I also know that these are value judgments, and like this Reason piece argues, everyone values things differently, as is evident by some who value northern pike over native brook trout. If all we have to offer is value judgments; well, everyone is entitled to his or her view of right and wrong.

But what the Reason article fails to analyze, and what this Kennebec Journal story fails to assess, is the ecological costs of tinkering with this ecosystem. Look, brook trout evolved within certain systems for specific biological and ecological reasons. These systems in term developed over millenia, and every part of that system plays a critical role or it would not exist:

If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering

That’s a quote by Aldo Leopold, and it couldn’t be more apt. We love the biota – the brook trout – but we do not truly understand it. Are we at risk of discarding a useless part that may bring down the entirety of the whole? If we are to make value judgments, then let us include these critical components of the argument, issues of biodiversity and ecosystem integrity, issues of natural rights and inter-generational obligations. Clearly, there is more at stake than just our desire – my desire – to fish for native brook trout in Maine’s world class waters.

to be continued

On Writing This Blog

Thanks to those of you who tolerate my writing. I wanted to start a blog on environmental policy – this blog – for so long, but I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t write because I wanted every word to be perfect, every sentence to be properly constructed, every argument to be heavily footnoted and irrefutable. I was paralyzed by the desire to make the perfect argument every time.

Those are lost years when I could have been blogging, putting my voice and perspective and personality out there for others to read and enjoy or critique as they saw fit. My writing today is loose and free-form in nature. I often write “off the cuff” as it were, writing what comes to mind, without a lot of editing and pouring over details. I don’t include citations and footnotes unless absolutely necessary: this isn’t meant to be a scientific journal blog. I eventually will offer some longer essay-style arguments that will be footnoted and tightly written. But in the meantime my intent is to get my voice out there, to keep the arguments flowing, and hopefully, eventually, to generate a very organic, original discussion about environmental and public land policy in this country.

So, in light of my last blog post about mountaintop coal mining – a blog post that contained a lot of arguments not backed by citations, and some writing that I deem to be emotion-based – I want you to know that I mean no disservice to you. I have no intent to slight you by not writing a more stringent, academically and scientifically rooted post. To a large extent I am asking you to trust me, to trust my character and what I present as my qualifications in the about me section on the blog. And I want to thank you for allowing me to do this: it means a tremendous amount to me to have this liberty, to be able to blog.

The Interstellar Commons!

In this Slate article, “Can You Own an Asteroid,” Paul Marks explores the Commons in outer space! Not directly, of course. But in his story about Seattle-based Planetary Resources’ plans to mine an asteroid, Marks hits on all the aspects of exploitation of a Commons. “Should asteroids rich in precious metals be regarded, in legal terms, like the fish in the sea?” Marks asks. It’s a good question, and one that deserves further development, along with the United Nations’ treaties and agreements that govern these space-exploration issues. (By the way, how promising were the 1960’s that the UN’s Outer Space Treaty was agreed to in 1967? Think we’ve lost some mojo?).

My initial reaction is this: I would not grant rights to the asteroid, but I definitely would grant property rights to the company that manages to extract minerals and return them to Earth. We should celebrate the company that develops the technologies, funds the innovation, and takes the risks involved in such a truly impressive example of the progressive nature of capitalism. The minerals returned to Earth will be used for the good of society; it’s not like these minerals are something to be hoarded. Should, or rather, as asteroid mining and similar space resource exploitation efforts come on line, then shall we need to develop the appropriate property regimes to govern this activity. Look, the first explorers, trappers, and settlers barely impacted the ecology of the American west. It wasn’t until after these hardy few paved the way for the countless others who followed that the destruction of the Commons began. We have learned from our mistakes – this does not mean that we will respond accordingly! – but I am optimistic that we will demonstrate the wisdom to preserve those aspects of space that need to be preserved, while wisely using where possible those resources that may prove a bounty for all Mankind.

Free the Commons! Political Philosophy

Some of you may read my previous post, and think “So what. Democracy is messy. Don’t take away the rights of states or individuals just because you don’t like the divisiveness. Let the sides compete in the political arena, and accept the outcomes.” I agree with you completely.

My goal at Free the Commons! is to offer a new perspective and new solutions to the debates over management of our public lands and the environment, our collective commons. I have worked in politics, and have faith in our democratic institutions and the intelligence of the voters. My opinion though is that we have had the debates on environmental policy. We’ve been through the timber wars, the Sagebrush Rebellion, the Wilderness Act and Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. Even the new environmental debates, such as global warming, contain all the elements of earlier debates. We’ve been down this road already.

Of course, further political debate may help us clarify or improve existing statutes and regulations, and bring new participants to the debate. Of that I have no doubt. The first line of argument I offer on this blog is that to continue down this path of endless debate is costly. Not only in political capital, in financial capital, and in human capital, but costly in terms of opportunities not pursued.

Look, opportunity costs – the costs of pursuing one path at the expense of another – are costly to society in numerous ways. In politics and public policy, the cost is the political, financial, and human capital that is being expended on environmental debates to which I argue we possess the answers (which is my second line of debate). The paths not pursued are likely far more significant to society’s well-being and long-term survival than entertaining perpetual debate over environmental concerns: I offer space exploration and otherworld colonization as an example of a type of debate that should demand our immediate attention.  

“We can have all of these debates,” I hear some say. But that is not so. Debates over public policy can demand only so much attention, only so much time and money and resources. My goal, again, is to convince you that we have available to us easy policy and political solutions to our environmental problems. I believe that we can end the debate over disposition and protection of the commons. If we can accept some of the solutions I propose, we can leave the environmental debate behind, because the environment will be protected, and move forward with other intellectual and democratic pursuits.  



An Analysis of Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

I started Free the Commons! to explore new paradigms for the management of our public lands and environment. My goal is to engage like-minded conservationists in a discussion about the need to rethink our management of the commons.

The event that led me to begin this blog was a rereading of Garrett Hardin’s work “The Tragedy of the Commons.” I recall being shocked upon reading Harden’s essay after so many years. I, along with everyone who cites it, would describe the essay as a critique of environmental policy, using the example of grazers on commonly held pasture as an example. In reality, Hardin’s essay is far from a critique of grazing policy, and frankly has little to do with pollution or land management.

Foremost, Harden’s essay is a critique of overpopulation and an explicit call to abandon the “commons in breeding.” The oft-cited herdsman-open pasture analogy is just that, an analogy. But rather than being an analogy for the dangers of treating the environment as a commons, it is an analogy about the dangers in allowing individual choice in childbearing. For you see, under Hardin’s critique, it is we who are the herdsman, whom he labels the ‘breeders’, and our progeny are the cattle overgrazing the open pastures, which stands in for the Earth.

Harden describes the population problem as a moral (my term) problem rather than as a technical problem. The distinction is that technical problems have solutions based in the natural sciences. Moral problems, on the contrary, require a change in human values or ideas of morality.

Before continuing I offer a contemporary example of a technical as opposed to a moral problem, as I understand Hardin to be using the terms, to help us understand Hardin’s argument. We know that energy generated from coal creates negative externalities in the form of pollution. Let us assume in our simple example that the range of available technical solutions includes improving the capacity of renewables (solar, wind, etc.) to meet our energy requirements, or finding cleaner ways to burn coal. A moral solution, on the other hand, can be thought of as current efforts to convince individuals, by appealing to their reason and conscience, to engage in voluntary energy conservation, thereby reducing pollution levels.

Hardin describes overpopulation as a moral problem because, he argues, there are no technical solutions to the population problem. In our example, let us assume that we have reached the limits of technology, and can neither improve coal fired energy efficiency, nor increase the capacity for renewables to meet our energy demands. Having in our simple example expired the universe of possible technical solutions, we are left to pursue moral solutions to combat pollution. We must change human behavior so that everyone uses less energy, thereby saving the environment. Hardin’s thesis is that overpopulation is a problem with no technical solutions, requiring a change in behavior.

This is where I wish to jump off the sensitive topic of Hardin’s thesis – population control – and instead critique the remainder of Hardin’s argument as it is often applied, as a critique of environmental policy.

Hardin cites Adam Smith’s work, The Wealth of Nations, as establishing the dominant – and to Hardin faulty – theory in public policy that we are rational beings who make individual decisions that collectively lead to the best outcomes for society. It is at this point Hardin employs the pasture analogy: in demonstrating how the rational action of each individual herdsman eventually destroys the pasture for all, Hardin calls for us” to reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible.”

Hardin explores the available options as he understands them, which include privatization of the commons, and allocation of the commons based on some method of distribution. He rejects both, not only as they apply to population control but also as a means of addressing pollution. I will note that some writers have latched on to Hardin’s comments regarding private property, citing a few sentences he offers about how private property averted a commons tragedy in food production (by enclosing farm land), and his statement that “our particular concept of private property” favors pollution, in which to read the space to offer new concepts of private property that may result in a technical solution to the pollution problem. I tend to disagree with those who read into Hardin the idea that property rights may address pollution, but I’ll explore this in a later post.

Hardin next rejects ‘appeals to conscience’ as a means of protecting the commons. He states that propaganda will not work; propaganda is only an excuse for us to avoid the hard decisions that are required. He writes that we must abandon the temptation to appeal to independent actions with slogans like ‘responsible parenthood.’

Individual responsibility, Hardin argues, can only be realized through new social arrangements that produce responsibility through coercion. He describes such social arrangements as “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon by the majority of people affected.” He notes that education will be necessary to break the logic of the commons and to avoid cries of the loss of freedom that would accompany any closure of the commons. He forthrightly notes that any enclosure would necessarily infringe on personal liberty, but assuages his guilt (or the guilt of his readers) by noting that “freedom is the recognition of necessity.”

Interestingly, the solution Hardin offers is found midway through his essay, when he writes “We must find ways to legitimate the needed authority of both custodians and the corrective feedbacks.” What Hardin appears to be proposing as a solution is the increased reliance on expert bureaucrats, held accountable only by what he calls corrective feedbacks, defined as the means to keep them honest. It is these bureaucrats who are to “coerce” the population into complying with the new social arrangement.

One may gather an idea of how these expert bureaucrats may govern by bringing together various passages in Hardin’s essay. For instance, Hardin notes that alternatives to the commons problem need not be perfectly just to be preferable. He bemoans our adoption of Adam Smith’s theory of the ‘invisible hand’ which, leading us to believe that individual actions promote the public interest, continues to interfere with “positive action based on rational analysis.” Elsewhere he states that not everyone should have equal rights to the commons. At this point I wonder about his “mutually agreed upon” statement regarding coercion.

I do not wish to paint Hardin in an unnecessarily nefarious light. Clearly, he is concerned about overpopulation and the effects on society and the environment. He writes of realizing greater freedoms by relinquishing our “freedom to breed.”

However, it is the unanswered questions that cause concern: Who are our masters? How are they to be held accountable? And from where do they derive their authority? If, as Hardin argues, we continue individually to act contrary to the interests of society, then who shall act for us?

In conclusion, I read Hardin to argue for governance by expert. In essence, he is a Malthusian technocrat. Technical solutions are not available. Individuals are not capable of making independent decisions which are in the long-term interests of society. Appeals to personal responsibility will fail. Coercion, as applied by rational experts and resulting in the loss of individual liberty, remains the only means of averting ruin and the Tragedy of the Commons.