The tragedy of the commons revisited

Private property rights may be the key to conservation.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In 1949, conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in his influential "A Sand County Almanac": "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us."

Not so, says Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington. He is one of a number of economists using economic science and empirical evidence from the past 1,000 years to demonstrate that exactly the opposite is true: We are more likely to exploit and pollute natural resources if they don't belong to anyone.

"When everybody owns something, then nobody feels particularly responsible for it," says Mr. Smith. "Each of us hopes that others will take care of our common responsibilities."

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In 1968, biology professor Garrett Hardin used the title "The Tragedy of the Commons" to describe this concept in a famous essay in the journal "Science." Professor Hardin was referring to the medieval English institution of "the commons," whereby a feudal lord would designate an area of uncultivated land for public use, such as grazing livestock.

Each herdsman on the commons, Hardin observed, has the incentive to add more animals to the herd, eventually leading to overgrazing. The costs of doing so aren't borne by individual cattle owners. In a "use it or lose it" scenario, everyone tries to utilize as much of the resource as possible. "The tragedy of the commons is the mismanagement we see so often in environmental resources whether it's the air in our urban areas, whether it's the groundwater underneath our feet ... or whether it's the fisheries in the ocean," says Smith.

The solution? Some economists observe that the establishment of defined, enforceable, and transferable property rights tends to offer incentives for good stewardship by individuals, corporations, or nonprofit organizations (like The Nature Conservancy). A year prior to Hardin's essay, economist Harold Demsetz noted an example from the early 1600s in the Labrador Peninsula of present-day Canada. Native Montagnais Indians found that beaver stocks were being depleted as a result of competition from an influx of French fur trappers.

In response, the Indians implemented property rights by allocating each family a portion of a river with a beaver lodge. Families began to conserve their resource by farming the mammal responsibly.

These economists note that the same property-rights solution must be applied to larger problems such as chronic overfishing in the oceans. This is not a totally new concept - there were territorial fishing rights in England in 1200, says Michael De Alessi at the Center for Private Conservation in Washington. "The American West was once looked at just like the oceans - this vast expanse of inexhaustible resources - and they quickly were exhausted."

Mr. De Alessi observes that just as the invention of barbed wire solved the problem of homesteading the ranges, so technology may hold the key again. For example, New Zealand has been leading the way toward sustainable fisheries by using an updated form of property rights. It enforces fishing rights by installing "black boxes" aboard fishing vessels. These devices transmit details of a boat's whereabouts to satellites and record a boat's activities.

The source of modern environmental problems such as dwindling fisheries, according to Smith, is government mismanagement of resources.

Legislation has often undermined property rights once protected by common law in order to allow land or water to be exploited or polluted within limits, says Terry Anderson, co-author of "Free Market Environmentalism."

Moreover, governmental "ownership" of areas like fishing grounds, national parks, and forests may be little more than the tragedy of the commons revisited. Smith says government resource managers are not only susceptible to political pressures and special interest groups, but also do not own a stake in what they manage.

"One of the problems is setting priorities," Smith says, using the example of government land. "How do you know whether you should be growing sheep or whether you should be growing cows? Whether you should be using it for growing animals at all or whether you should be using it for a lawn tennis association?"

Individuals' environmental values may not be reflected in policy, but property rights are far more democratic, Smith says. "Private property gives many more voices a chance," he says. "You won't agree with all of them, of course. But one or more of them are likely to represent the values you hold."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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