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Nice Post by David Henderson on "Avatar", property, corporatism & right of natives to live as they please

January 12th, 2010 No comments

David R. Henderson has a nice post up at Antiwar.com, titled “In Defense of Avatar”, in which he takes issue with reviews of Avatar by Reihan Salam and Edward Hudgins. (My earlier comments on Stephan Kinsella`s review of Avatar are here.)

I would just note that Henderson has presumed that the Avatar natives – non-humans – have “rights” that we are obliged to respect.. I think that history tells us that, even for humans in other civilizations, “property rights” are respected only when it suits the purposes of both sides (viz., can be protected by the side claiming them, as I`ve noted on several occasions, most recently here).

A few excerpts:

I don’t think Avatar is an attack on capitalism. One could leave
the movie and have no idea, based on just the movie, about James Cameron’s
view of capitalism. And while it did have some clichés (most movies
do), I didn’t find it loaded. So what is Avatar? In fact, Avatar
is a powerful antiwar movie – and a defense of property rights. For that reason,
I found it easy to identify with those whose way of life was being destroyed
by military might. …

“But here’s the crucial question, a question that neither Salam nor Hudgins
addresses: Do savages, noble or otherwise, have rights?

If given a choice between high-tech, with all its creature comforts, and the
jungle life of Tarzan, I, like Salam and Hudgins, will take high-tech every
time. But that’s not what the movie’s about. It’s about people from a high-tech
civilization using technology to make war on people from a more primitive society
so that they can steal their stuff. That’s a very different choice. I would
choose not to kill them and take their property. What would Salam or Hudgins
choose? They don’t make their answers clear, although they show zero sympathy
for the victims of the attack. …

To the extent that it makes any statement about capitalism, Avatar
is a defense of capitalism. Capitalism is based on property rights and
voluntary exchange. The Na’vi had property rights in the crucial tree and various
other properties surrounding it. Did they own it as individuals or as community
tribal property? We can’t be sure, but probably the latter. They had refused
to sell the property to the outsiders. There was nothing the outsiders could
give them that would make it worth their while. What should we, if we are good
capitalists, conclude? That, just as in the Kelo case, the people currently
sitting on the land value it more than the outsiders. The land is already in
its highest-valued use. Hudgins and Salam could argue that that’s implausible.
Surely there would be some finite price that the Na’vi would take in return
for the Unobtainium. Maybe, maybe not. But once the Na’vi have made it clear
that they’re unwilling to exchange it, that should be the end of things, shouldn’t
it?…

Hudgins argues that James Cameron is claiming, “That’s capitalism for
you.” As noted earlier, it’s not clear that Cameron is so arguing. But
if that’s what Cameron believes, shouldn’t Hudgins’s response be, “No,
that’s corporatism for you.” …

Read through everything Hudgins has written on Kelo
and you won’t find a wisp of discussion about how low-tech or high-tech, savage
or civilized, Mrs. Dery is. And that’s because it doesn’t matter. People
in high-tech societies have rights. So do savages. It would be nice if Hudgins
showed even one tenth of the concern for the “savages” over whom
the “non-savages” of the U.S. military and CIA roll as he shows for
an old woman who lives (or used to live) in a house. …

 

Avatar is an eloquent defense of the right of people in other civilizations
to live as they please.

Thoughts of an envirofacist avatar on "Avatar"; or Resources, Property Rights, Corporations & Government-Enabled Theft

December 22nd, 2009 1 comment

My pal Stephan Kinsella has a remarkably enviro-friendly post (“Avatar Is Great and Libertarian”) up regarding the new movie “Avatar”; his remarks and others on the thread prompted me to leave a few comments, which I copy below (in furtherance of my nefarious and/or insanely misguided agenda .

Many thanks to Stephan for aiding and abetting this. Ive added a bit of emphasis, fixed a typo or two, and a few additional comments, in brackets.

Published: December 22, 2009 2:38 PM

TokyoTom

Stephan, I welcome you to the dark, enviro-facist side!

– “you have to fight for and use might to protect your rights”

I see you are starting to buy into my real-world view of property rights, that “principles” and force are just two different ways we seek to protect what we consider ours, with the first being most efficacious within a community [and recourse to the later perhaps being necessary]. As I noted on a previous thread of yours,

“The deep roots of “property” are not in principle but in simple competition, physical defense of assets valuable enough to make the effort worthwhile, and in the grudging recognition by others – more willingly offered by those who share bonds of community – that yielding to others’ claims may be more productive than challenging them. This is as true for rest of creation as it is for man. While we have developed property to a very sophisticated degree, at its core property remains very much about the Darwinian struggle to survive and prosper, violence, theft and calculations as to when challenging control over an asset is not worth the effort.”

https://tokyotom.freecapitalists.org/2009/12/21/quot-property-quot-weird-thoughts-evolution-society-quot-property-rights-quot-quot-intellectual-property-quot-principles-structure-justify/

Sounds like this struggle over resources is at the core of Avatar, along with a boatload of Western guilt over our historical theft of land and assets from indigenous peoples, whom of course have also been involved for eons in bloody battles for resources with other tribes.

Far from being simply a dead relic of the past, however, the often violent struggle to take resources from indigenous peoples continues in many places, though out of sight from most of us (not simply those who are trying hard not to see) – oil & gas, minerals, timber, ranching, soybeans, oil palms, World Bank-funded dams and roads, fisheries – you name it, a violent conflict that the natives are losing to kleptocratic governments & elites can be found.

Western corporations are often in the thick of such conflicts, but even where not, modern technology (and growing consumer markets) provide the key tools and incentives for such conflicts, in which natives may be more or less hapless. Local governments typically either “nationalize” the resource or turn a blind eye, with the result that resource exploitation frequently takes on the appearance of a tragedy of the commons.

Western liberals sometimes exacerbate these problems – not simply by seeing “greed” and capitalism as the problem, and not kleptocratic regimes (often supported by the West and by aid money) or the lack of enforceable property rights – but also by demanding misguided policies such as “biofuels” incentives, which lie behind tropical forest destruction in much of SE Asia.

Libertarians should be familiar with these problems, which are a large part of the dynamics in petroleum-cursed nations and elsewhere. Such problems are also linked generally to “aid” efforts and to other centrally-directed development schemes. Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in part for her work in showing that local communities, if their rights are respected, can generally do a good job of managing their own resources [and how government efforts frequently go astray].

I’ve commented on these issues a number of times, but here are a couple of links for those who might care to scratch the surface:

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/09/28/too-many-or-too-few-people-does-the-market-provide-an-answer.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/12/16/bison-markets-the-tragedy-of-the-commons-and-the-indian-war.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2009/11/26/theft-and-the-tragedy-of-the-commons-mother-jones-ponders-quot-conservation-indigenous-people-s-enemy-no-1-quot.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2009/05/24/capitalism-the-destructive-exploitation-of-the-amazon-and-the-tragedy-of-the-government-owned-commons.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2009/01/07/somali-piracy-flows-from-the-greater-and-continuing-western-theft-and-abuse-of-somali-marine-resources.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2008/06/02/environmental-damage-as-theft-report-by-prominent-enviros-quot-highlights-the-need-for-secure-ownership-of-wildlife-resources-by-poor-people-quot.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/10/12/libertarian-reticience-other-than-to-bash-enviros.aspx

Stephan, if youve made it this far, let me remind you of our conversations about corporations [most recently here], which have very unfortunately been inescapably tainted with statism from the get-go, in ways that play out negatively both abroad and at home. Ive devoted a fair amount of time to examining the entanglement of corporations and government: http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/search.aspx?q=limited

  • Our state governments were wrong to get into competition with each other to grant corporate status to investor-owned enterprises, in exchange for fees and later taxes. Corporate status freed owners from down-side risk, by limiting liability to the amount of capital contributed. This incentivized investors to encourage corporations to embark on risky activities that shifted costs to innocent third parties; the concentration of wealth in corporations (that now have unlimited lives and purposes, subject to survival in the market); the corruption of the court system that once protected third parties from damages caused by others (by replacing strict liability with balancing tests); and the ensuing battle over legislatures and courts to check corporate abuses.What happens abroad at the “Avatar” is pretty basic, but the same nonsense, with taxpayers, investors and consumers playing the role of victim, can be seen at home. Has anybody seen the jaw-droppingly appalling report that the WSJ has run on “Fixing Global Finance”, based on their “Future of Finance Initiative”, in which they cheerlead a bunch of financial firms in their efforts to abandon free markets and to structure global regulation and regulators, to be staffed by a revolving door of themselves? [I think Im being fair to see this as posing a threat to markets and freedom at least as great as what others see in the more multi-faceted climate change muddle.] Even Paul Volker was appalled, not at their willingness to create more regulation, but at their unwillingness to confront the moral hazard problems (tied to regulation of public corporations and the financial sector) that lie at the core of the financial meltdown. [Volker seems to overlooked the crucial role of government in driving and feeding the moral hazard problems.]Heres the link, for those of you who missed it:
    http://online.wsj.com/public/page/future-of-finance-121409.html

 

Property rights, corporations and government-complicit theft? Hmm. [Sounds familiar. Maybe some of those who want to battle corporate excesses might not be so crazy after all, even if they neglect to understand the risks of negative consequences of seeking help from government. And maybe someday libertarians will get a little more serious about addressing the festering concatenation of corporate-linked problems that are generating so much rot at the core of our government and public company/financial company sector.]

 

Oh, I almost forgot to remind everyone for the need for group holiday cheer (as alternative to productive engagement on a libertarian, Austrian-based climate agenda):

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/12/16/holiday-joy-quot-watermelons-quot-roasting-on-an-open-pyre.aspx

 

Third-World land theft & the tragedy of the commons: Mother Jones ponders, "Conservation: Indigenous peoples’ enemy No. 1?"

November 26th, 2009 No comments

[Post note: Anybody see the movie Avatar? Well that’s how native people perceive conservation efforts – as helping governing elites to steal their lands.]

The Mother Jones magazine has been running a series of on-line articles which exemplify how some progressives are exploring the ways in which various parts of the environmental/conservation agenda in developing countries have been counterproductive, adversely affected indigenous peoples, favored Western companies and played into the hands of local elites.

The articles are worth reviewing, as they reveal that enviros are starting to realize that protecting nature in the developing world requires protecting the property rights of indigenous communities.

One such article, by Mark Dowie, appeared in Mother Jones` on-line edition on November  2. The headline reads, “Conservation: Indigenous people’s enemy No. 1?”, the sub-header states, “For centuries we’ve displaced people to save nature. A huge project in Africa offers a chance to turn that around.” Dowie, an award-winning investigative journalist, is an author of several books published by the MIT Press, including his most recent, Conservation Refugees – The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples.

Dowie`s thesis is that, until recently, conservationists have typically taken the approach that the best way to preserve tropical forests and other wild ecosystems, the right approach was to establish pristine reserves from which people were excluded, and describes the change in strategy in the context of a new series of parks that the government in Gabon, central Africa. Dowie notes that the traditional approach – of establishing government-owned and -administered parks free of native residents – has a long, and long-forgotten history in the US (emphasis added):

But there was another, more historically significant opportunity
facing Gabon that day, one that Fay merely hinted at in his
presentation and Sanderson didn’t mention at all. It was the
opportunity their own industry, transnational conservation, had in
Gabon: to do right by the thousands of tribal people living inside
those emerald patches, by allowing them to remain in their homelands
and participate directly in the stewardship and management of the new
parks. They would then not be passive “stakeholders” relocated to the
margins of the park, the typical fate of indigenous peoples who find
themselves in conservation “hot spots,” but equal players in the
complex and challenging process of defending biological diversity.
The
goal of such a policy would be the concurrent preservation of nature
and culture; Gabon just might come to signify a happy ending of a
tense, century-long conflict between global environmentalism and native
people, millions of whom have been displaced from traditional homelands in the interest of conservation.

It’s a century-long story of violence and abuse that began in Yosemite Valley in the mid 19th century,
when the Ahwahneechee band of Miwoks were chased about, caught on, then
forcefully expelled from a landscape they had cultivated for about 200
generations.
Militias like the vicious Mariposa Battalion were sent
into Yosemite
to burn acorn caches and rout native people from remote reaches of the
Valley. After the militias came the nature romantics who mythologized
the vacated valley as the wilderness it never was, then lobbied state
and federal governments to create a national park. They got their wish
in 1890, and the remaining Indians were removed
from the area, with a
few allowed to remain temporarily, as menial laborers in a segregated
village of 20-by-20-foot shacks.

Yosemite’s Indian policy spread to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde,
Mount Ranier, Zion, Glacier, Everglades, and Olympic National Parks,
all of which expelled thousands of tribal people from their homes and
hunting grounds so the new parks could remain in an undisturbed “state
of nature.”
Three hundred Shoshone
Indians were killed in a single day during the expulsion from
Yellowstone. This was the birth of what would come to be known,
worldwide, as the Yosemite model of wildlife conservation. In Africa
it would be renamed “fortress conservation,” and like so many other
products from the North, the model would be exported with vigor to all
other continents. …

Teddy Roosevelt also proclaimed that “the rude, fierce settler who
drives the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt
to him… It is of incalculable importance that America,
Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red,
black, and yellow aboriginal owners and become the heritage of the
dominant world races.”

Our own history of theft from natives aside (which I have addressed tangentially in the context of the near-extirpation of the bison herds and the ongoing gross mismanagement and destruction of the salmon), what indigenous peoples in their right minds would not be opposed to the complicity of conservationists in continuing the process of the older colonial theft of their lands, even if the purpose was to “save” the land?  I won`t explore this now, but the record of “development” is replete with many examples – old and new – of such kinds of theft, with local ownership replaced by government ownership and a resulting “tragedy of the commons”-type of race to plunder “government” lands for valuable resources – oil and gas, minerals and timber.

Dowie notes the natural rise of indigenous opposition to “conservation” projects:

One consequence of creating a few million conservation refugees
around the world has been the emergence of a vast and surprisingly
powerful movement of communities that have proven themselves stewards
of nature (otherwise conservationists would have no interest in their
land), but were turned by circumstance into self-described “enemies of
conservation.

In early 2004, a United Nations
meeting was convened for the ninth year in a row to push for passage of
a resolution protecting the territorial and human rights of indigenous
peoples. During the meeting, one indigenous delegate rose to state that
extractive industries, while still a serious threat to their welfare
and cultural integrity, were no longer the main antagonist of native
cultures. Their new and biggest enemy, she said, was “conservation.”
Later that spring, at a meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia,
of the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping, all 200 delegates
signed a declaration stating that “conservation has become the number
one threat to indigenous territories.”

Then in February 2008, representatives of the International
Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) walked out of a Convention on
Biological Diversity (CBD) annual meeting, condemning the convention
for ignoring their interests. “We found ourselves marginalized and
without opportunity to take the floor and express our views,” read
their statement. “None of our recommendations were included in [the
meeting’s report]. So we have decided to leave this process…”

These are all rhetorical jabs, of course, and perhaps not entirely
accurate or fair. But they are based on fact and driven by experience,
and have shaken the international conservation community. So have a
spate of critical studies and articles calling international
conservationists to task for their historical mistreatment of
indigenous peoples.

The Mother Jones article looks like an excerpt from Dowie`s new book, which MIT describes as follows:

Since 1900, more than 108,000 officially
protected conservation areas have been established worldwide, largely
at the urging of five international conservation organizations. About
half of these areas were occupied or regularly used by indigenous
peoples. Millions who had been living sustainably on their land for
generations were displaced in the interests of conservation. In Conservation Refugees, Mark Dowie tells this story.

This is a “good guy vs. good guy” story, Dowie writes; the indigenous
peoples’ movement and conservation organizations have a vital common
goal—to protect biological diversity—and could work effectively and
powerfully together to protect the planet and preserve species and
ecosystem diversity. Yet for more than a hundred years, these two
forces have been at odds. The result: thousands of unmanageable
protected areas and native peoples reduced to poaching and trespassing
on their ancestral lands or “assimilated” but permanently indentured on
the lowest rungs of the economy.

The punch line of the book summary?

When conservationists and native peoples
acknowledge the interdependence of biodiversity conservation and
cultural survival, Dowie writes, they can together create a new and
much more effective paradigm for conservation.

I am quite sympathetic with Dowie`s thinking, but it seems to me that he could make use of a little more intellectual framework, such as (i) the Austrian/libertarian awareness of the frequently negative role played by the state and of the usefulness of property rights (as I noted in this earlier post about the destruction of the Amazon), and (ii) Elinor Ostrom`s research into successful management of open-access, common-pool resources by communities, including natives.

I left the following comments for Dowie at Mother Jones:

Mark, great article. It`s good to hear
that the broader conservation community is waking up, but groups like
Survival International have always tried to protect indigenous
peoples`s rights.

I`m afraid the headline is a bit of a distraction, because of course
the broader development effort as a whole has been much more
destructive, by even more widely putting power into the hands on
central elites, who often behaved kleptocratically.

Regardless of the broader background, it`s surprising that you
didn’t see fit to link your topic to the whole problem of the “tragedy
of the commons”, which is often tied to the nationalization of
resources, which deprives users of any control over the resources they
depend on. Elinor Ostrom has extensively studied this problem in
developing countries and elsewhere, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in
economics precisely for pointing out how “government” is often the
problem and not the solution:

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/search.aspx?q=ostrom

I commend this effort by Dowie, and note some other interesting articles at Mother Jones:

GM’s Rainforest Racket: People with some of the world’s smallest carbon footprints are being displaced—so their forests can become offsets(“There is another vexing question inherent in
preserving forests: What happens to the people who use the land?
Efforts to protect biodiversity in the dwindling wildlands of the world
have increasingly run into a discomfiting tension between the impulse
toward absolute preservation and the needs of people—many of them
indigenous—who have lived sustainably in forestlands for decades or
centuries. Such tensions are playing out in the new economics of carbon
offsets.”)
Better REDD Than Dead: The byzantine politics of paying countries to save trees: (“Indigenous people around the world, many of whom have been displaced
through preservation efforts, are demanding “free, prior, and informed
consent” before new restrictions move forward. Some also want tribes,
like the Guarani in Brazil, to be compensated for preserving forests
for centuries.”)

"Clear-sighted" panic; the role of the corporation in the tragedy of the commons

August 30th, 2009 No comments

This is my fourth follow-up post to “Grist and the tragedy of the panicked enviro“, where I try to clarify the institutional frameworks for understanding and addressing resource problems, in response to confusion in comments by others.

Here is my most recent comment:

Cyberfarer, thank you for your response [here], which is well-intentioned, but both perceptive and blind.

First, I see you’ve adopted a page from the climate “skeptics” playbook, by
applying the self-deceptive ad hominem device of labelling those you
disagree with as “true believers” in something.  This is a partisan
tactic that lets you treat others as enemies, and spares you from the
trouble of listening to them, trying to figure out what they’re saying
and responding the them, as opposed to a black and white strawman that you’ve conjured
up.  Congratulations on mirroring those whom you dislike most.

Second, with all of your clear thinking, like Mr. Sacks, you offer us no
practical advice, just reasons for despair.  Lezlie, who follows you,
at least provides an agenda.

Third, of course, you’ve got me all wrong; I’m not an ideologue, a “true believer” or even an apologist of
any kind the status quo; I’m a concerned human being, a fellow
traveller on Planet Earth and a pragmatist. You’ve been misreading me,
and certainly have not troubled yourself to consider the very pragmatic
analytical tools that I’ve offered to help you figure how to diagnose
and attack the problems that you perceive.

And what have I offered? Nothing more or less than the rather obvious observations that
resources that are not owned and managed – whether privately or by
groups (including, obviously, by communities and native peoples) tend
to be trashed, and that similar problems are experienced where
resources are formally “owned” by governments but essentially used by
elites for their own benefit. I have NOT argued that private property
is the cure-all, nor have I condoned theft nor the manipulation of
governments by elites. In fact, I have rather clearly pointed out that
both theft and misuse of government have been and remain very much a
part of the problem.

Fourth, you continue to misunderstand the nature of our problems, and want to lay everything at the foot of
“capitalism” and “markets”, when the real problem is either the lack of
ownership of resources or government fiat/theft.  Western capitalism is
not responsible for extinctions and environmental devastation that
preceded capitalism and markets, or that has taken place under
state-directed economies. This gets old, but look at the prior
extinctions, messes of the former USSR (and at the Aral Sea today),
Hanford and Rocky Flats, Haiti, and China.

Sure, the consumer and industrial supply demands of markets (not merely in the West) continue
to pull chains of destruction elsewhere in the world, but destruction
only occurs with respect to resources that are not owned and protected
(or where theft by those more powerful occurs). Tofu and meat eaters
alike are indirectly responsible for rainforest destruction, mainly
because governments “own” most the rain forests and don’t prefer to
protect native title where it is recognized, so the conversion of such
land into soybeans (or palm oil to feed government-mandated demands for
biofuels) continues.

In any case, is it more effective to wail about the evilness of corporations that compete to provide us ever more
cheaply things that we choose to buy, or to demand better property
rights protection abroad, pay closer attention to where our food comes
from and end domestic mandates that drive destruction? You’re welcome
to your rants against true believers like me, but I’m personally more
disposed towards trying to be practically effective.

Fifth, you are very right to criticize corporations; Mr. Sacks has had a history
of doing that. Not only do I agree with much of his analysis (which he has not provided here), but I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to examining the entanglement of corporations and government:
http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/search.aspx?q=limited

Our state governments were wrong to get into competition with each other to
grant corporate status to investor-owned enterprises, in exchange for
fees and later taxes. Corporate status freed investors from down-side
risk, by limiting liability to the amount of capital contributed. This
incentivized: investors to encourage corporations to embark on risky
activities that shifted costs to innocent third parties; the
concentration of wealth in corporations; the corruption of the court
system that once protected third parties from damages caused by others
(by replacing strict liability with balancing tests); and the ensuing
battle – that you noted – over legislatures to regulate corporations
(and courts to enforce regulations). Is there a takeaway on this. other
than continuing to fight political battles to block legislative sweet
deals and theft, including working to revise our corporate order?

Anyway, I wish you well in your tirades.

Bison and the Theft of the Commons

December 16th, 2007 No comments

[Updated, as noted]

[I now view this as my first “Avatar” post. February 15, 2010.]

My attention was drawn today to a letter to the editor published by The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), an organization of free-thinkers who pioneered what is now known as “free market environmentalism” and which is the nation’s oldest and largest institute dedicated to original research that brings market principles to resolving environmental problems.

The letter, by P.J. Hill, Professor of Economics at Wheaton College and a PERC Senior Fellow, addresses an interesting article titled “Bisonomics” by Brian Yablonski in the Fall 2007 issue of “PERC Reports” on the growing private market that has led to a remarkable expansion of bison herds in North Americahttp://www.perc.org/perc.php?subsection=5&id=900.

[Update: According to the bison industry webpage, (i) bison producers can be found today in all 50 states, every Canadian province, and in several countries overseas, (ii) the Department of Agriculture reported in 2002 that approximately 4,000 private ranches held 232,000 head of bison across the United States, (iii) approximately 25,000 additional animals are kept in public herds, and (iv) the Canadian herd is estimated at 150,000 head.  This is an amazing comeback for a species that hovered on the brink of extinction in 1900.  http://www.bisoncentral.com/index.php?c=63&d=71&a=1087&w=2&r=Y

However, in the lower 48, only the 4000-head Yellowstone herd is genetically pure.  While there are  no “domestic” breeds, ranched bison all carry cattle genes, largely as a result of efforts to make hardier breeds of cattle.  Efforts to further domesticate bison continue.]

In explaining the near extirpation of American bison herds in the late 1800s, Yablonski rather conventionally describes this occurrence as “one of the great environmental catastrophes in our nation’s history” and “one of the starkest examples of the tragedy of the commons. No one owned the bison. Those who were not the first to capture the economic benefits of a bison lost those benefits to someone else.”

Professor Hill challenges this conventional wisdom and offers what seems to be a new twist:

“Yablonski …  errs in saying “the tragedy of the bison is one of the starkest examples of the tragedy of the commons.” A tragedy of the commons occurs when a resource is consumed more rapidly than it would be if well-defined and enforced property rights existed. In other words, the institutional framework leads to over-use. The primary reason bison did not remain abundant on the Great Plains after 1880 is not because they were unowned, although that fact might have sped up their slaughter. But, bison were a costly way to convert grass to meat in comparison to cattle, and if there would have been rights to bison on the parts of nineteenth century ranchers most of them would have been killed and cattle would have replaced them.

In the 1880s, a buffalo hide (the only part of a bison that could be easily shipped to eastern markets) was worth $3 in Miles City, Montana. A cow was worth $20 to $25 (see The Not so Wild, Wild West by Anderson and Hill 2004). Ranchers understood the economics of bison ranching versus cattle ranching and hence made no efforts to stop the hide hunters.

(emphasis added). http://www.perc.org/perc.php?subsection=5&id=1022

But is this really a new insight, or merely stating the obvious, while ignoring the ethnic and natural resource war of which the bison slaughter was part and parcel?  What follows below is part of an email that I have sent to PERC, cc: to Mr. Yablonski and Prof. Hill (with slight editing):

I see that P.J. Hill has commented in a letter that the near extinction of the bison was NOT a “tragedy of the commons”; his paper on this [“The Non-Tragedy of the Buffalo Commons”] carries the argument even further: www.isnie.org/ISNIE05/Papers05/hill.pdf
This deserves a much more detailed response, but suffice it to say that Mr. Hill’s analysis suffers from the very curious omission of a blindingly salient issue – the conflict between a hunter-gather Indian society and a much more technologically advanced white society.  The Indians were simply incapable of protecting the land and the resources that previously they had unquestionably occupied and possessed.  The slaughter of the bison was part and parcel of the elimination of the Indians as the lords of the Plains.
Once an eastern/white market for buffalo skins was established, the Indians, like the bison, stood no chance, and the rest of Mr. Hill’s argument is also fairly obvious.  Bison are powerful animals, not tame like cattle, and can be ranched today only with difficulty, through costly measures not available 135 years ago.  Their hides had value, but they themselves were a nuisance and a competing grazer.  Killing them was a free-for-all on land that was not owned or protected by whites, and on land that was, the skinners provided a service.
Finally, of course, removing the bison also had a value to the white government and settlers in removing emphatically their competitors for the land, the Indians.
Wikipedia summarizes:
“In August 1867, Grant appointed Sheridan to head the Department of the Missouri and pacify the Plains. His troops, even supplemented with state militia, were spread too thin to have any real effect. He conceived a strategy similar to the one he used in the Shenandoah Valley. In the Winter Campaign of 1868–69 he attacked the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche tribes in their winter quarters, taking their supplies and livestock and killing those who resisted, driving the rest back into their reservations. By promoting in Congressional testimony the hunting and slaughter of the vast herds of American Bison on the Great Plains and by other means, Sheridan helped deprive the Indians of their primary source of food.[39] Professional hunters, trespassing on Indian land, killed over 4 million bison by 1874. When the Texas legislature considered outlawing bison poaching on tribal lands, Sheridan personally testified against it in Austin, Texas. He suggested that the legislature should give each of the hunters a medal, engraved with a dead buffalo on one side and a discouraged-looking Indian on the other. [40] This strategy continued until the Indians honored their treaties. Sheridan’s department conducted the Red River War, the Ute War, and the Black Hills War, which resulted in the death of a trusted subordinate, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. The Indian raids subsided during the 1870s and were almost over by the early 1880s, as Sheridan became the commanding general of the U.S. Army.[41]
Sheridan’s said the following to  Texas legislature in 1875: “These men, the buffalo hunters, have done in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary; and it is a well-known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; but for the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle, and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.”
(emphasis added)
Far from a simple tragedy of the commons, we had a deliberate war, and a slaughter, driven by a white market demand, in a no man’s land from which Indians had been driven.
Dr. Hill simply addresses the question of whether those whites who established and could enforce property rights would prefer bison or cattle – and he hardly needs any firepower for that, as the comparison of bison to cattle for purposes of white markets is an open and shut case in favor of the much more docile (and less powerful) cattle.
One wonders whether Dr. Hill would venture similar arguments that the removal of native americans from their land in the Amazon and conversion of the “public land” to cattle ranches and soybean plantations (and palm oil plantations in Indonesia) is not a problem of the identification and enforcement of property rights, but is also simply a matter of economic efficiency.
Sincerely,
Tom

(emphasis added)

[Update: I couldn’t stop myself from noting here a few thoughts]

P.J. Hill concludes in his paper that:

“There was no tragedy in an economic sense in the killing of the bison; it was simply a rational economic act by people who wished to maximize the value of the grass on the Great Plains.” 

Bison herds both consumed the grass and disrupted cattle production so their removal was an economic necessity, not a tragedy or a waste of resources.”

“The history of the American bison is one of rational individuals operating under an institutional framework that did not create a tragedy of the commons. It is true that property rights were not well defined and established for buffalo on the open prairies, but since they were not a valuable resource, property rights entrepreneurs put little effort into establishing rights, and if there would have been well-defined and enforced property rights, cattle would still have replaced bison as the primary converter of grass on the Great Plains.”

(emphasis and italics added)

P.J. Hill is right to say that the near-extirpation of the American bison was not a pure “tragedy of the commons”, but I disagree strongly with his reasoning. What occurred was NOT simply, as Hill describes, the replacement of a wild, open-access ecosystem with “more productive” individual cattle ranches, farms, towns and railroads inextricably tied to distant markets. Rather, what occurred was just as much the usual tragedy when an indigenous people with community-property systems encounter a more numerous and more technologically advanced society – namely, the prompt swamping of the native community-property system and outright theft of resources.

Once one accepts P.J. Hill’s premise that the Great Plains rightfully belonged to the white newcomers, then his conclusions naturally and logically follow.  But one is not seeing history clearly if a cold analysis does not also consider the the broader clash of peoples, which the Indians were fated to lose (a la Jared Diamond‘s “Guns, Germs and Steel”).

More than a little disturbingly, Hill’s references to “people”, “rational individuals” and “entrepreneurs” are references only to the white newcomers, and not those who were dispossessed.  Rather startlingly, one can get a clearer picture of how many in the much more powerful white culture contemporaneously viewed the subjugation and removal of the American Indian from what had once been their domain by simply replacing Hill’s references to “bison” in the quoted paragraphs with “Indians”.

I do not mean to attribute such a view to Dr. Hill, but I do think that his failure to consider the issue of a clash of owners is a fatal flaw in his apparently dispassionate, reasoned academic analysis.