Archive for the ‘tragedy of the commons’ Category

Enviro-Trek IV: In which your intrepid reporter boldly discusses "tragedy of the commons" and "property" with corrupted climate scientists and AGW co-religionists!

May 18th, 2009 No comments


Further to my prior posts, here are my more recent comments over at the remarkable RealClimate thread started by climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, to specifically discuss the “tragedy of the commons” paradigm in the context of domestic and international wrngling over climate policy:


544:  TokyoTom Says: 

530: “our temporary endowment of hydrocarbons … [is] currently almost a monoculture and it has developed a set of entrenched players who feel very threatened when confronted with the possibility that consumers may have a choice about where to plug in their toasters.”

Doug, you`ve correctly identified that SOMEONE feels threatened about where people plug in their toasters, but it ain`t the fossil fuel industry. but the so-called “public utilties”, which are NOT owned by fossil fuel producers, and have persuaded states to give them local monopolies and to wall them off from competition, in exchange for regulation of how rates are set.

Consumers get screwed all around, since they can`t purchase power from whom they want, by type of generating source, by time of day (peak v. off-peak), largely can`t easily monitor their own use, have limited ability to put back power to the utility, and because the utilities have no incentive to invest in long-range transmission (which would allow greater competition among generators) unless the local regulator is willing to allow cost recovery.

As the whole pent up demand for green energy is caused by the state/local grants of monopoly, perhaps environmentalists, rather than pushing for more government involvement, might consider asking for and end to public utility monopolies:


545:  TokyoTom Says: 

#438: “But Rene isn’t talking about incorporating private ownership as part of a management strategy, but rather selling off the resources and getting rid of any collective from-above management strategy altogether, from forbidding government managers from setting goals (for instance, sustainability) at all.

When these schemes work it is typically due to some sort of collective mechanism above and beyond the whim of the individual owner of a fishery or other stock.”

dhogaza, you persist in finding an enemy in every friend. Nowhere has Rene (or I) advocated ANY form of privatization scheme, much less insisted on one that eliminates all government oversight (which of course, for as long as governments exist, is impossible anyway). In any case, in all of the cases where open-access-type resources are centrally managed, we can only expect gradual steps away from that, as politicians like to maintain their positions as gatekeepers for favors and we rarely see bureaucrats volunteer to lighten their own oversight purview.

“We have exceptions where individual owners put long-term sustainabiliity and non-economic values as a priority (I mentioned Gilchrist lumber here in Oregon as an example). But these are notable precisely because they’re *exceptions*.”

I understand your concern about the timeframes in which humans act, but there is an irreducible difficulty in fashioning institutions with longer-term views, as they are all populated by people. Even resources in the hands of governments are subject to human whim, such as Cheney`s allocation of scarce water in Oregon in ways that favored Republican farmers over salmon, Native Americans and fishermen, and Bush`s widescale gas leasing in the Front Range, against the opposition of ranchers and hunters.

Further, you and others keep forgetting that many private owners lead the way in environmental protection; many state parks have their roots in privately preserved land that, in order to avoid the tax man, were subsequently handed over to the state. The Nature Conservancy (which represents its individual members) protects valuable parcels not by seeking government regulation, but by buying them (or conservation easements) outright.

Another problem you point to is that of conflicts between community interests and the interests of individual owner and interloping buyers (individuals or firms). It seems to me that the greatest problem relates not to the ownership of property, but to the willingness of giant corporations to listen to the communities in which they operate. Some do a better job than others, but I do think that the problems with corporations also has its roots in gifts by governments to relatively wealthy investors: Many large firms are run in order to put money first in the pockets of executives, with employees and investors next, under circumstances that encourage risk-taking rather than truly conservative behavior (as can be seen from the financial crisis).


547:  TokyoTom Says: 

#408: “The “climate commons” are the biggest ones of all. They cannot be contained, users cannot be easily left out. Even market-based solutions demand an international enforceable regulation to forbid, tax or at least know who´s emmitting how much, and who has to pay to whom for what.”

Alexandre, thanks for your comments; I largely agree.

The fact that the atmosphere is a global commons means no government can act effectively alone; that`s why Gavin`s metaphor of the multi-party international negotiations as a tragedy of the commons is apt. It`s also why fear of government “fiat” is rather misdirected, as in essence all major emmitting governments (and their chief constitutencies) have to reach a COMMON agreement. The situation is much like ranchers reaching terms of use on a range, and fishermen agreeing how to manage a fishery:


550:  TokyoTom Says: 

#484: “Tosh, to put it bluntly. The ratio of greenwash to real change is vast. Moreover, only retail businesses are subject to any significant consumer pressure even to undertake greenwashing. It has been legislation and in some cases international agreements that have mitigated damage from food adulteration, lead in fuel and paint, acid rain, and ozone-destroying chemicals.”

Nick, “tosh”? Now I`m really offended! ;)

I never argued that consumer pressure was by itself adequate in all cases. Presumably you agree that consumer pressure has proven to be useful, even as you downplay it. The fact of greenwashing is itself an indication that consumer opinion matters, even as people remain susceptibly to deception – which is why there remain entrepreneurial opportunities for certification organizations. consumer reporting, etc.

I would love to see some consumer boycotts of unsustainbly caught bluefin, in order to lead the way for regulatory/treaty changes that I certainly agree are needed, and the role of moral suasion and struggle for the moral high ground is not to be denied on the climate change issue (which is why Gore in some ways is a self-hamstrung figure – the man wouldn`t know a hairshirt if it hit him in the face).


608:  TokyoTom Says: 

#419: Missed this:

“Slavery was brought up because of the idiotic contention posted that owning something means you take good care of it. And, BTW, some Libertarian philosophers have touted “voluntary slavery” as a solution to unemployment. You see, you have a property right in yourself, so you also have the right to sell it.”

Barton, I don`t speak for Rene, but I think the chief point is the largely uncontroversial contention that people are more likely to take better care of things that they own, relative to the possessions of others or things that nobody owns. Feel free to quibble about the failures of property rights, but are we completely disagreeing on the big picture and what drives the “tragedy of the commons”?

As for slavery, surely you can recognize that what those libertarians are discussing are still voluntary transactions between consenting person, not the theft and enslavement of others by violence and force. They are just not the same.

As to the former, do you have any idea about the ways that many of our forefathers funded their expensive passage to the young colonies/US? Ever hear of “indentured servitude”?


Strange But True III: In which your intrepid reporter bravely discusses "tragedy of the commons" and "property" with corrupted climate scientists and AGW co-religionists!

May 13th, 2009 No comments

[some snark in the title, reflecting the heat of the fight over the wheel of government]

Further to my prior posts, here is the full list of my comments over at the remarkable RealClimate thread started by climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, to specifically discuss the “tragedy of the commons” paradigm in the context of domestic and international wrangling over climate policy. 


So far, comments by yours truly are as follows:

134. TokyoTom Says: 

Gavin, thanks for a thoughtful post that I hope will be brought to the attention of every so-called “skeptic” – none of whom has any basis to deny that there are simply NO property rights protecting the atmosphere (or the oceans).

As a result, to prevent a continuing “tragedy of the commons” the nations of the world, we need to make a collective effort to manage what is, after all, a shared resource.

It`s nice to see that others see that where there are no formal or informal property rights or similar mechanisms, all incentives point to ruin.


171. TokyoTom Says: 

Property rights are not an end-all or be-all, but they are a linchpin in understanding the dynamics of the tragedy of the commons problem. Resources that are owned – formally or informally, in common or privately – are husbanded, at least much better that when they are not.

This is a key point to keep hammering home with “conservatives”, “skeptics” and ordinary people, whom can all recognize that market demands produce a tragedy of the commons whenever valuable resources are not owned (or cannot be protected) by those who use them.

When there is ownership, (1) users have incentives to invest in protecting what, after all, supports their own livelihoods and, even further, (2) those who also care about the resource have an ability to also protect the resource – by investing it themselves, or by making other private, market decisions, such as to boycott particular owners and to favor others.

When there is no ownership, there is very limited ability by anyone to protect the resource directly, and what we are left with is a battle of words.

Of course a corollary problem that requires attention is that when resources are “publicly” owned, such resources may in fact be treated as a commons, or something that politicians and bureaucrats dole out to whomever is in favor – witness the environmental destruction in communist states, the logging of “public” tropical forests, and our own continued mismanagement of public lands.

In that case of fisheries, this is so readily apparent that even the mainline environmental groups are now calling for giving fishermen property rights in the fish they catch in order to end the destructive race to catch them:

Meanwhile, concerned citizens continue to misunderstand the key dynamics of environmental problems, and to miss opportunities to rub the faces of “market” fundamentalists and “conservatives” in the obvious lack of property rights in the atmosphere (and a related inability of those adversely affected by using the atmosphere as a dumping ground to seek redress from those who profit from using it as one):



194.  TokyoTom Says: 

Chip, the last time we chatted, you were going to look into why Rob Bradley had decided – in the middle of an exchange of comments with you on a previous post at his supposedly “free market” Master Resource blog – to block a libertarian like me from commenting, even taking that decision away from you:

Do you fail to understand that the fact that Master Resource is a soapbox for the coal industry, which has up to know had the political establishment in its pocket (a small investment that has created great profits while shifting costs to the public and future generations)? Or that this affects the willingness of people to listen to you?

Your hope for a deus ex machina government investment program to somehow save us further illustrates your lack of understand how markets malfunction with respect to unowned resources.

Far better for the government to simply impose rebated carbon taxes, as both Exxon (which no longer funds Rob Bradley`s ventures, BTW; see link above) and Jim Hansen have called for, than to have government itself try to guess what technologies to invest in.


240.  TokyoTom Says: 

#195: “The tragedy of the commons isn’t actually a tragedy of the commons – it’s a tragedy of the free-for-all. There are any number of ways to overcome the tragedy of the commons – from Mutually Assured Destruction, to consensual co-operation – (and in many societies around the world, the latter has worked for centuries to millenia), but the free market ain’t one of them.”

This is confused. The “free market” certainly pulls on the chain of destruction where resources are not owned or managed, and may, by introducing new technologies, even accelerate the destruction of commons and to the breakdown of communal systems. But broadly speaking, where there are adequately defined and protected “property rights”, the free market does not itself generate the destruction of commons.

And property rights, broadly speaking, are simply instituitions that societies have gradually developed to side-step tragedy of the commons situations


241:  TokyoTom Says: 

#196 Tamino, I share your sentiments.

Many of those who profess to be interested in protecting “free market capitalism” really have no clue themselves as to how it works, and why it DOESN’T work in the case of environmental problems.

By likewise, many “environmentalists” have very little understanding of how and why markets can go wrong.

A little discussed aspect of the problem is that there is also a rather apparent tragedy of the GOVERNMENT commons, as governments both tend to do a poor job of managing assets and frequently end up either serving special deal to special interests or as public battlegrounds (since different people can`t simply do independent deals to accommodate their differing perspectives).

It`s the battle to influence and win favors from government that leads to partisanship (and “ludicrous rationalization”), which is often hijacked by special interests.

It`s not clear to me how much Chip Knappenberger understands markets, or understands how his posts provide cover for fossil fuel firms/investors who profit while shifting risks to all of us.

But there`s plenty all around. I note that even Jim Hansen strongly favors taxes over cap and trade bureaucracy and green pork.


278.  TokyoTom Says: 

#188 / 245: Neal & Jim, thanks for the references to the successful experiments in Iceland, NZ and the Alaskan pollock fishery to replace the tragedy of the government commons with property rights approaches that gives the fishermen a stake in protecting the resources they harvest, instead of simply an incentive to invest in a mad race to catch fish before others do in a continually shrinking fishery with shorter and shorter seasons.

I continue to have problems with the spam filter (links and bad words?), so I have excised most of this post and put it up separately at my blog, linked at my name above (with links to some of my other posts on fisheries)


282.  TokyoTom Says: 

#262 Cardin, do you seriously think that there is ANY possibility of “the U.S. cap[ping] emissions independently of the rest of the world”?

US legislators (and presidents from Bush Sr through Clinton and Dubya) have made it crystal clear that we won`t act alone.

Rather, we face classic collective action problem with respect to a shared resource – like fishermen regulating a fisheries, ranchers agreeing on how to manage a range or farmers managing streamflows – with respect to which we have long been the major user (and remain so by far on a per capita basis), and very few are willing to act (other than to posture) unless we are.

We have long recognized that there are shared gains (in the form of avoided losses to ecosystems and economies) to acting to limit human-induced climate change and ocean acidification, and to improved environmental management in the third world – real costs that your “cost-benefit” analysis neatly ignores), and we have ample carrots and sticks to persuade others to follow.

The problem is that the wheel of our own government has long been captured by the investors and industries that reap short-term profits while shifting costs to all of us and future generations.

IOW, the supposedly cool and rational approach is, at its core, a mask by which particular interests continue to hijack the rest of society.

It`s this fact that drives others – frequently wealthy – who are not invested in fossil fuels to support the PR campaigns of Gore and others (not enviro-facists out to destroy capitalism).


284.  TokyoTom Says: 

270: Hank, what you`re bemoaning is the “property” is only as good as one`s ability to defend it. The battle we all face with spam is another example.

The rest of creation has long confronted the same, unending battle over resources; unfortunately nature is relatively defenseless before mankind, and our continuing technological/organizational innovation continues to ramp up our assault on “wild” nature.

The flip side is that progress also makes it easier for us to identify polluters and to protect assets.


288.  TokyoTom Says: 

#145: Jim, it seems to me that you and others have misunderstood Rene and are attacking strawmen rather than his points, which are fairly general – and fully acknowledge the undeniable point that resources that are unowned or unmanaged are abused.

Rather than seeing common ground or exploring how to address these classes of problems, you ll prefer to offer what are essentially red-herrings about how private property is itself imperfect, which is not a point that Rene has at all contested.

“Yeah, let’s just domesticate and privatize everything, that’ll solve it! You have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about, either with regard to endangered species protection, management of a commons, or the interaction between the two. Zip.”

Is Rene or anyone saying that we have to privatize all resources? Rather, he is giving you a great talking point for all those supposed “free-market” “skeptics” out there, who fail to recognize that markets don`t work with respect to resources that nobody owns or are not collectively protected/managed.

You are all so ready to fight that you are having great difficulty distinguishing friend from foe.


322.  TokyoTom Says: 

I`ll let Rene correct me if I`m wrong, but I don`t think that Rene has asserted that all resources MUST be privatized (as opposed to being owned and managed by communities or subject to some public regulation) or that private ownership is perfect, but that he`s simply pointing out that resources that are un-owned and are subject to open-access commons exploitation get trashed.

There is ample room for disagreement over the best approaches to such resource problems, as corruption, favoritism and incompetence are inescapably linked to government action. I think Rene was referring to this in connection to tropical deforestation, where what others call “commons” are in fact either lands held by indigenous peoples and stolen by government, or otherwise government-held “parks” and “reserves” that are liquidated by elites (look at the the Amazon, Kalimantan and the sources of the Marcos family wealth, for example).

But Rene is clearly on the side of those who want to see resources protected, and he should be credited for trying to give you guys tools to fight your real enemies – the so-called “skeptics” and “conservatives” (like George Will) who think that “markets” will magically solve problems relating to un-owned (and un-managed) resources (and who serve as deliberate or unwitting fronts for those who are happy to take profits now but leave costs for others).

I keep trying to make this point – see the post linked at my name – but some of you seem to be in “full hackles” mode, certain that you see an enemy, and single-mindedly dedicated to chasing your own tails.


325.  TokyoTom Says: 

#320: Jim, I think I just answered you in a pending post – the REAL point is that the REAL enemy in the climate change struggle are people ((VERY DIFFERENT from Rene) who think that modern markets work great but forget to note that they undeniably produce destruction where resources are either UNOWNED or UNMANAGED.

On bison and whales, I invite you to a quick read of my own writings:

I think I have provided links upthread on fisheries, but the people who understand these issues best are the free market environmentalists at PERC who have documented how Indians used to own and manage fisheries and other resources. If the tribes` treaty rights and traditional rights to salmon, etc. had been respected, then there would be a resource owner that would have every incentive and right to sue landowners for destruction of watershed habitat; instead, the resource became a state-owned free-for-all, subject to further federal mismanagement.

As Mike G has noted, the successes in marine resource management have all come by restoring some measure of private ownership to “public” resources, which is the reason, as I have already noted, the even the mainline environmental community is united in calling for more property rights-related approaches to crashing fisheries.


328.  TokyoTom Says: 

Let me link to a post that makes my point – and I think that of Gavin`s extended metaphor – fairly clear:

“Overlooked by those warmed by climate rhetoric (”alarmist” or “denialist”) – the fact that our most important commons have NO property rights rules”

The point is not that “property” is an easy panacea to every problem, but that the biggest problems lie where there are no property rights (or other mechanisms that give users incentives to invest in sustainability) in place.

Why don`t you guys see that using this as an argument on climate change is what like throwing holy water in the face of almost every climate change vampire?

#326: Hank, who say there IS a purely private solution to every problem? Certainly not me.


336.  TokyoTom Says: 

#333: Yes, Silk, there are still “a few people are willing to take the Exxon dollar and sell their soul.”

However, as I noted upthread, Desmog Blog has shown that Exxon no longer funds Robert Bradley or his blog where Chip appears:

It wouldn`t surprise me if Exxon is joining others in pushing for oil & gas development at home, but for now they`re no longer funding climate denial shops – and like Jim Hansen actually calling for carbon taxes!

So where is their money going? How about the Stanford University-centered Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP), the world`s largest privately-funded effort to conduct basic research on energy technologies to reduce GHG emissions, which they are funding over 10 years to the tune of $100 million?

Exxon is now a climate change story that the right no longer wants to hear, and is one of the reasons I`ve been banned from the “MasterResource” blog.


337.  TokyoTom Says: 

#328: “You completely ignore the numerous examples that have been given of property owners trashing natural resources for a quick profit.”

Nick, no I haven`t. Rather, as I note in 327, I`m making a different point, that as Gavin points out with his metaphor, one of the best arguments to make to denialists and skeptics is that, as their OWN principles tell them, the “market” reality is that the worst cases of resources abuse are where there are no property rights at all.

Unchecked by property rights (and consumer pressure, regulation, trade agreements), markets are very effective machines of destruction, as I have tried to explain elsewhere:

It`s a lack of understanding of this that makes market conservatives right / enviros wrong on SMALL issues (such as Ehrlich`s bet with Julian Simon on commodity prices), but wrong on the BIG ones. Those ranting about “neo-Malthusians seeking to destroy civilization” are simply not ignoring or are blind to how consumer and other markets are destroying unowned, unmanaged Nature around the world.

This partisan blindness is readily understandable; after all, we see the same thing here among enviros!


376.  TokyoTom Says: 

#338 Ike, thanks for the interesting link on Polynesia.

But spare me the slave economy argument, not only because slavery is hardly something libertarians would find at all morally justifiable, but because it`s unrelated from my point – and, I think, Gavin`s – which is not that there is an ideal form of ownership/management, but simply that, where resources are unowned or unmanaged, they tend to get trashed.

This is a long, tragic and continuing story. The primary point is that we need to start better managing our commons, including our shared atmosphere. The ancillary point, for the purpose of political jousting, is that it is highly effective to ask skeptics to show you where the property rights (or other management mechanisms) are in the air that ensure there is is no tragedy of the commons. This is a show stopper, because you`re talking a language
is familiar to them, but they are forced to realize that the market system does NOT work for the atmosphere, because it is a commons and without property rights.

Are you with me?

[I responded to this before, but it apparently didn`t post.]


378.  TokyoTom Says: 

#331 : “Nah… it’s the same gut reaction I have when folks are asserting that Jesus loves me, or giving me free links to… not my religion, and I’m beyond redemption thank you very much. I like to live on the reality side of things.”

I can understand your “gut” reaction, but it`s rather obviously getting in the way of your higher faculties. I am barely tolerated by many at Mises (to whom I come off as a commie left enviro Nazi fascist) and offer links only to my own thoughts there, and similarly have been shown the door by RedState, Freepers, NewsBusters and now the place that Chip Knappenberger blogs from. And I`ve spent many a comment thread at Mises battling similar nonsense that people concerned about climate change have drunk the the Koolaid of some religion or another; e.g,

Feel free read further or test me.


382.  TokyoTom Says: 

#349: John, George Reisman is your uncle? I`ve had the nerve to joust with him on the LvMI pages and my own blog over the past few years on environmental matters, where he is simply emotional and not reasonable:

Thanks for your various questions and observations. I don`t think that we are actually that far apart, but we are drifting a bit off-thread. Let me make a few specific responses.

“Mankind did not create the resources so by what right has he to own them? People own oil, but oil is being drilled and used to its inevitable extinction of the resource. It might be better to think of the global resources as being lent to us by the mere fact of the existence of such resources, so what right of ownership should exist?”

My own view is that “ownership” is chiefly not so much about our individual relationships to “property” (can we really “own” any other life form? aren`t we just as much owned by the bacteria in our gut, parasites, diseases and predators that use us for food?), but more humbly about our relationships with each other regarding relative priority of claims to make use of particular things we find valuable. What those things depends upon place, time, culture and individual.

“Many owners have exploited a resource wile abusing it and destroying its capacity to survive simply to finish with it and move on to another resource to exploit.”

I don`t disagree. In fact, I think that this is endemic whenever there are open-access commons remaining for such exploiters to move on to. (In this regard, we differ from the rest of nature only in the leverage that technologies give us to wreak devastation.) While we have developed property rights institutions (communal and private, informal and formal) precisely to get a handle over tragedies of the commons (and even evolved possessive and cooperative behaviors) only a blind ideologue would assert that creating property has somehow changed human nature. But it is worth noting that property IS helpful, as it makes it possible for others to acquire and manage more beneficially resources that others mistreat.

“There is also ample room to see that corruption, favoritism and incompetence are inescapably linked to corporate greed through over manipulation of markets. The users and the looters are not always the government and the belief systems, they are also corporations.”

Again, I agree; my point is not that all use of government should be avoided (indeed, it might even be needed), but simply that use of government itself no panacea, but fraught with danger – as corporations and their owners are far more effective in Washington than the citizens who continually have to organize to do battle with them. Some corporations (not all, by any means) are looters, and use government to achieve their ends.

This goes back a long way, with the chief roots in the grant of limited liability to shareholders for bad acts by corporations:

Sorry, but I need to wind this up.


383.  TokyoTom Says: 

#354: “So the protection of your property DEMANDS an overwhelming force and a force that no other power can bring against you.”

Mark, this is too simplistic. What is “property” and how it can be defended depends on context. In close communities, people don`t lock their doors, do deals based on handshakes and reputation, and little resort is made to law, police or courts. In other cases, weapons – or thick contracts or physical or technological locks – and constant vigilance are required.

Maine lobstermnen have an easier task defending their resources than do indigenous fishermen or forest-dwellers.

So what will work in the case of climate depends on available technology and the level of trust (and enforcement) that can be established.


385.  TokyoTom Says: 

#365: “Just as the Newfoundland fisherman remained blind to the consequences of their actions. In both cases, what was happening was obvious, yet in spite of the evidence of diminishing resources, they cut/fished as if there were no problem whatsoever.”

JSM, thanks for bring us back the tragedy of the unmanaged/government commons. Who owned the fishery, the government or the fishermen? Except in places where fishermen are being given transferable harvesting rights (or being completely locked our – very rare) government-management fisheries are all crashing, which is why mainline environmental groups are calling for more property rights in fisheries.

Ironic captcha: bickers Salmon!


416.  TokyoTom Says: 

#391: “A corporation which takes other factors than money into account can be taken over with money when their book value gets too high for their stock value. You forget that some resources are too large for a single owner (and single owners eventually die), and so crowd theory takes over. In a sense, corporations are a tragedy of the commons for everything they own.”

Richard, these are extremely important nuances, to be sure, but it is still helpful for Rene to generalize by saying that “Those who own a forest are not compelled to harvest it against their wishes.”

Rene was talking about what ownership of a forest (or a transferrable fishing permit, first use water rights, etc.) implies – and was surely correct – while what you are talking about what we mean by ownership of a public corporation, which is also an important area of inquiry.

Starting with the first state grant of limited liability to investors/owners for damages that corporations do to third parties, to other extensions of unlimited life, unlimited purposes and the Consitutional right as a “legal person” to lie and to purchase influence, moral hazard and risk-shifting has become rampant in the businesses closest to government:

Back to resources, what we typically mean by “ownership” is the right, vis-a-vis non-owners, is to determine who has access to the resource and the terms under which they can use it. The nature and preference of the individuals, community or government that owns the resource may make all the difference between how well a resource is used and protected, but markets do allow people and groups with differing preferences to make deals regarding ownership and management.

It`s where there is NO ownership, or where ownership is in the hands of a kleptocracy or poorly-run bureaucracy that either the “tragedy of the commons” takes place, or deals cannot be done and everyone is stuck in a struggle for control over the wheel of government:

“Private” and “community” property systems that put control in the hands of users are by no means perfect, but they avoid the worst of the tragedy of the commons, which is why mainline environmental groups are now together calling for property rights in fisheries (as linked above).


417.  TokyoTom Says: 

#373: “The increased logging clogged many salmon streams, in many cases permanently degrading them. This has been a large factor in the collapse of West Coast salmon fisheries (along with increasing diversions of water to agriculture and rising river water temps).

Now, if the salmon fishermen owned the redwood forests that surrounded all the salmon streams, they might have had a very different take on what the best thing to do was – a very different view from Wall Street bond traders. Which one is right?”

Good questions, but you`ve missed an important one – what would the result be if salmon fishermen actually owned rights in their FISHERY (as opposed to land, as you query), instead of just being allowed to catch fish when the government allows?

Wouldn`t they have an ability to sue landowners for messing up streams, and to make deals with then to enhance and maintain habitat? This (and water rights) in fact underpin river and stream fisheries in various parts of the world and US. It`s mainly the government ownership of the resource – after stealing it from the Indians – and the fact that users have no rights that they can protect or trade that is the reason why the great salmon fisheries are surely dying:


433.  TokyoTom Says: 

#424 “Markets have their place, but they give individuals and corporations influence in proportion to their wealth – thus in practice, giving only corporations and very rich individuals any influence at all. This is why “libertarians” love them so much. “Propertarians” would be a far more accurate term for their views.”

Well said, but with more bark than bite. Consumer preferences on green issues – expressed by individual purchases and by group action – have done a great job of influencing markets and products provided, and there is ample room for more.

See Walmart working with fishermen and a sustainability certification group re: Copper River salmon:

What we desperately need right now re: bluefin and other fisheries are consumer boycotts and demands for sustainability labelling.


#439:  TokyoTom Says: 

#429 Jim, people turn their backs on the rules because the rules create incentives for destruction and no incentives for compliance.

See what Defying Ocean’s End (cofounded by Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Ocean Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, The World Conservation Union, and World Wildlife Fund) says about protecting fish:

These crazy, dedicated cionservation groups are all pushing for poerty rights approaches to end the tragedy of this government-mis-managed commons.

[this is a short repost as it seems my initial post has been lost]

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 America

[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.

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).

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:
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.

(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.