David R. Henderson  

The Environment: Own It and Save It

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The Veil of Implausibility... The Sweet Spot of Freedom...

The title of this blog post is the same as the title of one of my chapters in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey. In that chapter, I show how private ownership of resources leads people to take better care of them.

But it also could have been the title of the latest post by Timothy Taylor (aka The Conversable Economist). In "Property Rights and Saving the Rhino," Taylor highlights a study done by Michael 't Sas-Rolfes for the Property and Environment Research Center. The study is titled "Saving African Rhinos: A Market Success Story."

Here's a key paragraph from Taylor:

For a sense of how much difference these issues of property rights and incentives can make to conservation, consider the difference in populations between black and white rhinos. Sas-Rolfes explains: "Figure 2 shows trends in white rhino numbers from 1960 until 2007. Contrast those numbers with the black rhino, which mostly lived in African countries with weak or absent wildlife market institutions such as Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia. In 1960, about 100,000 black rhinos roamed across Africa, but by the early 1990s poachers had reduced their numbers to less than 2,500. . . . Unprotected wild rhino populations are rare to non-existent in modern Africa. The only surviving African rhinos remain either in countries with strong wildlife market institutions (such as South Africa and Namibia) or in intensively protected zones."


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Amy Willis writes:

Also related to the subject of last week's EconTalk episode with Terry Anderson! Less to do with species conservation this time, but all about property rights and incentives...

ThomasH writes:

A good if not very original point. It can work, however, only when a "commons" good has become so depleted that what remains can potentially be owned. Assigning ownership to rhinos is probably a good idea. It is less applicable to water withdrawn from a vast aquifer or the putting CO2 into the atmosphere.

David R. Henderson writes:

@ThomasH,
A good if not very original point.
Thanks. By the way, I think originality is overrated.
It can work, however, only when a "commons" good has become so depleted that what remains can potentially be owned. Assigning ownership to rhinos is probably a good idea. It is less applicable to water withdrawn from a vast aquifer or the putting CO2 into the atmosphere.
The key is not depletion. The key, as your two examples suggest, is the feasibility of private ownership. And feasibility often depends on technology. Before barbed wire, it was thought infeasible to have private ownership of land in the western United States. After barbed wire, it was thought, and was, feasible. It was hardly the case that land in the West was depleted. What changed was technology.

ThomasH writes:

@ David
Agree. Technology might make private ownership possible when before it was not. Relative scarcity, where depletion might come in, plays a role, too. Without scarcity, ownership would have zero value to the owner. Private ownership of squirrels in my neighborhood even if technologically feasible would not be worthwhile. Presumably there was a time when that was true of rhinos as well.

mickey writes:

I'd like to see this connected to SeaWorld. I'm inclined to think some may have a point about the conditions and the status of those animals relative to humans.

David R. Henderson writes:

@mickey,
Your comment is too vague. What’s your specific complaint against SeaWorld?

David R. Henderson writes:

@ThomasH,
Without scarcity, ownership would have zero value to the owner. Private ownership of squirrels in my neighborhood even if technologically feasible would not be worthwhile.
Got it. Good example with squirrels. Thanks for clarifying.

michael pettengill writes:

I don't see how [private] ownership works in the real world to protect the environment. There are private parks for rhinos, private land ownership, private ownership of rhinos, but the poachers still come in and kill these privately owned rhinos on privately owned land.

Reuters reported this July 2014 "Two armed gangs killed four rhinos for their horns in rural Kenya this week in possibly the worst rhino poaching incident in the country in more than 25 years..."

"The poaching on Wednesday night took place at the private Ol Jogi ranch near Nanyuki, about 200 km (120 miles) north of Nairobi."

-more-

In a couple of weeks in 2013, the poachers hit two of the other private ranches in Kenya, Solio Ranch and Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary, as well as the public reserves killing rhinos.

These private ranches depend on wildlife that is frequently poached to support their safari businesses which typically costs $20K to tourists looking at wildlife.

This argument is essentially "the way to eliminate bank robberies and credit card fraud is to have privately owned banks; the way to prevent theft of personal property is to have privately owned homes."

You might argue that Western property owners in African and Asian nation demand the government create jack boot government agents to protect their property, but leaders and the people of nations have long created jack boot government agents to impose their rule that prohibits individuals taking property the government prohibits them from taking.

Thus it is governments that protect the rhino and the environment, not private property ownership.

Coal mining companies have no problem at all justifying destroying the land they own, and in the process damage the land and property of people near and far. The recourse to prevent the harm from coal industry in the Ohio valley was the States acting on behalf of the people and property owners in the Northeast States suing the Federal to force States to protect them. These lawsuits went all the way to the Supreme Court to force the governments involved to protect the property rights in the Northeast States.

What protects property, public and private, and the environment, is effective government. And Jefferson noted that education is required to produce good citizens, and without good citizens you can't have good government of the people by the people for the people.

Glen writes:

The Hoover Institution published an even-better piece a few years ago entitled Shoot an Elephant, Save a Community.

Bill writes:

@michael pettengill

You're right to say that governments are established among men to protect property.
Government, especially in countries/continents with relatively less resources (and thus with fewer non-government alternatives), is typically the agent that property owners use to affect the security of their possessions.
What is being addressed here however, is that ecological resources organized within the scope of private property enjoy a greater level of protection because the owners of the property (animals, foliage, waterways, land) have an incentive to protect it (wether or not government or another security agent is used for that purpose) than if nobody owns it at all.
Beyond the concept that an owned resource is going to be cared about far more than one for which no one but a poacher has a stake in its welfare, an owned ecological or other resource will be protected better by someone or some group with a livelihood stake in it than would a state officer guided by statute or faction of voters with only hypothetical interest.

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