Private Property to the Rescue!

As Walter Block says, “if it moves privatize it, if it doesn’t move privatize it,” and guess what? Not only are endangered animals not an exception to the rule, but the most wonderful example of why private property is the cure to what ails you. Take for instance this Vice story:

First off, some editor should have realized that is obviously a cheetah and not a lion. I hadn’t planned to write anything on a libertarian approach to environmentalism and I generally avoid responding to every terrible thing Vice, Salon, or Slate writes but the wildlife issue is just too easy. The libertarian case for private property in endangered wildlife is a home run.

Lions are not alone in this. We are also frequently told about “rapacious Asian demand for ivory.” Asians, those superstitious cruel neanderthals, believe that elephant tusk and rhino horns have special medical properties for curing cancer. How these people never get accused of racism for saying this stuff is beyond me. Yet the lions aren’t suffering from greedy dentist (or superstitious Asians) but from incompetent governments who may mean well but ultimately subject nature to the tragedy of the commons.

This dilemma was first described in an influential article titled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968, but Ludwig von Mises had already written about it in 1940:

“If land is not owned by anybody, although legal formalism may call it public property, it is utilized without any regard to the disadvantages resulting. Those who are in a position to appropriate to themselves the returns — lumber and game of the forests, fish of the water areas, and mineral deposits of the subsoil — do not bother about the later effects of their mode of exploitation. For them the erosion of the soil, the depletion of the exhaustible resources and other impairments of the future utilization are external costs not entering into their calculation of input and output. They cut down the trees without any regard for fresh shoots or reforestation. In hunting and fishing they do not shrink from methods preventing the repopulation of the hunting and fishing grounds.”

You see when resources are owned by everyone (or “the public”) they are really owned by no one.Walter Block uses the analogy of soda can, and anyone who done this at a movie theater knows it is true. If you have your own soda with simply one straw, you will mostly sip some at the beginning and then moderate your sipping in order to last the whole or a good part of the movie. Now imagine that you and your six friends are sharing a soda either by passing or perhaps by a six extremely large straws. Are you likely to sip faster or slower than before? Even if you initially intend to be the better person and conserve soda for the later parts of the movie each time you pass it you notice it is significantly lighter and you begin to take sips out of it every time it passes, not because you are thirsty but simply because you will not get the same use of it if you let it pass. Before you know the movie hasn’t even started yet and all your family’s soda and popcorn is gone.

Well the same is true of natural resources and wildlife. One historical example is the Western “open ranges” that eventually became the dustbowl area. The Federal government disallowed any homesteading or ownership or grazing lands beyond 160 acres, which while suitable in wetter eastern climates was sustainable in the West, leading to widespread overuse and depletion of pasture land. It was to the economic advantage of every cattle or sheep owner to graze the land and use up the grass as quickly as possible before other ranchers could.

Samuel Hays, a harvard historian in the 1950’s and 60’s recounts:
“Much of the Western livestock industry depended for its forage upon the “open” range, owned by the federal government, but free for anyone to use. . . . Congress had never provided legislation regulating grazing or permitting stockmen to acquire range lands. Cattle and sheepmen roamed the public domain. . . . Cattlemen fenced range for their exclusive use, but competitors cut the wire. Resorting to force and violence, sheepherders and cowboys “solved” their disputes over grazing lands by slaughtering rival livestock and murdering rival stockmen. . . . Absence of the most elementary institutions of property law created confusion, bitterness, and destruction. Amid this turmoil the public range rapidly deteriorated. Originally plentiful and lush, the forage supply was subjected to intense pressure by increasing use. . . . The public domain became stocked with more animals than the range could support. Since each stockman feared that others would beat him to the available forage, he grazed early in the year and did not permit the young grass to mature and reseed. Under such conditions the quality and quantity of available forage rapidly decreased; vigorous perennials gave way to annuals and annuals to weeds.” Hays calculated that over two-thirds of public-domain grazing land was depleted by this process.

The problem with Cecil the lion, or with elephants, is not that they’re valuable but precisely that we do not let them be owned and valued on the market. If they’re valuable is the only way we can keep them alive, and that can only happen if they can be owned. Lots of animals are valuable, certain breeds and pedigree of dogs, birds, and other animals are valuable in the tens of thousands of dollars and in no danger of being extinct. Right now however poachers simply compete against one another to see who can kill the animal first since if they do not the other will. Since he does not own them he cannot say “this year I will only hunt so many, and next year there will be x more.”

The animal hunter A leaves today becomes the animal hunter B kills tomorrow. There is simply no mechanism for conservation. The hunter will shoot and kill with no regard of whether it is a male or a female, whether it is pregnant, or if its cubs are still dependant on it. However if hunter A is allowed to own elephants, tiger, lions, and antelope just as you would a cow or any other animal he will act very differently.

Hunter A (let’s call him Adam) realizes people are willing to pay a lot to hunt these animals. Adam instead of poaching on government land now comes up with a business plan which he pitches to investors. He already owns some land in Zimbabwe or wherever but he expands it to several square miles. He builds electric fences all around his land and creates a natural habitat for his animals. He hires experts who assist  him and tag and track the animals for size, gender, reproduction rates, etc. Perhaps for the first six months there is no hunting and the animals are allowed to breed uninterrupted while Adam advertises and books safari hunts for the next year. Poachers who attempt to go on Adam’s land all experience mysterious hunting accidents and largely decide to simply book a safari hunt at his ranch next year when it opens.

The first year Adam releases only a limited number of tags for some of his male lions so that there will be more lions next year. The lions are in high demand and are easily filled and people pay thousands (maybe as much $60,000) to hunt a couple of his lions or antelope. With the first years profits Adam invest in expanding his property, hiring more animal experts, and security guards for poachers who get through his fence. The next year the animal populations of each his species has greatly expanded and he releases much more tags than the years before. The first few tags are purchased quickly but sales slow down and Adam must lower the price of the tags to sell the rest. This continues until the habitat Adam has created reaches its max capacity for wildlife and Adam finds the optimal amount of tags for each species that will not decrease Adam’s revenue gained from tags next year since that would mean lost future income. Adam could potentially allow all of his animals to be hunted in one year and may certainly make a large amount of money, but what about next year, or his investors? Further his company will be virtually worthless on the market aside from the land. So Adam finds an optimal amount tags to be sold and only books so many safari hunts on his land per year in order to balance present versus future income.

The individual entrepreneur has a built-in mechanism of self interests for “optimal conservation” to ensure his business provides a certain optimal  amount to consumers per year while conserving, and especially breeding, a certain amount to preserve long-term sustainability and profits. Someone who owns a private ranch to run safari’s and hunts will precisely control how many of each species, of what age, of what sex, and what size may be killed. In the case of especially rare animals a premium in keeping with the animals scarcity is payed, and owners may only allow hunters to shoot males (since less males are needed for breeding). If the owner of rare black rhino’s, cheetahs, or lions allows too much of his animals to be shot he will experience a loss of potential future income which will bring down the capital value on the market of the his ranch itself. If he allows all of his animals to be hunted he will have no income and his ranch business will be worthless.
If you think this is far-fetched the fact is it has already, and is currently happening:




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