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Private Property and the Environment: Two Views

Jane S. Shaw

Editor’s Note:

In the May 1988 issue of The Freeman we published John Hospers’ review of Property Rights and Eminent Domain by Ellen Frankel Paul. In the following essays, Jane S. Shaw and John Hospers exchange views on some issues raised in that review.

Jane S. Shaw:

People concerned about freedom recognize the importance of property rights as the foundation for a system of cooperation and mutual exchange. Often, however, they abandon their convictions about the value of property rights when they address environmental issues. Yet a more thorough understanding of property rights would lead them to recognize that private rights offer the best hope for protecting many components of the natural environment.

Many writers have expressed concern about environmental devastation such as the loss of wild animals in africa and the destruction of tropical forests in Latin America. In the May 1998 issue if The Freeman, for example, John Hospers shared his alarm about these losses and suggested that private property rights are part of the problem: "And here the property rights in lead conflict sharply with the need for retaining the natural links in the food chain…."

It’s right to be concerned about environmental harm, but we need to understand that solutions will occur when private property rights are strengthened rather than weakened.

Wanton destruction of animals occurs primarily because no one owns wildlife. Contrast wildlife with cattle: No one worries about the destruction of livestock and the reason in simple–cattle are owned and the owner has a direct interest in protecting them.

It is lack of ownership, or common ownership, that leads to destruction. Aristotle observed this more than 2,000 years ago. He noted that "what is common to many is taken least care of, for all men have greater regard for what its their own than for what they possess in common with others."

As James Gwartney and Richard Stroup wrote in The Freeman in February 1988, the devastation of the American buffalo on the Great Plains came about because no one owned the buffalo. Without ownership, it was to the advantage of Indians, and later white men, to kill whatever buffalo they could. Without ownership, no individual could benefit by saving more buffalo — someone else could easily go after any buffalo an individual refrained from killing. Had the buffalo been owned, it would have been in the interest of the owner to assure than enough buffalo remained to reproduce for the future. While ownership of the buffalo was not practical then, Gwartney and Stroup point out that other Indians successfully turned to as system of private rights to protect other animals such as beaver, which did not have the nomadic characteristics of Plains buffalo.

Of course, common ownership does not always pose an environmental problem. At earlier periods of human history, when human beings were scarce, grazing land could be held in common. However, even with extremely low levels of population, people could barely subsist on it! Similarly, as long as Indians didn’t have horses or weapons such as guns, they couldn’t threaten the buffalo. But the Indian standard of living was extremely low and their population sparse. Once people got beyond a primitive standard of living, common property became a serious problem, one that private ownership corrected.

Private property assures accountability. A person who owns property will reap the rewards of good stewardship and bear the consequences of poor stewardship. The owner who lets his land erode pays the price because the value of that land sinks as soon as the erosion becomes visible. The owner who protects the land enhances or sustains its value. In general, private property makes good stewardship pay.

When property rights are insecure or incomplete, so that someone else bears the costs or reaps the rewards, accountability is missing. That is the case with the Amazon rain-forest.

In Brazil, government policies are encouraging deforestation of the rain-forest through subsidies and tax credits. The biggest effect is that owners of land reaping the rewards of ownership without paying the costs, and thus are encouraged to act irresponsibly. A study by the World Resources Institute (by no means a group committed to private property) concludes that cattle ranching and settlements by small farmers are the major factors behind deforestation. Both of those activities are heavily subsidized by the government. Author Robert Repetto says that the subsidies encourage the livestock industry to cut down trees to promote pastureland and encourage settlers to turn forests into farmland. (In addition, the government subsidizes the forest products industry.) "By supplying virtually free money, the federal government invited investors to acquire and clear large tracts of forested lands," says Repetto.

Under a system of true private ownership, where owners were required to pay the full cost of their activities, the Amazon forest would be far more likely to be preserved. Yes, tree-cutting would occur, but no on today’s scale. With so much forested land, some conversion of trees to pasture does not pose an environmental problem; some land undoubtedly will be more productive as pasture. However, where cutting is excessively costly, owners would refrain from cutting trees. In the U.S., recent economic research has shown that contrary to received wisdom, cutting down forests in the Midwest during the 19th century was not wasteful. The trees were simply quite valuable when cut; to keep them standing longer would have been wasteful to society.

Furthermore, in a system of private property, individuals who believe that the forests will be valuable in the future have a strong incentive to protect them. Some might be speculators who believe that the value of endangered species in the future will outweigh the current cost of preserving the land from cultivation. Under the present scheme in Brazil, the cost of preservation is high because taxpayers are subsidizing so many of the costs of devastation.

Others would preserve the rain-forest in a private property system are likely to be private groups and individuals concerned about ecological balance. In fact, today, non-profit organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy are taking steps to save tropical forestlands in Latin America. (Since they have to work with governments, however, they face a number of difficulties they probably wouldn’t face if the land were privately controlled.)

In conclusion, what causes environmental destruction is the lack of private property rights, when resources are owned in common or by the government. Strengthening private property rights will improve the chances for wildlife and forests.

John Hospers replies:

Jane Shaw seems to assume that my quarrel is with private property. But it is not: the deforestation of the Amazon basin would be an ecological tragedy regardless of by whom or under what auspices it is done, whether by private owners, communal owners, or government owners. If Brazil had a Homestead Act similar to that of the U.S.A. in the nineteenth century, and the new owners destroyed the forests, the result would be the same as it now is under a government program of resettlement. It is what is done that portends disaster, not by whom it is done.

But, one may say, ecological damage is far less likely to occur if property is in private hands. Probably so: government programs are usually wasteful and counterproductive, and take little thought for the environment, a matter which is not usually very high on politicians’ list of priorities. Still, this issue is something of a "mixed bag." Sometimes it happens the other way round: in a safari through the Okavanga basin in Botswana I found (and all safari guides confirmed this) that lions, leopards, giraffes, zebras, and antelopes continued to exist at all only in those large areas designated by the Botswana government as national parks. In the areas owned by the native tribes themselves, there was not a single bit of game to be found — all the animals had long since been slaughtered by the natives. The same is true in India and elsewhere, where hungry people do what they can to eat today, with not much thought for tomorrow.

Under private ownership, Botswanans are now growing cattle, ecological intruders which (because of their form of grazing, the protection they need against the tsetse fly — to which all the native animals are immune — And the construction of fences, making it impossible for the wild game to reach the rivers) after a time destroy the habitat of the native animals. The native animals can no longer roam free to find food and water. Private ownership has sealed the doom of most African wildlife.

You can, indeed, preserve some species of plant or animal by owning a tract of land and growing the plant or animal on it. But this won’t do in the case of migratory animals whose primary need is to roam and who would be shot down the moment they crossed the boundary into someone else’s land. And it would hardly apply at all to birds, which fly over people’s lands. You can raise condors on your ranch, but unless there are strictly enforced conservation laws, the birds will be shot down by the owners of other land who have no soft spot in their heart for condors.

"Individuals who believe that the forests will be valuable in the future have a strong incentive to protect them," writes Ms. Shaw. (1) Yes, and not to protect them if for one reason or another they do not believe this. (2) Or they may believe it but not act on it — perhaps they want quick profits now; there are, surely, people who care less about their children and grandchildren than they care about themselves. (3) Or, like the Botswanan cattle-growers, they may not have the luxury of thinking all that much about tomorrow, because they desperately need the game today, just to survive at all.

The point I was making in the essay was that the vast ecological damage has been and is being done through the misuse of land in one part of the world, which affects soil and weather patterns in other parts of the world — that the fate of these parts is interdependent. (See my paper, "Ecology and Freedom," in the September 1988 issue of Liberty.)

Thus, the main problem is not whether you make wise use of your own land for the sake of your own future and that of your children; the ecological problem I was trying to dramatize occurs when the use of your land may have catastrophic effects on the use of other of their lands, which may be many thousands of miles away. How does one provide a motivation for taking care of your own land, not in order to preserve your land but to preserve that of others?

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