Tragedy of the Commons and Species Extinction

29 Oct


October 22, 2013

According to Barbara Amiel, “a rapacious Asian demand for ivory is creating such terrible killing fields that elephants face extinction by poaching.” She writes this bit of economic illiteracy in Maclean’s Magazine (October 7, 2013, pp. 12-13). Before probing the reasons why this is so totally wrong, here is a bit of background. Barbara Amiel, wife of Conrad Black (and ex-wife of  George Jonas, another semi- demi- quasi- libertarian with whom I have also tangled in these pages) is a sort of Canadian equivalent of Ann Coulter: brilliant, beautiful, a gifted writer, conservative, vaguely libertarian on a few issues. Maclean’s Magazine is a rough equivalent of Time Magazine in the U.S.

Back to the elephants, of which Amiel is very fond; she also states: “The magnificent and highly intelligent elephant has always been treated abominably. Today helicopter gunships shoot them down in Africa and hack off heads for ivory tusks, leaving baby elephants orphaned.” Maclean’s Magazine (September 13, 2013). Why is her first statement entirely nonsensical, and her second, in that context, misleading at best? This is because the demand for ivory has nothing whatsoever to do with poaching. There is a “rapacious” demand for pork, too, on the part of “Asians,” and everyone else for that matter, and yet the pig does not face “extinction by poaching” or from any other source. The same is true for steaks and cows, wings and chickens, etc. There is also “a rapacious Asian demand for” things like cement for building, wood for chopsticks, steel for ships, etc., etc. And, yet, miraculously, there is no shortage, let alone total disappearance of, any of these things.

No, if we want to ferret out the source of the plight of the elephant, we must look elsewhere. Where oh where? I will give Amiel one hint: this difficulty stems from an institution that has played havoc with more, far more, than merely the elephant. Yes, that is it: the government. And how, pray tell, has statism caused grief in this particular case? It is simple. By not allowing private ownership in these creatures (and the same applies to the tiger, the rhino, the whale, and every other species in danger of extinction) the “public sector” has unleashed the tragedy of the commons on mankind, and with it the endangerment of all species that are not allowed to be owned privately.

What you may well ask is the tragedy of the commons? When a resource such as an endangered species is unowned, in the vernacular owned “in common” by all of mankind, namely by no one, incentives to preserve it are greatly attenuated. If hunter A leaves an elephant alone today that he might have harvested, someone else, B, comes along and grabs it up. So A kills it right away, with no thought for the morrow.  He will even slaughter a pregnant elephant, the hope for the future of this species. If these creatures were privately owned, they would of course still be hunted, in much the same way as other barnyard animals are culled, but there would be a stiff price attached to any such occurrence. Old male elephants would be the cheapest, of course. And if a hunter for some reason wanted to shoot a pregnant elephant, this too could probably be arranged; but it would costs a (human) arm and a leg. These funds of course would be used to preserve the basis of the earnings of the elephant owner.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this phenomenon is the contrasting fates of the cow and the buffalo. The former was always privately owned, and never came within a million miles of extinction. The latter for many years was in the commons, so people had little incentive to refrain from hunting it today. They would not have it tomorrow if they did not. In contrast, the cost of butchering a cow today is precisely that bovine tomorrow, so ranchers act economically with regard to that breed. It is movies such as Dances with Wolves that misconstrue this, and blame the near extinction of the buffalo on the white man.

Do I need to amend this claim that “rapacious” demand is irrelevant to poaching? Could not a critic object to the analysis offered above on the ground that no one would poach anything that was not valuable? That is, if ivory lost its value, no one would poach it? No. Of course, no one would steal something that had no value at all. But, if a thing had no value at all, it would not be considered an economic good. So, yes, no one steals air, or worthless rocks, because they are not economic goods. But, when there are prohibitions placed on any economic goods, in effect a price control of zero on them, then there will be incentives unleashed to reward just that kind of behavior. For example, no one, nowadays, at least in the U.S., steals carrots (I ignore minor pilfering or shoplifting in making this statement). But suppose that government in its infinite wisdom declared a price ceiling of zero on carrots (they could only be given away, not sold), or, worse, banned them outright. Then, the black market price of these vegetables would rise above present carrot prices, and there would be far greater incentives to steal them than at present.

Let me consider one other objection to the tragedy of the commons thesis offered above. This one is not at all hypothetical, but actually served as the basis for the bestowing of the Nobel Prize in economics on Elinor Ostrom. This political scientist, the first woman to win this Award, was also economically illiterate. She explicitly rejected the tragedy of the commons thesis, one of the most powerful in all of economics. In her book she offered numerous cases which supposedly ran counter to that insight, ranging from water in California to grazing pastures in the Alps, to fishing in the Far East. But none of these cases were really “commons.” They were all something very different, partnerships. Take the library of a large law firm of several hundred partners. There is no tragedy of the commons here, to be sure. The books, or in the modern era, electronic compilations, are not mistreated, abused, lost. These resources are there for all the members of the law firm to utilize. There is no analogy to the tragedy of the commons that afflicts the elephant and other such species. But the point is, there is no “commons” here, either. If you are I, gentle reader, were to attempt to make use of the law firms’ resources (or grazing lands in Switzerland, or water in California), we might be able to do so, but only with the permission of the real owners of the enterprise, and probably not even then. For a blistering attack on this author for making this very elementary mistake, see Block, Walter E. 2011. Review essay of Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge, UK and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; in Libertarian Papers, Vol. 3, Art. 21.

The Best of Walter E. Block


Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable, The Case for Discrimination, Labor Economics From A Free Market Perspective, Building Blocks for Liberty, Differing Worldviews in Higher Education, and The Privatization of Roads and Highways. His latest book is Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty.

Copyright © 2013 by Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit and a live link are given.


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