April 27, 2005

Anti-Capitalism and the Trumped-Up 'Tragedy of the Commons'

In doing a google search to look for interesting quotes on capitalism, I found this old article from 1997 posted online: Capitalism and the Tragedy of the Commons. The argument is that essentially capitalism doesn't address "the commons" and that people are self-interested and therefore overuse resources like "the commons" rather than save it for the long term. In other words, it's basically an unknowing reptition of Hobbes' argument that people's self-interest is short-sighted and that a central authority is wise and far-sighted. From the article:

    To pick an example particularly important to me: I have been diving the coral reefs of Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, Florida for almost twenty years. In that period of time, the glorious coral heads have given way to spottier, smaller stretches of discolored coral, and fish that were common (such as grouper) are now never seen at all. The degradation of the reefs is painfully visible in two decades of my lifetime and the cause is patently obvious. Each fisherman takes more fish than he should, each dive boat takes too many divers on too many trips, and the shipping companies run too many large ships, including oil tankers, over and eventually into the reefs.
The solution I see first is obvious to a capitalist: let somebody own the reef. It's possible they might not be interested in using it and that they might mismanage it, but then self-interest would be in utilizing it as a resource. It could be used for fishing or for eco-tourism, either of which might turn out to be profitable. My bet is that getting people to come on their vacations and see the coral reef could turn out to be profitable, coupled with other benefits and attractions.

But there's little interest in preserving the coral reef when nobody owns it. And why should there be? Does the coral reef have rights? No. Does the coral reef belong to somebody? No. Is the coral reef fundamentally unique or amazing? No, not any more than the rest of nature.

This is where the religiosity of environemntalists intrudes on the article. Suddenly the coral reef is deserving of protection. After all, it has brights colors and cute little clownfish, and more importantly this guy likes to dive there and only evil profit-seekers need to go there. Of course, how is it fundamentally different from a scrap of underbrush or a forest in somebody's backyard? They're both quite complex, they both shelter and feed numerous animals and much plant life, and they both involve a part of nature that's truly amazing in its operational ability.

But we've been knocking down little meadows and patches of forest for hundreds of centuries to make way for farms and homes, to open space up for factories and warehouses. No doubt the author eats food from those farms, has lived in one of those houses and uses a computer that was built in a factory and shipped through a warehouse. At one point, plants and animals used that area as their own, and now they don't.

It's just historically ignorant to say we have to protect a coral reef when we didn't protect so many other parts of nature. People prioritized: we can use this area as forest for bugs and squirrels to multiply or we can use it for homes. The difference here is that the author LIKES the coral reef more than the lost forest area. Ultimately, it's his preference that other people should obey his desires for an area he doesn't own. He likes it how it is, therefore his desire should decide the policy. I don't need to explain how that's selfish (perhaps understandably so).

The solution here is to let someone own the reef. The owner could decide to leave it alone, to develop it for eco-tourism, or to exploit it for fishing purposes. But the resource would be protected then, inasmuch as it would be protected by an owner. it's possible the owner might ignore destruction or over-exploitation of the reef, as would be his right, but the way to focus capitalism on the issue is to increase capitalism, not decrease it. The problem is that nobody owns it and hence nobody has any interest in protecting - aside from those who like it because it looks nice or gives them a special feeling inside - religiously-environmentalist types.


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