Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Contract with the Earth 4: Privatization

For my write-up today on A Contract with the Earth, by Newt Gingrich and Terry Maple, I'll highlight something on page 24. Newt and Maple are discussing an essay by ecologist Garrett Hardin, entitled "The Tragedy of the Commons":

"In some settings, privatization, an alternative to the concept of 'commons,' might lead to more accountability by the owner of a limited resource...In Hardin's original essay, the oceans form a 'commons'----a place open to use by all. The ocean, unlike land, is not a place where a family or a company has a vested interest in future productivity. Hardin suggested (and has yet to be proven wrong on this particular point) that the advantages to the individual of overexploiting a commons are much less than the disadvantages to the individual. Yet, the disadvantages to society (eventual loss or diminution of the resource) are much greater than the advantages (a greater supply for a brief period)."

Conservatives and libertarians have often made this sort of argument: that privatization can actually help the environment because the status quo----in which a lot of land and water are commonly held----leads to pollution and the over-exploitation of resources. If these things were owned by private interests, the theory runs, then the owners would treat them better. After all, why would they want to ruin the land and water and thereby cut off their source for future profits? Later in the book, Newt and Maple refer to Ted Turner, who owns land where he raises bison, which he sells so that restaurants can make bison burgers. Ted Turner is responsible in his treatment of the land and the bison on it.

There may be something to this argument. I still have questions, though. First of all, if private interests owned, say, the seas, couldn't that result in higher prices? When the seas are commonly held, a bunch of people can draw from its resources, and the price is lower because there is competition among different companies. But suppose a monopoly or oligopoly was given control of the seas? Would it jack up the price? Second, if (under the status quo) companies think primarily about the present when they ransack the sea's resources, even though in doing so they are acting against their own self-interest by cutting off a source of profits for the future, why should we assume that they'd act according to their future self-interest if they themselves owned the seas?

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