I agree with every word of this post on the Commons blog, and almost every word of the Michael DeAlessi-authored report to which it points (thought admittedly I only read the short version (PDF)). It also met with approval from Sustainablog and EnviroPundit. The basic point is that private efforts at conservation are often more flexible and effective than government programs. An ancillary point is that mainstream environmentalists often resort reflexively to government when looking to address environmental problems. Both true.
Commons is, of course, written by libertarians — or as they call themselves, "free market environmentalists" — and I usually disagree with them. If I’m behind private conservation efforts, why do I disagree with them?
The proximate reason is that while the Commoners (too cute, I know) purport to represent the libertarian wing of the modern right, they seem more motivated by the twin pillars of the modern right — Bush boosterism and unchecked loathing of anyone to their left — than pure libertarian principle.
But there are larger issues involved. When I read reports like DeAlessi’s I frequently agree with what’s said. But what strikes me is what isn’t said –what’s left out. Let me just touch on two things.
First is the considerable role of tradition, habit, ignorance, subconscious preference, and other irrational or arational factors in human behavior. It is a long-standing working assumption of classical economics that markets are composed of rational self-interest-maximizers, but as anyone familiar with actual human beings knows, it ain’t so. Just as people poison themselves and shorten their own lives with junk food and sedentary habits, people poison their environments and ruin what they own. It happens. When it comes to allocating most goods and services, markets are efficient over the long haul — those who do act in their self-interest through innovation and good planning tend to succeed — but environmental goods and services are so diffuse and distributed, working over such long time periods, in many cases in almost invisibly incremental fashion, that their correlation to market success is weak at best. Ignorance and ingrained bad habits are punished, but slowly, over generations.
Second and more importantly is that when free marketeers like DeAlessi talk about this stuff, they paint a picture of individual landowners who would take care of their trees and fish if the feds would just get off their backs — one pictures a grizzled, laconic man in a ten-gallon hat squinting and spitting. But of course individual landowners are the least of our problems. What I rarely hear them talk about is corporations.
Consider the tragedy of the commons, of which the Commoners make much. The notion that individual ownership can ameliorate the tragedy of the commons is based crucially on the fact that owners will be concerned with the future welfare of what they own. To maximize the value of their property, they must make sure that it keeps on giving — that it isn’t degraded or destroyed. Individuals conceive of themselves as trajectories over time, and so too with their property, and thus the relationship between the two trajectories is taken into account in the present.
But corporations have no such self-conception, because despite their legal status as individuals, they have no self. Of course corporations plan for the future, but in contrast to individuals, they are biased heavily toward short-term profit. The individuals that compose them at any given moment are under huge pressure to raise profits — for good reason, as corporations who are not growing are eaten by others that are. A corporation does not know if it will exist in 10 years, or 5.
For a corporation, the future itself is part of the commons, and yes, the result is often tragedy.
More on all this stuff later.