Column - Property rights are key to improved sustainability
Published: Friday, April 27, 2012
Updated: Friday, April 27, 2012 01:04
It recently occurred to me that last Sunday was Earth Day. Ideally, I would’ve realized this a week ago and written a beautifully timed article about how property rights and the free market can protect the environment far better than heavy-handed government regulations ever could.
Fortunately for me, environmentalists believe that every day should be Earth Day, so here we go.
When a person is both concerned about the environment and unfamiliar with free market economics, the two entities often seem inherently opposed to one another. The free market, we’re told, would absolutely destroy the environment.
Without benevolent government bureaucracies like the Environmental Protection Agency and West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, big businesses would be free to pollute, contaminate and otherwise ruin our air and water to their hearts’ content.
Can anyone doubt that they would do so? After all, corporations are driven by the almighty dollar, and polluting is surely cheaper than disposing of waste properly.
It’s true that, if left free to do so, many businesses would sooner pollute Mother Nature than take care of her. The proper solution to this problem, however, is not costly and coercive government regulation. On the contrary, the key to effective environmental protection is to privatize the environment.
To illustrate my point, consider two key environmental concerns I’ve already mentioned: clean air and water. It’s no coincidence that these two vital resources are extremely difficult to keep clean and very rarely privately owned.
Because they have no clear owner, there is no one to protect them from the dangers of foreign pollution.
Sure, governments may eventually step in and lay down a one-size-fits-all policy to reduce pollution, but these bureaucracies don’t protect the land, water and air as passionately or competently as a private owner would.
After all, private owners have an economic incentive to protect their property from damage. Governments do it in the name of clumsy altruism at best.
As far as implementation goes, establishing property rights over waterways would be simple enough – it wouldn’t be much different from marking off real estate and has already been done for many ponds and streams found on private land.
Air pollution would be trickier, but the goal wouldn’t be so much to privatize air as to re-assert our property rights to our lungs and homes. Any individual or company that sends unwanted air pollutants into another person’s home or business should be required to pay damages to their victims.
Polluting parties often face penalties today, but they’re penalized for the public good rather than the protection of property. This makes for murky litigation and inconsistent enforcement.
When one person’s property is damaged by another through arson, vandalism or any other illegal act, the property owner takes his case to the courts, where matters of fact are established and standing law is applied.
Why should it be any different in cases of air and water pollution? Rather than trust the EPA to hand down misguided directives from on high, we should let private property owners sue for the protection of what’s theirs. This will make for much more personal and productive environmental protection.
The conservationist case for environmental privatization is even more obvious. When people have direct ownership over a natural resource, they’re far more motivated to ensure the protection of that natural resource.
This applies to forests, fisheries, endangered species and any other facet of nature worth protecting.
African rhinos are another example of the benefits of private ownership. Black and white rhinos have long been at the top of the list of conservationists’ efforts to protect endangered species. Thanks to their horns, rhinos can sell for anywhere from $30,000-$55,000, making them prime targets for poachers.
In South Africa, however, black and white rhinos made an enormous comeback more than ten years ago. A major reason for their revival was game privatization. South Africans began to buy, breed and sell rhinos as if they were show dogs or racehorses. Thanks to this privatization, South Africa contained the vast majority of black and white rhinos in all of Africa by 2001.
To drive the point home, a global study published in the academic journal "Science" in 2008 indicated establishing clearly defined property rights over fisheries halted and even reversed a widespread trend of overfishing. Privatizing the fisheries created economic incentives for sustainable harvesting.
Contrary to popular myth, those of us who support the free market and private property don’t want our families and friends to breathe smog and drink sludge so that powerful corporations can maximize their profits. Nor do we want every last endangered species hunted down and poached in the name of economic growth.
We simply see a much more sensible and workable solution to environmental threats than those offered by most environmentalists.