Monday, July 6, 2009

Environmental Policy and the "Tragedy of the Commons" Part I

Any libertarian-based environmental policy begins with a foundational principle called the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Let’s break it down into its basic components: “commons” and “tragedy.” In the Western world, the cultural origin of the concept of collective environmental ownership can be traced to the Biblically-based tenet that God gave the earth to mankind. Over the centuries this has been interpreted to mean that caring for the earth is our collective responsibility: call it “stewardship.” Unfortunately, the problem with collective responsibility is that we have repeatedly proven to be irresponsible stewards. That’s why when human beings assert collective dominion over the environment the consequences are inevitably tragic. Hence, the familiar libertarian mantra, “When everyone owns it, nobody owns it.”

Human beings utilize our common earthly environment in two different ways. We extract resources and expel waste. Throughout human history, environmental tragedy has resulted from our over-extraction and over-expulsion. In recent years, the over-extraction and over-pollution have become more problematic than in the past because we’ve become much more efficient extractors and polluters. The root of the problem is that, when given the option, we humans would rather reap benefits than pay costs. In the case of over-extraction and over-pollution the costs are usually transferred (shifted) to other humans, and most often to future generations. Most libertarians argue that the only way to avoid “tragedy of the commons” is to abandon collective ownership and stewardship in favor of private ownership. I’m not sure about that. Private ownership alone will not necessarily lead to non-tragic environmental policy. After all, individual owners are also prone to over-extraction and over-pollution of their own property, as they willingly risk less-certain long-term tragedy in pursuit of certain short-term benefits.

So the real problem arises when opportunistic owners over-extract and over-expel at the expense of other adjacent property owners. Therefore, other libertarians argue that private ownership must be accompanied by the empowerment of adjacent property owners to exact retribution. When my neighbor builds a dam upstream to divert water for his private fishing pond, why can’t I sue him for over-extraction? When the coal-fired utility plants along the Ohio River pollute the air over my property why can’t I sue Duke Energy Corporation for polluting my air? But it's not that simple. The two manifestations of the “tragedy of the commons” are so different that they require more detailed, separate analyses. Therefore, my next two blog entries will cover over-extraction and over-pollution, respectively.

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