Planet Gore

Tragedy of the Commons Redux

CNN reports that the traditional cashmere herders are losing everything as the lands they have grazed in common for centuries become overgrazed with the advent of the modern economy and the rise in the value of cashmere wool.

This unfortunate story takes me back more than 20 years to the time I first began working on energy and environmental issues. At the time, resource economist — and my first mentor in the policy field — John Baden, chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment introduced me to the seminal writings of Garrett Hardin, in particular his classic work, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” At the time, Baden and his former colleagues (including Richard Stroup and Terry Anderson) at the Political Economy Research Center (now the Property and Environment Research Center) were developing the field of free-market environmentalism, in part based upon the insights contained in Hardin’s article. I was fortunate to have worked at one time or another for both of these first-rate research institutes.

From those humble beginnings in Bozeman, Mont., in the early 1980′s, free-market environmentalism has become, if not mainstream, at least more widely acknowledged as offering both an important critique of and antidote to modern environmental regulatory institutions and environmental policy. And it has offered valuable insights and solutions to contemporary environmental problems. My work at the NCPA has in many instances borrowed from and built on this work. See for example, these three items, each of which highlights problems stemming from the “public-commons” nature of many environmental amenities owned and managed by the government and argues that applying property rights and/or institutions that bring more personal responsibility and competition would improve environmental quality.

More recently the NCPA released a study that argues that countries’ environmental quality improves faster as they increase their economic freedom than it does by similar increases in political freedom. The question is “Can or will the Mongolian herders solve the problem confronting them?” Or, more appropriately, the question might be, “Will they be allowed to solve the problem confronting them through the development of a system of defined, defendable, and exchangeable property rights? Or will a government-directed, centralized, top-down solution be forced upon them?” There are other choices, but I believe the former would produce the best results for both the herders and the environment, while I fear that the latter is the most likely to be implemented.

Sterling Burnett H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and education institute in Dallas, Texas. While he works ...

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