According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), nearly a quarter of all mammals and a third of amphibians face extinction unless action is taken. For action, most look to governments and the arguments are well known. Without fishing quotas, the oceans would be over-fished. Without the outlawing of trading in ivory, rhinos would be hunted to extinction. Without government protection of habitats, many species would die out. The fact is, though, that decades of government action has only few successes to show. May there be an alternative? Could the alternative be private property rights and no regulation? A free market could unsurprisingly offer a better, more sustainable alternative to current policy. Here are a few thoughts on some of the problems.
To start with an obvious point, it should be apparent to most that laws banning trade in rare animals do not encourage breeding of these species. Additionally, it actively prevents an interested buyer in vetting his supplier, to make sure that breeding is done in a humane, sustainable and ethical way. Like the fiasco of the current drugs policy, criminalising behaviour and forcing it underground has severe unintended consequences and huge policing costs. A ban on trading in an animal will not stop trading, only slow it and with it lengthen the path to extinction. Sustainable farming to supply a free market is no guarantee of a better outcome, but offers economic incentives for the survival of the species.
Most successful businesses plan for the future. It is safe to assume that fishermen are not genetically differently disposed, but the current system leaves them with no incentives to think about sustainability, so governments have to think for them – that’s where quotas come in. Privatisation of the ocean would solve the problem at the drop of a hat. No rational fisherman would deplete his private fish stock by overfishing. If he did, after bankruptcy the sea could be bought cheaply by a competitor and left to allow fishing stocks to replete.
What about the rhinos? In Africa, arguments for the legalisation of ivory trade is being heard from some corners. It is a sound idea with little chance of becoming reality. Legalisation would allow sustainable farming of rhinos. Rhino horn grow back like nails, so no farmer would kill a rhino to harvest ivory. Poachers do. A profitable rhino farm would provide plenty of habitat for other endangered species. Another benefit would be reaped by the often impoverished local economies. With money to be made, farming of endangered animals would grow, populations would increase, and a new source of local income would develop. The same argument can be made for trophy hunting.
Animals need habitat, but human development is encroaching ever further. The long-term solution surely is co-existence. Habitat protection perversely often has the reverse effect: a farmer will know that the spotting of a rare bird on his land will herald the arrival of the environmental lobby backed up by government agencies, ordering him to stop farming and return the land to the wild. The incentives for the farmer is to make sure no bird is spotted by removing any potential habitat.
Who owns the rainforest? ‘It belongs to all of us’, according to Al Gore, but in reality, the Brazilian government owns it, and occasionally parts are sold off to the highest bidder (in these days of economic strains, the temptation to sell must be high). History is proof that public ownership has not prevented deforestation. Cash and the promise of jobs are hard to resist for an elected politician. Only in the hands of private charities with legal obligations to maintain ownership could sale be prevented. Ironically, through the Misean argument of homesteading, in a free world large parts of the rainforest would actually belong to the native tribes.
To complete the picture, it is important to keep an eye on the fact that an ever increasing human population will need ever increasing resources, and to the extent that technological advances cannot keep up, natural resources have to be used to feed the hungry mouths. Deforestation may be unpleasant, but so is starvation. The capitalist system puts a price on land and will provide the equilibrium where farm meets jungle. No state agency can replace that price mechanism.