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The Independent Institute
Commentary

The Tragedy of the Commons


Throughout the former Soviet bloc, stewardship of the environment can be found in entire regions of land, vest bodies at water, and air in general that was systematically poisoned, with people used as guinea pigs for nuclear testing and all other manner of toxic horrors.

But this “tragedy of the commons” exists wherever private property rights over natural resources are prohibited—even in the United States. For unless people can control natural resources as private property—as their own—resources will be abused.

The federal government owns approximately one third of the land in the United States, and its land policies in the West, where most of its property is located, have led to the steady deterioration of the land and its wildlife. Unfortunately, the Sagebrush Rebel-lion of the late 70s merely sought to turn federal lands over to states in response to the policies of the Carter administration. Like the federal government’s idea of stewardship, state management of these lands would have failed to correct the inherent "commons" problems despite the more localized bureaucracies that would have assumed control.

Privatization, however, would have resolved many of the problems of land mismanagement by the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies.

The quality of management of private lands in contrast to that of public lands—whether federal, state or local—bears this out: There are few if any clear-cutting, depletion, or soil erosion problems on Boise Cascade’s properties or other private forests. There are few if any overgrazing problems on private ranches. And there is far less poaching on private lands than in public parks.

Those close to the land—whether in a commercial sense or even in terms of a cause—are far better stewards than bureaucrats, whose management of the “commons” ensures abuse since they possess few incentives to protect the land. Since their revenues are extracted from the citizenry by the force of taxation, bureaucratic managers have no way of telling whether they administrate resources in ways beneficial to the public or not.

Where in a market economy, disenchanted consumers are free to shop elsewhere, no such opportunity exists under the domain of a bureaucracy with monopoly powers.

Guaranteed revenues almost regardless of how they perform, bureaucrats actually have every incentive to mismanage resources in order to justify their jobs and their agency’s ever expanded existence. Even If bureaucrats were angels with perfect ambitions to do only good, the dilemma of their ignorance in being shielded from the verdict of customers (the citizenry), prevents them from acting in ways to protect and enhance resources.

In contrast, the quality of land management for wildlife by privatizing federal lands is well illustrated by hundreds of successful private preserves operated throughout the United States, many of which help boost the populations of threatened and endangered species.

For example, the Audubon Society’s Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in Vermilion Pariah, La., owns and carefully manages the land for wildlife and for oil production. In order to maximize its value, the Audubon Society carefully investigated and weighed the use of its land and discovered that there is no necessary conflict between the pursuit of both economic and environmental goals.

The Nature Conservancy, another major environmental group, similarly accomplishes many of its goals—setting aside land for species—vary effectively by buying property and keeping it out of the hands of the government. If the Interior Department is scouting for innovative policy models, there are no shortage of case studies that demonstrate what could be accomplished by selling off government lands to private parties.

At the very least, the Clinton administration, as it continues to address management of federal lands, ought to at least consider transferring tide of some federal properties—it can choose from 100 million acres—to interests currently competing with each other for continued and nearly cost-free access to public lands.

On privatized lands, ranchers, and mining lumber concerns would be forced to consider not just grazing, extraction and harvesting (now at low costs), but reforestation, remediation, and land rotation if they wanted to remain profitable in the future.

Likewise, if some federal lands became the property of environmental groups, they might come to learn that roping off property isn’t always the best approach to keeping it and wildlife boundaries healthy.


David J. Theroux is the Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Independent Institute and Publisher of The Independent Review.