[show_avatar email@example.com]Today is Earth Day … one of those proclaimed days designed to educate us by giving us an excuse to be introspective and examining. Of course, lots of people see this as an opportunity to lay on a thick layer of guilt and to engage in a series of mea culpa self flagellations that may or may not end up laying the whip on everyone but themselves, but that’s the nature of the fanatic.
But some of the issues that go with Earth Day include attempts to deal with the tragedy of the commons, which says that any resource owned by everyone (e.g., air, and, in Minnesota and most of the west, ground water) is destined to be over consumed or despoiled because if everyone owns it, then effectively no one protects it and we all gain the most by simply consuming it to our own ends. The Cato Institute summed it up nicely:
Any resource held in common – whether land, air, the upper atmosphere and outer space, the oceans, lakes, streams, outdoor recreational resources, fisheries, wildlife, or game – can be used simultaneously by more than one individual or group for more than one purpose with many of the multiple uses conflicting. No one has exclusive rights to the resource, nor can any one prevent others from using it for either the same or any noncompatible use. By its very nature a common property resource is owned by everyone and owned by no one. Since everyone uses it there is overuse, waste, and extinction. No one has an incentive to maintain or preserve it. The only way any of the users can capture any value, economic or otherwise, is to exploit the resource as rapidly as possible before someone else does.
Their article suggests that the solution is to permit and encourage private ownership of what we would normally think of as public assets. Their examples focus on wild animals as exemplars. They contrast the prairie chicken (American, held in “common” as a wild animal) with the red grouse (Britain, owned by the landowners where it lives). The contrast is clear, the value of private ownership lies in the incentives to protect the resource, the red grouse is doing much better than the prairie chicken.
But some resources are very difficult to control. Clean air and clean water are two that we might consider to be un-ownable. If you have read “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein, you have had a unique opportunity to learn the free market lessons that more recent movies like Avatar have missed, and that is that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and clean air is no more free than is clean water. But that was in a closed environment. Earth Day, in some sense, is an attempt to remind us that the Earth, too, is a closed system if you look at it realistically. If these resources (air, water) cannot be conserved by market forces, then we may find ourselves having to conserve them by fiat.
So, in spite of cries of “foul play” and “big government”, we should think carefully before we simply rule out the use of EPAs and MPCAs to help us deal with these particular tragedies of the commons. Demagogues may decry these institutions as just examples of big government, but the complexities of modern life suggest otherwise. Although some call for their elimination, cautious conservatives know that when you have tread onto thin ice you may not want to jump up and down until you have carefully negotiated yourself back onto firmer foundations.