Using Private Property as an Incentive to Conserve Resources

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Resource conservation is a major issue facing our world, but how do we find a practical application for it? In this lesson we'll look at the theory promoting private property as the pathway to conservation.

Private Property and Resource Conservation

As anybody knows who has paid even slight attention to the news over the last…25 years or so, we've got a problem. We're using up our natural resources, we're ruining the air, and we're struggling to find alternative forms of energy. Resource conservation, and sustainable environmental practices in general, are becoming a top priority, but how do we actually fix these problems? Well, according to some, America is in a great place to handle this because the answer has been right in front of us the entire time: private property. There are many who believe that protecting and promoting Americans' rights to private property not only can be used to encourage environmentalism, but actually offers several incentives for doing so. The basic philosophy here is that people are more likely to cooperate through incentives than through punishments, which is fair to say, but how does private property equate to resource conservation? Let's look at some of the reasons that people like to keep their conservation habits a bit more private.

The Tragedy of the Commons

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote an essay entitled 'The Tragedy of The Commons', which set up the foundation for modern arguments that private property encourages sustainable ecology. In this essay, Hardin looked at the Commons - property accessible to the community in medieval England - and pointed out that in communal space, every person competes against the others to optimize their share. Basically, since everyone is afraid they won't get enough, they all try and get as much as they can out of that land, whether it's for farming or fishing or hunting or ranching. The result is that the land is plundered, completely used up within a short period of time. This scenario has been repeated several times throughout history. Right now, the idea behind the tragedy of the commons is being applied to marine fishing. When everyone shares international waters, the oceans are plundered, and over-fishing is a serious problem in our world.

A 1922 Photo from a Study on How Overgrazing Led to Soil Erosion
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However, supporters of private property argue that when only one person owns the land, they are not competing for its use, and are naturally encouraged to protect it, to make it more sustainable so their personal use will be ensured forever. In fact, we've seen this in action. The concern about over-fishing led some people to start experimenting with privately owned marine fisheries, and they found that by granting people and companies exclusive rights to these fish populations, they implemented sustainable policies to ensure the long-term safety of their investment. The interests of the company are directly tied to the sustainability of the resource - in this case, marine fish.

Private Marine Fisheries do not Compete for Resources
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Endangered Species and Private Property

Attempts to privatize land to ensure that people directly benefit from resource conservation is not the only way that private property can encourage sustainable environmental policies. Another thing people have looked at is the survival of endangered species. It has been noted that a great number of endangered species live on private property. Now, the trend has been for the federal government to take away this land so as to protect the species living there, but for many people this feels like a punishment. After all, those species which had died off everywhere else are surviving on this property because the owner is already treating the land responsibly. Therefore, many people feel as if they are being punished for acting responsibly. By protecting the rights of those who own property that sustains endangered species, and perhaps even rewarding them, the government could incentivize more sustainable land ownership.

Pollution and Private Property

Okay, so how about the issue of pollution, another major issue in today's world? Well, here's the theory on how private property can help fix this. If we encourage a culture where private property is upheld as a fundamental, integral right of American citizenship, then it must be respected by everyone. Thus, if I am creating a lot of pollution that seeps into the water, the land, or escapes into the air, I am actually damaging someone else's private property. Not only am I now infringing upon their rights as property owners, but I can be held legally responsible for that damage. So, rather than risk it, I'll just reduce my pollution. See how that works?

Oil Spills on Private Property can be Resolved with Law Suits
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