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The tragedy of the commons revisited

Private property rights may be the key to conservation.

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In 1949, conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in his influential "A Sand County Almanac": "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us."

Not so, says Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington. He is one of a number of economists using economic science and empirical evidence from the past 1,000 years to demonstrate that exactly the opposite is true: We are more likely to exploit and pollute natural resources if they don't belong to anyone.

"When everybody owns something, then nobody feels particularly responsible for it," says Mr. Smith. "Each of us hopes that others will take care of our common responsibilities."

In 1968, biology professor Garrett Hardin used the title "The Tragedy of the Commons" to describe this concept in a famous essay in the journal "Science." Professor Hardin was referring to the medieval English institution of "the commons," whereby a feudal lord would designate an area of uncultivated land for public use, such as grazing livestock.

Each herdsman on the commons, Hardin observed, has the incentive to add more animals to the herd, eventually leading to overgrazing. The costs of doing so aren't borne by individual cattle owners. In a "use it or lose it" scenario, everyone tries to utilize as much of the resource as possible. "The tragedy of the commons is the mismanagement we see so often in environmental resources whether it's the air in our urban areas, whether it's the groundwater underneath our feet ... or whether it's the fisheries in the ocean," says Smith.

The solution? Some economists observe that the establishment of defined, enforceable, and transferable property rights tends to offer incentives for good stewardship by individuals, corporations, or nonprofit organizations (like The Nature Conservancy). A year prior to Hardin's essay, economist Harold Demsetz noted an example from the early 1600s in the Labrador Peninsula of present-day Canada. Native Montagnais Indians found that beaver stocks were being depleted as a result of competition from an influx of French fur trappers.

In response, the Indians implemented property rights by allocating each family a portion of a river with a beaver lodge. Families began to conserve their resource by farming the mammal responsibly.

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