Front Page Titles (by Subject) I: Natural Resources and Property Rights - Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4
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I: Natural Resources and Property Rights - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Natural Resources and Property Rights
The decade of the 1970s witnessed an increased concern for protecting our planetary environment and wildlife. Increasingly, the issues of pollution, endangered species, wilderness preservation, and energy conservation sensitized a broad constituency to the need for “ecological consciousness,” the need to see the interrelatedness of all living biological and organic processes.
How can we best preserve our environment and ecosystem? Through centralized government planning and allocation, or through the private property institutions of a free market? A deep suspicion against the market society's self-interest and profit motivation colors the perception of many observers of the current “crises” involving natural resources, whether the energy crisis, the water crisis, or the wildlife conservation crisis. One paradox may draw attention to an underlying cause of all such crises. In the November-December 1979 issue of World Research Ink devoted to environmental issues, Robert Smith, for five years a president of a county Audobon society and author of Earth's Resources: Private Ownership vs. Public Waste (Washington D.C.; Libertarian Party, 1980), observes:
“The primary cause of the disappearance of wildlife has been common or public ownership and the regulations drawn under various government statutes.
Privately owned and managed wildlife flourishes. The American bison is nearly extinct, but the country's ranches abound with Herfords, Guernseys, and a vast array of different types of cattle. Numerous species of antelopes, goats, sheep and other prized big game animals have disappeared from their native haunts, yet survive throughout the American West in private game ranches, farms, and preserves.”
These different results in wildlife conservation derive from two different systems of property ownership and management. Whereas private property motivates owners to a sustained-yield use and conservation of wildlife, common or public property promotes overuse and waste. The reason for this bias towards waste and exploitation (not only of wildlife, but of all natural resources) under a system of public or common property has been clarified in Garret Hardin's famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” (in Garret Hardin and John Baden eds. Managing the Commons. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1977).
In a “common pool” situation of public ownership or “commons,” where everybody “owns” the resource, each person will be inclined to use as much of the resource as he can, since he will reap the immediate “benefit” (of buffalo, forest, minerals, etc.) and pass on the “cost” of depletion to the rest of his fellow “owners.” Needless to say, others share a similar self-interest and rapidly the natural resource in question becomes depleted.
By contrast, private property titles in natural resources—whether oil, whales, buffalo, forests—tend toward conservation and a sustained yield, since the individual owner bears both benefit and costs. Too rapidly depleting a resource will affect one's long-term revenues. In this issue of Literature of Liberty, Richard Stroup's and John Baden's bibliographical essay explores the relative incentives and consequences of private vs. public property for natural resource conservation and allocation. The following summaries likewise explore similar themes in the areas of water resources, energy conservation, forests, and mineral resources. The importance of clearly defined and transferable property rights is a recurrent theme, together with the contrasting principles of market vs. governmental management of natural resources.
Indian Water Rights
“The Dark and Bloody Ground of Indian Water Rights: Confusion Elevated to Principal.” The Western Historical Quarterly 9(October 1978):455–482.l
The future of American Indian life crucially depends on water rights. Of the nation's 370,000 reservation Indians, 75% live lives of deprivation in the arid West. These Native Americans suffer the highest unemployment rate, the lowest percapita income, the least formal education, the highest suicide rate, and the highest death rate from alcoholism. Much of this deplorable status stems directly from a fundamentally flawed, century-old assortment of U.S. government policies to “civilize” tribal Americans. One disastrous policy was the government's crude handling of Indian water rights. The Indians' new “civilized” lives as ranchers and farmers failed because the dry land caused by inept government policy failed to bear the fruits of husbandry.
Historically, this failure steams from tampering with the Indians' common law water rights by water-hungry immigrants from east of the Mississippi. Knowing which products of the West would yield the greatest market returns, white immigrants quickly jettisoned English common law and devised a water rights law called “prior appropriation.” That is, the first person to use a water source for productive purposes acquired primary and often exclusive rights to that source.
This doctrine undercut the reservation Indians. At the Gros Ventre reservation (Fort Belknap, Montana) Indian life depended on the free flow of the Milk River. However, ‘prior’ claimant Henry Winters diverted so much of the river's flow up-stream from Fort Belknap that during the drought of 1904–05, the Milk River ceased to flow past the reservation. The administration moved to avert mass starvation and precipitated the landmark Supreme Court case of 1908, Winters v. United States. The Court held that Indians possessed prior or reserved rights to water that superceded the rights of Winters or, indeed, of any so-called prior claimant. The court also ruled that ambiguities in laws governing reservation life should always be decided in favor of the Indians.
Although hailed as the Magna Carta for reservation Indians, the court ruling contained a key ambiguity: Did the Indians themselves reserve rights to the water or did the federal government reserve it for them? Did Winters v. United States mean that non-Indians would be compelled to purchase all property taken at the expense of this aboriginal right? Or, by a second interpretation, were property holders responsible solely to the United States government?
The obvious benefits to non-Indians of the second interpretation led to a subtle undercutting of Indian rights to water. Federal policies have failed to join action with equity, and the present status of Indian well-being, consequently, is little better than it was before the Winters case. The Indians have unavoidably relied on slow-moving court-made law. Governmental policies that continually frustrated the Indians' full exercise of water rights, so that no means other than government court action have been available to redress Indian grievances. However, courts are notoriously slow to act, notoriously ineffective at implementing policy, and notoriously ambiguous with respect to Indian rights. Thus, the exploitation of Indian rights by non-Indians continues. Only a major emphasis on equity can reverse this century-old practice of legal neglect and flagrant violation of water rights. Nothing less than the future of reservation Indian life turns on this practice being reversed.
Resources and Bureaucrats as Predators
“Natural Resources and Bureaucratic Predators.” Policy Review 11(Winter 1980):69–82.
Environmentalists and taxpayers agree that our bureaucratic natural resource managers consistently sponsor policies that: (1) have environmental costs exceeding environmental benefits; (2) are financially extravagant; and (3) increase the coercive governmental sector of the economy at the expense of private, voluntary exchange.
Our government resource managers systematically mismanage and produce suboptional results. This is due to perverse the institutional structures of government in such areas as timber production and range land management.
The U.S. Forest Service obeys political interests rather than market signals. Thus, it engages in inefficient and environmentally harmful logging in economically unproductive timberland. Losses are met by taxes rather than increased productivity. Similar bureaucratic mismanagement occurred in Western States because the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allowed land to be grazed as a huge common property pasture. With no private property rights defined, this common property resulted in overgrazing, a classic case of what Garrett Hardin terms “tragedy of the commons.” Other BLM measures upset the delicate ecology of vegetation for wildlife and fish.
What leads to such bureaucratic waste and mismanagement? This occurs because that part of the U.S. Treasury allocated to bureaucratic budgets also resembles the “commons.” Rival bureaucratic agencies view the treasury as a common pool resource since it has non-exclusive ownership and thus encourages competitive, wasteful, self-maximizing exploitation of that resource (i.e. taxpayers' money).
What would cure assault on the budget by bureaucrats who are immune to the market discipline of profit and loss? We need a “Bureau of Budgetary Control (BBC) whose key task is to advocate budgetary reductions. The BBC would have built-in incentives to act as a predator to prey upon those budgetary items of rival bureaucracies whose social costs outweigh their social benefits. We can exploit for social benefit the very pathology of bureaucracies to grow and perpetuate themselves. The BBC, acting as the taxpayers' ombudsman, would only continue receiving its current allocated budgetary monies if it was a successful “predator” that exposed waste and ill-conceived programs of rival bureaucracies (such as the Bureau of Land Management). If the BBC, for example, convinced Congress of waste in BLM, the BBC would be awarded a percentage of BLM's former budget as a bounty. This “predator” system would thus rely on bureaucratic self-interest to advance the public interest. The losses incurred by wasteful, ill-managed rival bureaus would create strong incentives for them to avoid projects of dubious utility.
Government Energy Conservation
“The Performance of Government in Energy Regulation.” American Economic Review (May 1979):352–365.
President Carter's claim that “we can have an effective and comprehensive energy policy only if the Federal government takes responsibility for it.” But the “record of past energy policy does not lead one to be confident that more intervention will improve resource allocation. An alternative national energy policy would be to let the market allocate scarce resources.”
Judged by the standard of optimum resource conservation, the government's performance in energy regulation over the past 50 years has been a wasteful, counterproductive failure. A half century ago the Congress allowed percentage depletion tax allowance for oil and gas production. Later it permitted companies to expense intangible drilling costs. These tax subsidies encouraged capital flows for energy exploitation, more production, and lower energy prices. But (by the government's present values) these “artificial stimulants” contributed to the energy crisis of the 1970s by encouraging consumption, and thus worked against conserving energy.
Additionally, in 1959, President Eisenhower imposed import quotas on foreign oil. This regulation violated free trade, protected and profited domestic oil producers, and stimulated additional domestic production of a non-renewable resource.
The government imposed its price controls on natural gas in 1954 and regulated crude oil in the same way in 1971. The resulting artificial low prices led to high demand for natural gas and a consequent shortage through the inevitable reduced supply. But substituting oil for the lack of natural gas led in turn both to increased dependence on imported oil and to balance of payments problems. The effects of oil price controls, in a complex fashion, transferred wealth from crude oil producers to refiners. Oil and gas price controls also misallocated resources because of the high cost of a price control administration and the costs of industry complaints.
Detailed evidence refutes the standard arguments against eliminating government price controls: (1) that free prices would imitate alleged OPEC monopoly prices; (2) that market clearing prices would harm the poor; and (3) that energy deregulation would give “windfall profits to oil and gas producers.”
Government energy regulation makes sense neither economically nor as a conservation measure. Such counterproductive public policy results from the standard inefficiencies of government revealed by political economy: (1) Politicians' main goal is not to conserve energy but rather to stay elected. Hence they bow to the pressure of such interest groups as consumerists and environmentalists. (2) Congressmen can easily pass on the negative “externalities” of their wasteful regulatory policies to uninformed taxpayers and energy consumers. (3) Since the legislative process is a compromise, and ideal allocating and conserving policy is not likely to emerge. (4) Whatever legislation does emerge must be administred, usually for the benefit of politically dominant interest groups. (5) Finally, it is unlikely that direct and indirect costs of government regulation will be less than the alleged imperfections in the marketplace.
Timber, Property Rights, and Government
“Property Rights, Nineteenth-Century Federal Timber Policy, and the Conservation Movement.” Journal of Economic History 39(March 1979):129–142.
Economics teaches that, “given fully-defined property rights, resources will be guided by market allocation to their highest-value user.” Legal restrictions hindering the transferability of resources impose costs termed the “dissipation of rents.” The authors argue that federal timber policy of the late nineteenth century created significant rent dissipation. Congress restricted the transfer to private ownership of public timberland in the Pacific Northwest to 160 acres per claimant. Thus, private lumber companies could not directly buy from the government the large acreage of forested land needed for economies of scale in logging operations.
Before the late nineteenth century and the rise of the conservation movement, most officials considered private property rights as a means of conserving the nation's timber. But conservationists such as Gifford Pinchot argued that a timber famine would results from selfish private interests unless a national forest reserve system was established. Beginning in President Harrison's administration, this government intervention led to eventually over 184 million acres of land being reserved. Yet the real culprit of forestry misuse was not private industry but rather the costly federal land transfer policy. This government policy was restrictive and increased transaction costs in assigning private property rights to the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Paradoxically, federal laws “delayed the transfer of property rights and as a result actually encouraged the rapid cutting observed by the General Land Office in the 1870s and 1880s.
The lumber companies circumvented federal restrictions on the amount of land ownership by having their agents buy separate land parcels only to transfer them to the lumber companies. However, the estimated costs for evading the restrictive law were excessive since federal policy had significantly driven up the transaction costs of land sales.
The Reclamation Service's Tahoe Fiasco
“Conflict over Conservation: The Reclamation Service and the Tahoe Contract.” The Western Historical Quarterly 10(April 1979):167–190.
The San Francisco Examiner headline of June 29, 1909 summarizes an act of a bizarre government conservation project: SECRET DEAL WITH U.S. PUTS TAHOE IN SYNDICATE'S CLUTCHES. Theodore Roosevelt's Newlands Reclamation Act (1902) gave birth to the first federal desert reclamation project in 1905, the Truckee-Carson project. The goal was to supply irrigation for farmers to reclaim some 400,000 acres of desert in Western Nevada for crops. The hope was that the Federal Reclamation Service would stimulate the flagging economy and dwindling population of Nevada following the end of the Comstock silver boom of the 1870s. But in 1908 drought hit Nevada and government engineers learned that Washington's first publicized irrigation project was imperiled by an insecure water supply. Few farmers would risk settling in a desert. In order to save face, and control the waters of Lake Tahoe for a water reservoir, “The Reclamation Service accepted a one-sided contract with an eastern power syndicate,” (Stone and Webster Company) which owned the outlet dam. The private company would divert water from Tahoe to save the Service's irrigation project.
The Reclamation Service's proposed lucrative contract with a private company “violated the spirit of national conservation policies and threatened the scenic beauty of the lake itself.” The Truckee-Carson project and this contract expose the poor public planning of the Reclamation Service, as well as the “relationship between resource agencies during the Progressive Era.” It also invalidates the view that federal reclamation fits Samuel P. Hays thesis in Conservatism and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890–1920 (New York, 1969). According to Hays, government resource planners sought to be “above politics,” to promote a technocratic “rational” and “efficient” use of natural resources. But the Nevada Reclamation experience and the Tahoe contract reveal no such disinterested experts rationally coordinating “regional resource planning.” The poor performance of the Reclamation Service ran afoul of: states-rights claims by California Governor Hiram Johnson; Lake Tahoe property owners, who feared harm to the lake's environment; and fostered the appearance of corruption through a one-sided contract that “would add $500,000 yearly to the power company's profits.” Added to this barrage of criticism was the opposition of the Department of Agriculture Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot and his National Conservation Association.
Finally in 1911, the Eastern power company grew “weary” and withdrew from the contract that was intended to save face for the Reclamation Service. In 1913 the Reclamation Service's spokesman, Newell, justified the agency's fiasco at Lake Tahoe in terms of a basic Progressive credo: “the greatest good for the greatest number.” The reasons for the Service's failure were many: poor administration, poor planning, and overbureaucratization. The service engineers could build first-rate dams, but gave little thought to overall conservation questions. Too much trust was placed in centralized planning and management by narrow, elitist technocrats.
Mineral Rights and Government
“Government Support of Private Claims to Public Minerals: Western Mineral Rights.” Business History Review 5(Autumn 1979):364–385.
Legal definitions of land tenure and property rights determine the nature and pace of economic growth. Economic activity and interest can, in turn, influence legislation. This legal-economic interaction in nineteenth-century United States can be clearly seen in a study of government support for private property mineral rights in the famous gold and silver mining region of the Comstock Lode in Nevada.
Since the Comstock region lacked organized government and since the U.S. Congress had, in 1866, no procedure for transferring mineral rights to private individuals, mineral claimants had to voluntarily develop property rights institution to legitimize and protect their investments. The evolution of private ownership of mineral rights in the Comstock Lode illustrate the response of legal and government institutions to private economic enterprise. Eventually the Comstock mineral law was incorporated into the Federal Mining Statutes of 1866 and 1872, which still governs the assignment of private rights to metal on the public domain.
At the time of the Comstock Lode discovery in January, 1859, claims to property titles to the land and mineral rights were bound to cause confusion because the land was in the “public domain” with no provisions for private appropriation. Miners were technically trespassers even though the Federal Government did not usually enforce its own claims. Further-more Congress had generally reserved mineral lands from private ownership. Since disputes naturally arose over rival claims to underground overlapping veins of gold and silver, the need arose for more precise and enforceable property titles and ownership. Thus, voluntary written rules were devised prescribing claim location and size as well as arbitration procedures. An example of this private development was the Gold Hill rules (1859), which were enforced by a claim recorder and a miners' court. Only those miners who followed camp rules were granted locally-recognized mineral rights.
The mining camp rules for Gold Hill and Virginia City, Nevada changed with subsequent economic developments. The need for capital to explore deeper veins of gold led to incorporation of the mines and mining stock. After Congress granted Nevada territorial status in March 2, 1861, the new territorial government supplemented the mining camp rules in support of local and private mineral rights. But in reality the territorial government courts could not deal with so much litigation. In 1864 the threat of the federal government's taxing and selling the laissez-faire established mineral rights to pay the Civil War debt pressured local miners to seek a state government for Nevada. Opposition to federal intervention in local mineral rights continued after statehood and the Nevada Senators defeated Congressional bills to sell off the mining lands already “owned” by local Nevada miners. In 1866, Congress “ratified existing claims, and placed the legislative and judicial support of the federal government behind such local property regulations as the Gold Hill camp rules.” The miners' goal in the legislation was to remove the threat of government abrogating local rights and to protest existing property rights.
Thus, the Nevada experience reveals how resource owners are moved by economic interest to obtain clear legal definition of their rights. This need for clear property title led to a series of institutions that assigned and guaranteed private mineral rights. The mining camp rules of 1889, the territorial government measures in 1861, the state government provisions of 1864, and the federal mining law of 1886.
Market Protection of Property Rights
“An American Experiment in Anarcho-Capitalism: The Not So Wild, West.” The Journal of Libertarian Studies 2, no. 4(1978):9–29.
How viable and effective are property rights in the absence of a formal government? The American West from 1830 to 1900, when formal government was long absent, allows us to see how that free market or a voluntary contractual society provided for non-governmental “laws.” In general, the free market society of the West protected property rights, and civil order prevailed.
The absence of formal government did not result in the western frontier of the United States being as wild as legend has it. The free market and non-governmental incentives provided protection and arbitration agencies that functioned well and either completely replaced or largely supplemented federal government. The disorders that did result generally support the contention that agreement on initial rights is very important for the effectiveness of the non-governmental, market society known as “anarcho-capitalism.”
In the West, private contractual agencies frequently created an orderly society, protected property and resolved conflicts. Not having a legal monopoly on “keeping order,” these agencies do not qualify as governments. Since warfare and violence were economically expensive ways of resolving disputes, the free market evolved less expensive and more social methods of conflict-settlement through private arbitration and courts.
Four examples of institutions that approximated free-market, non-governmental agencies in the old West were land clubs, cattlemen's associations, mining camps, and wagon trains. These examples support the belief that the free market can enforce private rights without chaos. In relation to natural resources ownership and management, the voluntary land clubs and mining camps were instructive.
“Land clubs” or claims associations arose in the Middle-West as a market and “extra-legal” response by pioneer settlers to deal with the problem of protecting and enforcing property rights in the absence of an effective government. Each law club adopted its own constitutions and by-laws, elected officers, established rules for adjudicating disputes, and set procedures for registering and protecting land claims. The Claim Association of Johnson County, Iowa functioned effectively in such manner and charged its members fee payments to defray arbitration expenses. Sanctions against those who did not abide by the land club's rules allowed for force but also for social and economic boycott or ostracism.
The mining camps with their free market law system that arose in the West following the discovery of gold in California in 1848 illustrate again the voluntary, non-governmental approval to social order and the protection of mineral rights. Since the miners anticipated that they would be without a formal state structure to define and enforce their rights and claims to minerals, many groups devised mining camp rules before leaving their homes. These voluntary contracts resembled company charters and stipulated the rules governing relationships between individuals. These miners did not “recognize any higher court than the law of the majority of the company.” The miners' free-market law functioned effectively and often better than the subsequent government law. Competition among the miners courts and their desire to repeat “business” made each court more cautious and responsible for mistakes.
In these two selected cases of land clubs and mining camp rules, we see that rights to natural resources in land and minerals can be protected by non-governmental agencies.
Government Water Planning
“A Critique of Collectivist Water Resources Planning.” The Western Political Quarterly 32(September 1979):320–326.
Demand for water is outstripping its supply at existing prices, particularly in Western states. In the name of allocating water for the “public interest,” many analysts seek to solve this problem by expanded federal and state involvement in the planning and management of entire river systems. But proposals for increased public planning and management of water resources are unsound. Their faulty planing theory “ignores the individualistic nature of social relationships and neglects the role which markets play in allocating resources to competing uses according to a single measure of value: the marketplace.” It is impossible to plan or allocate resources efficiently without market exchange and price signals.
Government planners fail to see that human action is not a collective whole, but a complex system of interacting individuals and groups. Thus “a river basin is not one large farm, but a complex network of social relations which involve private property, common ownership, markets, elections, campaigns, interest groups, pressures, government commands, crime, and corruption.” How can government planners maximize the welfare of such a collective entity as a “river basin,” without regard for the welfare of the individuals involved? The government planner can have no idea of “the total, let alone the relative value of the resources” he deals with in his plans. By contrast, private planners who own resources maximize social utility by allowing the free market price mechanism and individual choices decide to which uses water will be put.
The “water problem” is not one of insufficient physical supply of water; it results from public policy-makers' inability to rationally allocate water for alternative uses. Consequently, federal irrigation projects have so wasted large amounts of water that in the arid West “less than half reaches the intended crops.” This waste results from non-market underpricing of water, which encourages users to waste so “cheap” a resource. Similarly, government planners, in a misguided desire to minimize the economic losses due to floods, have subsidized flood insurances and supplied “disaster relief” money to areas plagued by floods. These non-market plans have “made it profitable for people to suffer flood losses” rather than locate in less flood-prone areas.
Better functioning markets, rather than more public planning, will efficiently allocate water resources in the United States. But, to operate properly, markets require that property rights (in water) be “well defined, secure, and transferable.” At present, much water is wasted because its “collective public ownership” subjects it to political interest-group decisions or the irrationalities of public planning. The solution is to turn over water resources to private industry. “Water rights should be owned by private individuals and corporations . . .” Then private markets will “efficiently allocate the available supply to those uses which yield the most value.”
Indians, Property, and Conservation
“Myths, Admonitions and Rationality: The Americans Indian as a Resource Manager.” Paper presented for the Center for Political Economy and Natural Resources: Montana State University: January 30, 1979, 18 pages.
The North American Indians shared a deep reverence for nature. Yet even this profound set of cultural values and ecological sensitivity were not sufficient to produce sound environmental practice. A survey of diverse North American tribal groupings reveals how the economic pressure of relative prices and costs led to wasteful consumption and anti-conservation practices when private property institutions were lacking. Conservation and a balanced ecological system require the incentives to good resource management that private property provides. Indian history documents the “tragedy of the commons,” the sad and ruinous exploitation of land, buffalo, and beaver, which results when natural resources are treated as a “common pool” rather than protected as private property.
Good ecological values alone are insufficient to secure frugality or nature conservation. Thus, the Indian cultures of the Pacific Northwest were frugal and conserving when natural goods were economically scarce, but were increasingly “wasteful” of natural goods in times of economic abundance. In good times these Indians engaged in the conspicuous consumption of the “potlatch”. The potlatch ceremony consisted of lavish gift-giving, as well as deliberate destruction of vast amounts of wealth to impress guests.
Changes in relative economic “prices” also led to a change in the Great Plains Indians' use of the buffalo. As the Plains Indians found the “cost,” or price, of hunting buffalos less expensive (through the technology of the horse and gun), they became less “frugal,” and frequently killed the buffalo merely for the tongue and two strips of back strap. The real reason for the buffalo being driven to the point of near extinction was that without clearly defined property titles governing the use of the buffalo, Indians were incapable of managing the buffalo as a “common pool resource.” From an environmental view, communally-owned resources (such as the Great Plains buffalo) tend to be wasted and exhausted because individuals respond to relative costs and benefits. In this common pool or communal ownership situation, “the benefits from harvesting one more buffalo accrue to the individual hunter, while the costs of depleting the herd are shared among all the hunters.” Overuse is predictable whenever the abuse of private property prevents a definite owner from bearing both costs and benefits.
Unlike the buffalo (virtually condemned to extinction through their common property status), the beaver was protected by the evolution of private property rights among the Montagnais Indians of the Labrador Peninsula. The Montagnais fur trappers were successful in adopting conservation practices to manage the beaver on a sustained yield basis because, as private owners, they were able to personally collect the benefits. Private property institutions and incentives harness self-interest toward environmental conservation; common property, by contrast, allows self-interest to waste and exploit nature. Thus, when white trappers in the nineteenth century ignored the Montagnais's property rights to their hunting territories, the Montagnais no longer saw it in their self-interest to conserve the beaver. The Montagnais, without the incentives of respected property rights, had little stake in conserving the beaver for the profit of rival white hunters.
Political or Voluntary Ecology?
“Recycling Hobbes: the Limits to Political Ecology.” The Massachussetts Review 20(Spring 1979):9–40.
The ecology movement stands as one of the enduring contributions of 1960s' populism to the political and social consciousness of the nation. Efforts aimed at protecting and preserving the environment have continued unabated into the 1980s. Nonetheless, Prof. Holsworth seeks to demonstrate in his article that a significant difference of political ethos separates the grassroots exponents of ecology during the 1960s from the more scientifically-oriented spokesmen for the movement today. An ecologically sound, yet humane society in the future is possible.
“In the ‘Sixties’,” Prof. Holsworth writes, “the idea of democratic competence was infused with a practical and effective richness rarely seen in our history. This permitted the environmental movement to escape the suffocating boundaries of the conservation movement and to nourish a political analysis which espoused organized citizen action as the antidote to public decision-making by private concerns.”
In the late 1970s, however, concerns of political ecologists shifted their focus from awareness and action on a mass scale to technical proposals for ecological management which rely heavily upon elitist control and authoritarian government for their effectiveness. Writers such as Paul Ehrlich, Garrett Hardin, Robert Heilbroner, and William Ophuls combine scientific expertise with a catastrophist mentality which envisages the destruction of the human race as an imminent possibility. They counsel firm and immediate measures to avert this threat. At the same time, they hold an almost Hobbesian view of human stupidity, and rapaciousness which makes them despair of men's ability to desist from self-aggrandizement, even when their own survival requires it.
Holding high the banner of “competence” as the legitimizing principle of authority, these new political ecologists envision a Leviathan-like state replete with “macro-constraints” and “micro-freedoms.” The latter are limited to those “personal” areas which exert a minimal impact on the larger society. Prof. Holsworth points out, however, that the personal is political. Individual desires, hopes, fears, and manners of living are connected to our social and political mores. Ringing calls for limitations on “the right to breed” (a seemingly obvious micro-freedom) highlight the impossibility of separating the two realms.
If there is to be an alternative to meager survival through despotic constraint, Prof. Holsworth suggests that an alternate view of human nature is essential. His view emphasizes the basically social character of human beings. Far from being self-serving barbarians who must be drubbed into obedience for their own good, human beings demonstrate a capacity for cooperation which makes popular participation, not elitist control, the more humane and ultimately more successful option for any future society. Even in our own day, citizens acting in concert have brought about many of the ecological movement's most significant victories.
By mobilizing the potent force of popular participation, we will also do much to foster those social values whose absence has caused many of our environmental difficulties, values such as community decision-making, farsightedness, compassion, and the equality of classes. With a revitalized and flourishing public life, Prof. Holsworth feels confident that we can run the race against environmental destruction, not as isolated competitors nor as obedient footmen, but as friends eager to encourage those who falter and to minister to those who stumble.