Front Page Titles (by Subject) Indians, Property, and Conservation - Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4
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Indians, Property, and Conservation - 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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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.