Some parts of the
world really are environmental Hells. They are dirty and depleted, making them
unhealthy and economically unsustainable. We can argue about the severity of the problems in various places, but I
want to focus on another aspect of the debate: determining accurately the causes of the degradation so we can focus
productively on finding solutions.
Unfortunately, much public discussion is characterized by
over-the-top rhetoric in combination with ignorance of the alternatives and a
latching onto the first plausible hypothesis.
If we ask Whom to blame? the most commonly-cited culprit
is The Greedy Nature of Man. Those who subscribe to this
answer see self-interest, the profit motive, and capitalism as the roots
of the problem. Self-interest, they argue, means
that people want more at the least cost to themselves. Profit now means using up resources sooner rather
than later and getting rid of the waste the easiest way possible. And capitalism‘s rule-minimalism only serves to encourage
such wanton behavior.
Let’s give The Greedy Nature of Man theory a name. I propose
to add a word—The Greedy Nature of Man’s Evil—to produce the acronym GNOME. We
can get some t-shirts made saying “GNOME Is the Problem.”
classic “Tragedy of the Commons” essay for Science is sometimes enlisted in support of GNOME.
Hardin used the example of herdsmen using a common pasture. Each herdsman is a
self-interested farmer, so he wants to put as many cows as he can into the
pasture because each additional cow increases his profits. But each additional
cow also means that less pasture is available for the other herdsmen’s cows.
And of course the other profit-seeking herdsmen are doing the same thing.
But as more cows are added, the pasture’s grasses are depleted
more quickly. So the herdsmen become locked into a zero-sum competition that
leads to the destruction of the pasture—and to dying cows and skinny herdsmen.
The solution then
seems obvious: If short-sighted self-interest is the problem—if antisocial
profit seeking is the problem—and if capitalism’s anything-goes laissez-faire is the problem—then the fix will
require a powerful institution able to override people’s selfish profit-seeking
and to impose rules about resource use that take into account society as a
whole’s long-term needs. That is to say, the government should manage
In the case of the herdsmen, for example, the government should
tell each herdsman how many cows he may put out and for how long. It should
mandate that each herdsman does his fair share of maintenance and improvements
in the pasture—weeding, fence-building, well-digging, waste collection. It will
hire police to ensure that none of the herdsmen are cheating or shirking. And
it will impose taxes in order to fund the rule-making and monitoring. That is
to say, wise environmental policy will require lots of rationing, conscription,
policing, and taxation.
authoritarianism of much current environmentalism, with calls for greater
powers for this or that government agency and even a world government. “Basic
resources and companies should be in the hands of the public sector and
society,” argues this document prepared for the United Nations
Conference on Sustainable Development. Further: “sustainable development can
only be achieved from a global perspective and cannot be achieved only in the
The Greedy Nature of Man analysis has seduced many an angry young
environmentalist and many a politician. But GNOME does run up against some
contrary data and a powerful competing hypothesis about the cause of
Consider, for example,
this list of the 25 Most Polluted Places on Earth.
Actually—before you look at the list, make a pair of guesses:
- (1) Of the 25 most
polluted, how many do you think will be in the relatively free-market parts of
- (2) How many of them
do you think will be in the socialist, formerly socialist, authoritarian, and
other big-government-friendly parts of the world?
Or you can trust my counting: Russia and India top the list,
each with three of the Earth’s most polluted places. China and Azerbaijan each
have two. The following countries appear in the list once: Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan,
Iran, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Congo, Tanzania, Zambia, Haiti, Mexico, Argentina,
Brazil, and Peru.
Now for the
interesting bit: Every one of those countries is also very economically unfree. The Economic Freedom of the World Index ranks 178 nations from most-free
economically to least-free-economically. Russia ranks 143nd. India ranks 128th.
Here are some more ranks: China (139), Iran (171), Haiti (151), Argentina
(169), Congo (170)…and you can check the rest yourself.
The point is: the dirtiest places in the world are also the least free market
and the most anticapitalist.
By contrast, sample the nations that are relatively high in
economic freedom: Hong Kong (1), New Zealand (3), Switzerland (5), Canada (6),
Bahrain (18), Sweden (23), South Korea (29), and others that are representative
examples here. In those nations there is plenty of profit-seeking self-interest
and capitalism is encouraged—and those nations are relatively clean environmentally.
So the popular GNOME hypothesis faces a paradox: It tells us
that profit-seeking capitalism causes environmental death, but the data
indicates that more capitalism correlates with more environmental health. GNOME
also tells us that government management should save the environment, but the
data suggests strongly that environmental Hells occur most often in
Which means that we should also consider a competing hypothesis.
That hypothesis also
has two components. One is that government-managed societies are plagued with
problems—incompetence, bureaucracy, corruption, and perverse incentives. So we
should expect inefficiency and unintended consequences in
The other part is that
we should give self-interest and free markets more positive credit when it
comes to environmental values. Self-interest includes wanting
to live in clean, healthy, and beautiful environments. Humans are intelligent enough to understand big-picture
consequences and long-term profitability. Private property and free
markets can and do incentivize
wise resource use and proper waste disposal.
nations become rich—and rich nations especially
have the resources to solve environmental problems as they
Let’s call that
the Capitalism Loves the Earth as Necessary hypothesis.
My first personal experience with CLEAN and the Tragedy of the
Commons occurred when I ran out of money in my final semester of graduate
school. My first teaching job awaited me in the fall semester, but I had no income
for the three summer months before then.
So I gave up my apartment and moved into a shared house with
seven other guys. It was a huge old house with eight bedrooms, so each of us
had a private room, and we all shared a common kitchen and two bathrooms.
Perhaps you know that some guys are neater than others, so the
eight private rooms varied from clean to messy, but each guy was content with
his own space. Yet the common kitchen and bathrooms were always dirty to
disgusting, and we all complained about them.
When I moved in, I spent an afternoon cleaning the bathroom
nearest to my bedroom. Within two days it was gross again, and I resolved to
spend no more time cleaning it. That summer I showered at the university gym.
We tried to solve the kitchen mess by setting up a rotation
schedule. Seven days in a week and eight guys in the house, so each guy was
assigned a day that he was responsible for cleaning the kitchen, with one guy
to fill in when needed. The plan’s math was good, but the rotation schedule lasted
for only three days. One of the guys missed his cleaning day, food remnants and
the dishes piled up, and the next guy refused to do double duty. Everyone got
mad and the system broke down. I ate out a lot that summer.
Question: Why were the house’s common areas unusable and the
private areas satisfactory?
Let’s return to Garrett Hardin’s classic tragedy of the commons
scenario. Each herdsman using a common pasture has an incentive to add more
cows to the pasture so as to increase his profits. At the same time, he has
little incentive to weed the pasture or dig a well on it, since he’d be doing
the work and the other herdsmen would freeload. So the pasture is overused and
under-maintained, and becomes unusable.
The Greedy Nature of Man’s Evil (GNOME) hypothesis blames the
self-interest of the herdsmen: if only they weren’t so selfishly concerned with
their own profits! How can we make them act for the common good? Clearly we
need the government to manage resources—to ration, conscript, tax, and police
as necessary to maintain the common resources! That is, socialism is the
solution or we’re all going to suffer and even die!
Not so fast. The tragedy
results from two factors working jointly:
the common resource and private self-interest. What if the commons is the problem and
not the self-interest?
Suppose that the common pasture is 10,000 acres and there are
twenty herdsmen using it. We could divide the land into twenty 500-acre parcels
and give one parcel to each herdsman. That is to say, we could privatize the
resource by turning it into private property.
How would that change the dynamic? Suppose you’re one of the
herdsmen now with your own 500-acre farm.
- Is it in your self-interest to keep adding
cows to your pasture? Clearly not: if you want the pasture to be useful to you
into the future, you will make sure that you put out only as many cows as the
pasture can support.
- Will you dig a well so that your cows have
water in the hot summer months? Costly, yes, but your cows will get the full
use of the water—and if it’s an especially productive well you can sell the
extra water to your neighbors.
- Will you talk with your neighbors about
splitting the cost of a fence along your joint property line, so that his cows
don’t wander onto your land and vice versa? Yes.
- Or will you think: Someday I want to retire,
and when I do I want to sell my farm for a lot of money so that I can live
comfortably until the end of my days. So I should manage my farm well so as to
increase its economic value for the long term.
- Or: I want to leave my farm to my kids when I
die, and I want them to have the best start possible in life. So I want to
bequeath to them a productive, well maintained farm.
The point is that with
this private-property solution, self-interest is now aligned with healthy resource use. There is a role
for government—not to manage the resource, as under GNOME’s socialism—but to
assign and register property titles in the first place, to protect each
farmer’s property rights, and to adjudicate disputes as they arise. If my cows
wander onto your land, you have the right to prevent them and sue me for any
damage they do. If you steal water from my well, you can be prosecuted. We both
have an incentive to respect each other’s rights.
We have just described the free-market capitalist solution to
the tragedy: self-interest and the profit motive working with property rights
and limited government. That is, Capitalism Loves the Environment as Necessary
But what about bad farmers? My last name is Hicks, which means
that I come from a long line of farmers. What if I am lazy or incompetent, or
have a string of very bad luck and run my farm into the ground? It becomes
dirty and weedy and impoverished to the point that I am no longer able to
support myself with it.
My only option then is to sell the farm. To whom will I sell?
Only to a farmer who can afford it—which is to say, to a farmer who has managed
his own farm well and so made a profit from it, which put him in a position to
invest in other resources.
But what about poor
me? I am now without a farm. What happens to incompetent farmers like me is an issue, but our concern now is with good resource maintenance and solving
the tragedy of the commons. The great virtue of the CLEAN system is that those
who misuse resources are unable to do so for long. Resources end up in the
hands of those who have an incentive to look after them and know what they are
Return now to my partly unpleasant summer sharing a house with
seven guys. The kitchen and the bathrooms truly were a tragedy. And that is
because they were a commons.
When we find mismanaged
resources and nasty pollution, we almost always find a commons. Either there are no property rights or there
is a failed attempt by a government to manage the resource as a common.
But how far can we extend the privatization solution?
rights in land make sense, but land is not the only environmentally sensitive
resource and it is not always clear how property rights can solve all land-use
claims. How would they work for more fluid resources
such as air and water, and animal species that migrate across great stretches
of land? How do we extend them to new and intangible resources such as
intellectual values? Cutting-edge stuff.
And is the choice only
between privatization and government management? Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom argued for a middle way: no one size
fits all, Ostrom argued, and she presented successful examples from around the
world of locally developed user associations that had evolved semiprivate and
semipublic practices for managing all kinds of resources. (Coincidentally,
Ostrom was a professor at my graduate university at the time, so perhaps we
should have consulted her about how to solve our kitchen-and-bathroom tragedy.)
This brings us to the current state of the art. The debate over
the tragedy of the commons is part of the great Doomster versus Boomster
battle. And the stakes are high, so let’s avoid the easy ideologically driven
shouting matches. Let’s first make sure we learn from the history of actual
examples and consider all sides of the debate.
Dr. Stephen Hicks is on a speaking tour this March in Australia via True Arrow Events.