Friday, January 28, 2011

The Catastrophe of Private Property

John Clark recently gave a much-needed critique of Garrett Hardin's essays Lifeboat Ethics and Tragedy of the Commons in the September 2010 issue of Capitalism Nature Socialism under the title, The Tragedy of Common Sense Part One: The Power of Myth (unfortunately this is not an open access article). Clark omitted Hardin's background to a certain degree as the nature of the article was to deconstruct fallacies in Hardin's analyses. His ‘ideologies' as Clark calls them permeate academia and into wider audiences. Hardin was very much a product of his time. He was brought up in a Christian household, believing in self-reliance and individuality. This certainly reinforced a mythology of small-holder entrepreneurship where individuals or families improve the land through title, hard work and adapting proven technologies and techniques. For his professional career he was trained as a zoologist, a discipline that in his age reduced complexities to a contained, laboratory experiment where inputs are controlled and designed for observation or to shape the behaviors of animals. What John Clark critiques well is Hardin's influence on his peers in academia, his students and later on public policy through the guise of scholarly authority. Hardin's writings are neo-Malthusian, unethical and racist when addressing the morality of world hunger, immigration, foreign aid, land use, and population growth. But before throwing out the bathwater with the omen child taking the bath, let's see what can be salvaged from Hardin's predictions.

Hardin in Lifeboat Ethics explained that rich nations have the difficult but necessary action of denying food aid to poorer nations when famines occur. Such policy will also result in immigration of people from poor famine-prone nations to rich self-sufficient (at least in terms of food production) ones. Here also, rich nations must follow draconian practices by allowing only educated, industrious individuals to their 'lifeboats' if food surpluses and room allows. He prophesizes that to constantly come to the assistance of poor, famine-prone nations will impoverish all and eventually undermine all humans in what he calls 'ratchet theory.' In order to avoid this, the over-breeding poor must 'drown' in order to curb high population growth rates and bring stability back. This ideology is not a remnant of the 19th and 20th centuries. It prevails in current United States politics where the Dream Act Bill was introduced into the House of Representatives this past December. It is in the decision-making of international lenders like the World Bank and IMF who hold many poor nations hostage with the terms of their loans and the debt incurred from them. It is very much alive in the business practices of many multi-national corporations in exploiting raw materials to the degradation of local ecologies in the third world while exploiting the cheap labor of men, women and children in these countries. Hardin’s assumption that the world’s rich nations are self-sufficient is also a fallacy. They became rich through the manipulation of global economics and exploitation of weaker, poorer nations and are dependent on such exploitation to maintain their wealth. Last, in regards to the Lifeboat Ethics essay, the idea of those on the ‘lifeboat’ practicing ethics is preposterous. It is in fact a silent, slow genocide that continues to thrive since media audiences are apathetic to these injustices.

John Clark mentions less concerning Hardin's essay, Tragedy of the Commons, but given the title he will likely talk more about this work in future entries to Capitalism Nature Socialism. Without assuming too much regarding Clark's direction in talking about this ‘groundbreaking’ piece published in Science during 1968, I wish to address the fallacies in Tragedy here, with reference to my area of study: West Africa. Much like in Lifeboat Ethics, Hardin once again creates an environment of containment regarding an undefined natural resource exploited by multiple actors under conditions of common property rights, where stakeholders have equal access to the resource. Hardin makes assumptions that under such a system, each individual will act out of selfish interest and exploit the resource to excess. The combined over-exploitation by each stakeholder will result in the tragedy, where the depleted, degraded resource is no longer available and all stakeholders lose. Alternatives to this land tenure system were not given but free market advocates and neoconservatives in development agencies use Hardin’s argument constantly to promote the issuance of titles in developing nations.

A large omission exists in Hardin’s argument. Given his background and training, he failed to see differences in societies regarding land tenure systems. Open access resources, though viewed as highly vulnerable to people coming from societies where private property laws are entrenched, generally have social controls that regulate exploitation. For him private land holdings and the titles protecting resources were a necessary control to protect against the consequences of resource degradation through a collective selfishness. For Hardin, Texas Ranches with barbed wire separating neighbors are civilized while land that is open access would eventually be spoilt by the ‘increasing hoards.’ This certainly has relevance to the changing demographics in the Sahel and the diminishing commons that pastoral communities continue to face for the past 100 years. But this does not justify the privatization of lands in order to ‘protect’ local communities from diminishing pasture and water resources. The Sahel is an environment of inconsistency where rains come and go and mobility is necessary to adapt to this variability. To privatize land and resources makes people at greater risk to ruin when drought arrives.

Though this was not a part of Hardin’s analysis in Tragedy of the Commons, private property has a dark side to it, what I call the Catastrophe of Private Property. The idea of a title holder as concerned with the maintenance or improvement of land is not always the case, particularly if the land was obtained with the goal of immediate profit for what is on or underneath it. Private property owners can and do deforest, mine, and extract other resources without regard to the sustainability of the natural resources on the land, or, others around it. The myth of a small-holder maintaining the land or improving it is becoming rare in rich nations where economies are based on profit, and individual owners are gradually replaced by large corporations. In regards to the developing world it has only proved disastrous. Multi-national corporations gain property, in either ownership or lease, and then extract resources and pollute local environments with little to no concern for the effects on local ecologies and populations. Hardin was not wrong for analyzing the evils of greed and consequences when people as a collective degrade natural resources. He was wrong, however, in applying the evils of his own society upon open access land management systems that were in the past not susceptible to the consequences of greed and profit. Today this is changing, however. Private property practices are creeping into the Sahel, as well as other parts of the world where individual ownership is at times impractical to the maintenance of land and the natural resources present on it.

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