No property leads to plunder

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
December 31, 2002

This article is a response to a letter by Scott Vaughan

The Carnegie Endowment’s Scott Vaughan chose an apt example by invoking Indira Gandhi’s memorable speech in Stockholm at the 1972 UN Conference on Human Environment. “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” Mrs. Gandhi said famously, in arguing that the environment should take a back seat to the economy.

But few remember that Mrs. Gandhi was then focusing on a major Indian controversy, the widespread destructive conduct of villagers such as “the tribal people and those who live in around our jungles, we cannot prevent them from combing the forests for food and livelihood; from poaching and from despoiling the vegetation.”

And almost no one in the West realizes – and evidently not Mr. Vaughan – that the widespread destruction caused by millions of India’s villagers and tribal people began in 1865, when the state – first the British Raj, later Indian governments – claimed rights over the nation’s forests and began to seize villagers’ communal forests. Before the villagers lost their property rights to remote governments, they had managed their forests sustainably, using traditional laws analogous to the Western world’s common laws, to protect both private and communal property rights.

When state legislation transferred their forests to the state and later to government-run forest development corporations, the villagers not only lost their stake in the forests, they lost their incentive to protect them. They took to plundering the forests, before outsiders did. In the 1980s, the Indian government under Indira Gandhi extended its right to seize land by redefining “forest land” as “any land containing trees and shrubs, pasture lands and any land whatsoever . . . which the state government declares to be a forest.” The plunder, as could be expected, increased.

The story was similar in Nepal, where the king nationalized forests in 1957, leading to deforestation in parts of the Himalayas. And in Indonesia and the Amazon. When land, or rights to waterways, or access to any resource is owned on paper by all, it is owned, in practice, by none. It becomes a commons, an invitation to plunder. When markets are not allowed to function, the dysfunction of the commons becomes all the worse.

Mr. Vaughan flippantly suggests that I expect the world’s poor to buy land that they can then protect. I have no such expectation. But I do expect that, at a minimum, the West will stop aiding Third World governments in dispossessing the world’s poor, for most of the dispossession could not occur without Western government financing through international development agencies such as the World Bank, through national aid agencies such as the Canadian International Development Agency, and through government-subsidized export agencies, such as Export Development Canada. All three of these taxpayer-funded agencies, for example, have collaborated in helping the Chinese government forcibly evict some 1.2 million people off their land to make way for the Three Gorges dam, the world’s single-largest environmental abomination. Where these newly impoverished people will end up is unknown. We do know that well-meaning Western agencies like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who have been silent on Three Gorges despite the Chinese military’s role in evicting people at the point of a gun, will deplore the short-sightedness of the oustees. Tut-tuts Mr. Vaughan: Such people “are less inclined to take a long-term view about conservation as they struggle to feed and shelter themselves and their families.”

An analysis by India’s Planning Commission of two decades of dam building found that many of the dams would never have been built if the ignored costs – the loss of agricultural and forest lands, resettlement costs and landslides among them – had been accounted for. One dam in the state of Maharashtra had costs that amounted to twice the benefits. The Three Gorges dam will surely have an even higher cost-benefit ratio. Because these dams and other development projects are uneconomic, they could not generate the wealth needed to repay the debts incurred in financing them, leading to past and future Third World debt crises. All of these projects required the wanton extinguishment of property rights held either by individuals or communities.

Although Mr. Vaughan dislikes the case I have made for the primacy of property rights and free markets in environment protection, his own letter makes the same case. When property owners are not empowered to protect themselves from their neighbours’ pollution, the environment suffers. When property rights are hard to establish, such as with migratory species, the environment suffers. When governments subsidize large-scale agriculture and other polluting activities, the environment suffers.

To maximize environmental health, we must maximize the ability of property rights and free markets to encourage responsible stewardship, not just in the Third World – Mr. Vaughan’s emphasis – but in Western nations as well, where subsidized roads, power plants, mines, logging operations and industrial activities of all kind also cause great environmental and economic harm.

Mrs. Gandhi asked: “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” Her policies and those of like-minded leaders, provide the answer: No. The greatest polluters, and the greatest creators of poverty, the evidence incontrovertibly shows, are central governments.

Readers’ response

Letter re: Property Rights No Panacea, No Property Leads to Plunder, Dec. 31, 2002.

by Charles Leduc, Vancouver, National Post, Jan. 06, 2003

Comparing the arguments of Lawrence Solomon versus Scott Vaughan, it seems that one is living in the real world of environmental degradation, whereas the other would like to be living in an ideal world of true land stewardship and conservation (Property Rights No Panacea, No Property Leads to Plunder, Dec. 31).

The problem is that, in reality, subsidies to industry do exist on the one hand, and on the other, only about half the world’s population has the actual means to acquire land. Though the dream of full ownership and stewardship of the Earth’s land and resources is a noble one, it is so far from being realizable as to be laughable to anyone but the most dogmatic.

Please see the original article: Crazy eco-curve by Lawrence Solomon, National Post December 18/2002

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