If It Can’t Be Sold, It’s Worthless

tiger.jpgThom Lambert offers this post on a “property rights” theory of endangered species protection (in essence, creating a market to increase supply). The arguments (also found in this Times’ opinion piece) are standard neo-classical economics. Trading, not regulation, increases supply of “goods,” therefore permitting endangered species to be “farmed” by hunters and others will ultimately “manage” them toward a sustainable population. “Some objections might be raised to this scheme,” to quote Daniel Farber’s An Economic Analysis of Abortion, “but rigorous analysis shows them to be unfounded.”*

Even though the arguments are hoary, I still feel torn about this issue.

On the one hand, as Lambert observes, some empirical evidence suggests that prohibitions don’t work well to preserve populations against development pressure. On the other hand, (1) the approach is useless for species that are commercially worthless (the owl, for example); and therefore (2) it has all of the problems of ordinary market valuations, and produces irreversible results (extinction) among the losers. (For a really good discussion of this problem, I recommend Matthew Scully’s Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. The chapter on hunting, economics, and commodification is amazing.)

*The fun goes on in Farber’s footnote: “One commentator has said that this approach ‘seems almost pathological in its disregard of the moral values on both sides.’ . . . That commentator’s work evidences all too clearly a lack of rigorous economic training.” 3 Const. Comment. 2 (1986)

You may also like...

8 Responses

  1. Nate Oman says:

    I spent the last two and half weeks driving around Utah and Idaho. Driving through the headwaters of the Payette River I noticed that a sizable percentage of the pasture land has been given over to herds of bison, a species that once looked on the road to extinction due to lost habitat. There is a reason for this that has nothing to do with prohibitions on killing Bison.

    I don’t really understand why you are torn. I understand the argument that creating property rights in some animals won’t save them, but this simply seems like a practical objection. Why not simply say, property rights based solutions will work well for some animals but not for other; let’s figure out where it will work.

    In other words, I want to know if you are torn because of this practical objection, or if you have some deeper moral qualms about hunting or the commodification of wild animals, etc. I’m not a hunter, but growing up in the West around hunters (we got school off for the first day of deer season), I just can’t get upset about hunting per se. It has always struck me as an urban affectation unrelated to the realities of wild life and game populations.

  2. Dave Hoffman says:

    No objection to hunting, at all.

    I feel the practical objection most clearly – the number of species that are commercial valuable is small, and the property rights approach strong suggests that remainder have no value worth weighing.

    I also think – though less clearly, I admit – that there *is* something immoral and therefore objectionable in commodifying wild animals. I wonder if Frank Pasquale is reading this thread – if so, I bet he can express the theory better than I.

  3. Frank says:

    I have thought a bit about biodiversity valuation. Though I think it’s necessary in terms of allocating resources (how much is it worth to us to save this species) and justifying ESA politically, I am worried that the focus on species misses the big picture.

    Unfortunately, the big picture is nothing less than human stewardship of the natural world, and we have all manner of conflicts over its meaning (and a few contrarians who wouldn’t mind seeing the whole biosphere paved over). The essays in the collection “The Idea of Wilderness” get at this.

    So I’m torn, too. On the one hand, species fetishism could lead us to miss out on the ultimate goal: a more respectful human attitude toward nature. On the other hand, ESA appears to be one of the few practical ways of operationalizing such values in law.

  4. Paul Gowder says:

    “One commentator has said that this approach ‘seems almost pathological in its disregard of the moral values on both sides.’ . . . That commentator’s work evidences all too clearly a lack of rigorous economic training.”

    You know, maybe if economists weren’t always so bloody insufferable, people would take their work more seriously.

  5. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    If any readers would be interested in a bibliography on ‘animals and ethics, rights & law’ you can e-mail me: patrickseamus ‘at’ hotmail.com and I’ll send it along as a Word doc. It contains a little less than 500 entries. An earlier version was posted in pdf. format by Professor Thomas Nadelhoffer at Leiter Reports a few months back and should still be available for download.

  6. I have to admit when I saw this post on tigers on Cafe Hayek, it resonated with me. Unless we are all vegans who wear no animal clothing, etc., then it seems untenable to support the domestication (commodification) of cows, chickens, pigs, sheep, trout, catfish, turkeys, geese, silkworms, emus, deer, rabbit, etc. If your concern is that the tiger is endangered, then domestication will cure that concern. If your concern is the domestication of a wild thing, then that’s more aesthetic than moral.

    Again, putting vegetarianism aside, why would you otherwise want to keep a wild thing wild, particularly when the wild thing has practical uses (medicine, food, clothing)? Surely you support the domestication of wild plants for commercial uses. Why are wild animals different? If it’s because you value something in them — beauty, cuddlineness, or ferociousness, then that’s quite a luxury for us to tell others in a developing country to let the tiger go free so we can preserve its “wildness.”

    It may just be that we value the frontier. I value the frontier. I would love to have large spaces on the earth untouched by commerce, where plants and animals are wild and humans can commune with them. However, the frontier is a luxury that few countries have. The U.S., with its large area and huge resources, has been able to subsidize the frontier for a long time. That does not mean that other countries can afford that luxury.

    So, (and I mean this in the nicest way), I would say that any moral qualms that we (non-vegan, leather-buying, silk wearing) have about domesticating a wild tiger are really aesthetic qualms.

  7. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Insofar as wild tigers are are part of ‘wild’ ecological webs or natural environments, it would seem we should have concern for their well-being as a species integral to such an environment. While the line between domesticated and wild animals may at times and places be blurred, it’s clearly the case that tigers are not domesticated creatures and there’s no compelling human interest that should prompt us to domesticate them. There’s plenty of evidence that animals taken from comparatively wild environments suffer (become depressed, more prone to illness, etc.) when placed in zoos or habitats that dramatically constrict their range of motion or radically alter behavior more or less typical of their species.

  8. Jamison Colburn says:

    As someone who has written about the logical shortcomings of “wilderness” as a concerpt in the legal protection of nature, I still feel an urge to play devil’s advocate for a moment against Christine and, to a degree, a couple of others. I applaud CO: this is an important thing, the quandary of whether to allow markets in things like endangered species. Truly, the capital they might create could address a significant failing that is imperiling more species every day. And it cannot be answered with simple definitional arguments like “cows are barnyard furniture and tigers are wild.” For example, in this case it turns out that there are more tigers in captivity in North America today than there are wild tigers throughout the world. But to degrade the “qualms” people have about hunting tigers to “aesthetic” status without adding what else occupies that status — the Eucharist, Picasso, and other transcendent objects of our affections — seems to me to obscure the most important things about tigers from the discussion.