Thanks, Property Rights!

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FA Note:  The inter­na­tion­al treaties and agree­ments cit­ed in the ESA, which autho­rize the Act, were all nego­ti­at­ed to pro­tect each nation’s agri­cul­tur­al economies and the com­mu­ni­ties depen­dent on them. Sim­ple log­ic, and basic eco­nom­ics, both dic­tate — if a “mar­ket” exists/develops for any species, their num­bers will grow.

This Thanks­giv­ing, I give thanks for some­thing our fore­bears gave us: prop­er­ty rights.

Peo­ple asso­ciate prop­er­ty rights with greed and self­ish­ness, but they are keys to our pros­per­i­ty. Things go wrong when resources are held in common.

Before the Pil­grims were able to hold the first Thanks­giv­ing, they near­ly starved. Although they had inher­it­ed ideas about indi­vid­u­al­ism and prop­er­ty from the Eng­lish and Dutch trad­ing empires, they tried com­mu­nism when they arrived in the New World. They decreed that each fam­i­ly would get an equal share of food, no mat­ter how much work they did.

The results were dis­as­trous. Gov. William Brad­ford wrote, “Much was stolen both by night and day.” The same plan in Jamestown con­tributed to star­va­tion, can­ni­bal­ism and death of half the population.

So Brad­ford decreed that fam­i­lies should instead farm pri­vate plots. That quick­ly end­ed the suf­fer­ing. Brad­ford wrote that peo­ple now “went will­ing­ly into the field.”

Soon, there was so much food that the Pil­grims and Indi­ans could cel­e­brate Thanksgiving.

There’s noth­ing like com­pe­ti­tion and self-inter­est to bring out the best in people.

While prop­er­ty among the set­tlers began as an infor­mal sys­tem, with “tom­a­hawk rights” to land indi­cat­ed by shav­ing off bits of sur­round­ing trees, or “corn rights” indi­cat­ed by grow­ing corn, soon set­tlers were keep­ing track of con­tracts, fil­ing deeds and, alas, hir­ing lawyers to sue each oth­er. Prop­er­ty rights don’t end all con­flict, but they cre­ate a bet­ter sys­tem for set­tling dis­putes than phys­i­cal combat.

Know­ing that your prop­er­ty is real­ly yours makes it eas­i­er to plant, grow, invest and prosper.

In Brazil today, rain­forests are destroyed because no one real­ly owns them. Log­gers take as many trees as they can because they know if they don’t, some­one else will. No one had much rea­son to pre­serve trees or plant new ones for future har­vests; although recent­ly, some pri­vate con­ser­va­tion groups bought parcels of the Ama­zon in order to pro­tect trees.

The oceans are treat­ed as a com­mons, and they are dif­fi­cult to pri­va­tize. For years, lack of own­er­ship led to over­fish­ing. Species will go extinct if they aren’t treat­ed as prop­er­ty. Now a few places award fish­ing rights to pri­vate groups of fish­er­men. Cana­da pri­va­tized its Pacif­ic fish­eries, sav­ing the hal­ibut from near col­lapse. When fish­er­men con­trol fish­ing rights, they care about pre­serv­ing fish.

Think about your Thanks­giv­ing turkey. We eat tons of them, but no one wor­ries that turkeys will go extinct. We know there will be more next year, since peo­ple prof­it from own­ing and rais­ing them.

As the 19th-cen­tu­ry econ­o­mist Hen­ry George said, “Both humans and hawks eat chick­ens — but the more hawks, the few­er chick­ens; while the more humans, the more chickens.”

(Sad­ly, even Hen­ry George did­n’t com­plete­ly believe in pri­vate prop­er­ty. He thought land should be unowned, since late­com­ers can’t pro­duce more of it. Had he seen how bad­ly the com­mon­ly owned rain­for­est is treat­ed, he might’ve changed his mind.)

Her­nan­do de Soto (the con­tem­po­rary Peru­vian econ­o­mist, not the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dor) writes about the way clear­ly defined prop­er­ty rights spur growth in the devel­op­ing world. Places with­out clear prop­er­ty rights — much of the third world — suffer.

About 4 bil­lion peo­ple in the world actu­al­ly build their homes and own their busi­ness­es out­side the legal sys­tem,” de Soto told me. “It’s all hap­haz­ard and dis­or­ga­nized because of the lack of rule of law, the def­i­n­i­tion of who owns what. Because they don’t have (legal­ly rec­og­nized) address­es, (they) can’t get credit.”

With­out deeds, they can’t make con­tracts with con­fi­dence. Eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty that can­not be legal­ly pro­tect­ed instead gets done on the black mar­ket, or on “gray mar­kets” in a murky legal lim­bo in between. In places such as Tan­za­nia, says de Soto, 90 per­cent of the econ­o­my oper­ates out­side the legal system.

So, few peo­ple expand homes or busi­ness­es. Poor peo­ple stay poor.

This hol­i­day sea­son, give thanks for prop­er­ty rights and hope that your fam­i­ly will nev­er have to relearn the eco­nom­ic les­son that near­ly killed the Pilgrims.