Have you been thinking of “going green”? Do you consider yourself a Dr. Seuss fan? If yes to either of these, maybe you’ve heard of The Lorax—a popular Dr. Seuss children’s story that is held up by greens as a kind of environmentalist’s manifesto. But what if I told you The Lorax was just as much a paean to property rights and free trade. Would you think me crazy?
For those who haven’t read The Lorax, the story goes something like this:
A character called the “Once-ler” discovers land rich with Trufula Trees, a resource that can be made into almost anything – at least when the Once-ler applies his ingenuity to creating the things his customers value. However, wildlife like brown bar-ba-loots and Swomee-Swans depend on the Trufula Trees for food and habitat. Once the Once-ler gets started harvesting the trufula trees for his lucrative enterprises (whose biggering seems never to end), the bar-ba-loots and the Swomee-Swans rapidly begin losing habitat. There is pollution, too (Gluppity Glupp and Shloppity Shlopp). Our protagonist, the Lorax, appears and begins trying to shame the Once-ler. But the profits roll in and the Once-ler ignores the Lorax’s warnings. Then the worst comes to pass:
“And at that very moment, we heard a loud whack!/From outside in the fields came a sickening smack
of an axe on a tree. /Then we heard the tree fall./The very last Truffula Tree of them all!”
The genius of this story is that Dr. Seuss describes in simple and enjoyable terms a phenomenon called the Tragedy of the Commons, which was set out in detail by Garett Hardin in a seminal 1968 essay. Hardin uses a number of examples of showing how property owned in common (either by no one or by everyone) will tend to be overexploited. Why? Because no one has an incentive to conserve resources, since each person reasons: “if I don’t use it, the next guy will.”
We can think of a lot of examples of these tragedies: two siblings sharing a milkshake with two straws; a pizza at a fraternity party; the Amazon Rainforest; a common pasture for grazing lifestock; the ivory of African elephants. In all of these situations, overconsumption is a result of nobody owning the resource in question and everyone racing to use it before someone else does. A perverse result. So how do you stop the tragedy of the commons? Well, private property rights, of course.
For example, North America has more trees today than in over a century, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, yet we probably consume more timber and paper products than ever. How is this possible? Private timber companies have an incentive not to over-consume trees and to replant whatever they harvest to ensure future returns on their stock of resources.
In Africa, a successful program called CAMPFIRE enabled villages to have property rights in elephants of their region. The villagers allowed limited hunting – but only to paying customers, not poachers. The villages, once desperate, profited. Elephant populations soared.
Examples of how property rights ensure resource conservation abound. I need only mention Ducks Unlimited or the Nature Conservancy when discussing some of the nation’s most cherished private wildlife habitats. And what about pollution? Fishermen in the UK had rights to a stretch of river being polluted by a factory. The fishermen sued, which required the factory cease and desist—and clean up to stay in business.
So how do I know that The Lorax is not merely anti-industrialist screed, but a nod to responsible capitalism bolstered by property rights? I read this:
“And all that the Lorax left here in this mess/was a small pile of rocks, with one word…UNLESS.
SO… Catch! calls the Once-ler./He lets something fall./It’s a Truffula Seed./It’s the last one of all!/You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds./And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.”
A pile of rocks? OK, so it helps that the illustrator shows the rocks in a circle around the last seed. But could this symbol be of property rights? It’s not common property so keep off! — that says to me. Overconsumption due to tragedy of the commons can be remedied easily with both property rights and a robust common law system to bring suits against those who would gluppity glup on our property. Now, I realize that not all environmental problems are so easily dealt with via property rights and conservation. But certainly 95 percent of them are. Sadly, environmentalists today would not only abandon private property rights for draconian regulation and state ownership of property, but many would cannibalize their own agenda for the sake of global warming (just look at ecological damage ethanol has wrought).
(Thanks to Paul Feine for introducing me to this great story and to pointing out this interpretation.)