Matt Ridley: Government Destroys the Environment

by David Bier on January 5, 2012

in Blog

Environmental degradation in the third world, we are told, is caused by ruinous free-market capitalism that tramples the common environment for private gains. In The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley debunks this idea, writing that environmental protection was damaged primarily by meddlesome governments who didn’t understand how local community-arrangements already protected the environment.

The Origins of Virtue was released in 1996

The rehabilitation of coercion by the state it was a distinctly Hobbesian victory. [The philosopher Thomas] Hobbes had argued in favour of a supreme sovereign power as the only way to enforce cooperation among its subjects. ‘And covenants,’ he wrote, ‘without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.’ The only solution to tragedies of the commons, real or imagined, was seen in the 1970s as nationalization by the state. All across the world, communal ownership became an excuse for aggrandizement by governments. As one economist put it in 1973, shedding walrus tears, ‘If we avoid the tragedy of the commons, it willonly be by recourse to the tragic necessity of Leviathan.’

This recipe was an unmitigated disaster. Leviathan creates tragedies of the commons where none were before. Consider the case of wildlife in Africa. All across the continent countries nationalized their game during colonial regimes and after independence in the 1960s and 1970s, arguing that it was the only way to prevent ‘poachers’ wiping out this commonly held resource. The result was that peasants now faced competition and damage from government-owned elephants and buffalo, and had no longer any incentive to look after the animals as a source of meat or revenue. ‘The African farmer’s enmity towards elephants is as visceral as Western mawkishness is passionate,’ said the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, David Western. The decline of African elephants, rhinos and other animals is a tragedy of the commons, created by nationalization.  This is proved by the fact that it has been spectacularly reversed wherever title to wildlife has been re-privatised to communities, such as in the Campfire programme of Zimbabwe in which sport hunters bid to buy the rights to kill game from committees of villagers. The villagers rapidly change their attitudes to the now valuable game animals on their land. The acreage of private land devoted to wildlife has increased from 17,000 to 30,000 square kilometres since Zimbabwe granted title to landowners.

In irrigation systems in Asia, the damage done by government good intentions is even more striking. Irrigation systems in Nepal usually consist of a delicate bargain between owners of the headwaters and the owners of the fields farther downstream. By wasting water on thirsty crops like rice, or just being profligate, the upstream users can exhaust the available supply, leaving their downstream neighbors dry. Usually, however, they are more generous for purely self-interested reasons. Maintaining the diversion dams is hard work; the downstream users offer their labour in exchange for a fair share of the water. Consequently, when government steps in to build a permanent diversion dam, as it did at Kamala, the only effect was to upset an existing deal, remove the need for upstream user to be good neighbours, and reduce the water that reached the downstream users. The project has been a spectacular failure. In contrast, where the government helped build some of the downstream branch canals, as it did at Pithuwa, there has been a coming together of users to create an efficient system of self-governing committees that allocate water, and the area served by the water has doubled.

Another case comes from the island of Bali, in Indonesia. Bali’s landscape is man-made. Almost every accessible square inch has been terraced to make paddy fields. Sustainability, the ecological equivalent of virtue, is no problem. The farmers grow their own seed, and use no pesticides or fertilizer (blue-green algae fix nitrogen from the air). Rice has been grown in Bali since 1,000 BC and irrigation has been practised for almost as long. Irrigation tunnels and canals bring water from mountain lakes and streams down to the subaks, or farming villages, on the hillsides.

Irrigation is intimately connected with religion, each temple lying at a branch point in the canal network, and worship being apparently all about securing water by making offerings to upstream neighbors’ temples. These temples dictate when each subak will have water to flood its fields, and when it must plant its rice. Traditionally, each subak plants its fields at the same time and leaves all of its fields fallow at the same time.

Along, in the 1970s, came the Green Revolution in the form of the International Rice Research Institute, promulgating more vigorous strains of rice and promising the people better yields if they ceased to fallow their fields between crops. The result was disaster: water shortages and outbreaks of insect borne viruses that ravaged the crops.

Why? Scientists were called in to find out. Stephen Lansing put the whole problem to his equivalent of a goddess (the computer) and it spake as follows. Before, everybody within each subak fallowed their crops at once, which destroyed the pest–it had nowhere to live during the fallow time. But each subak planted at different which ensured enough water for all. By interfering with simultaneous fallows and by creating sudden high demands for water from several areas, the Green Revolutionaries were spoiling a pattern that was far from being a mere hide-bound tradition. It was highly ingenious.

It was so ingenious that the person who worked it out must have been both clever and power. Who was he? The computer spake again. He was nobody. Order emerges perfectly from chaos not because of the way people are bossed about, but because of the way individuals react rationally to incentives. There is no omniscient priest in the top temple, just the simplest conceivable habits. All it requires is that each farmer copies any neighbor who does better than he did. The result is synchrony within subaks and asynchrony between them. All without the slightest hint of central authority. Government, in the shape of rajahs or socialists, has done nothing to create the system; it only levies the tax.

Wherever you look, the reason for environmental troubles in the Third World turns out to be caused by the lack of clear property rights. Why do people mine the rain forest for logs when they could farm it for nuts and medicines? Because they can own the logs in a way they cannot own them when they are trees.  Why is Mexico exhausting its oil resources more quickly, less efficiently and for less money than the United States? Because property rights to oil are better secure in America. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto argues that the poverty of the Third World is to be cured largely by creating secure property rights without which people have no chance to build their prosperity. Government is not the solution to tragedies of the commons. It is the prime cause of them.

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