Could Commons-Based Resource Management Have Saved Cecil?

One proposal that periodically resurfaces in debates on managing endangered species is so-called “privatization.” Predictably, it has emerged once again in the context of Cecil the Lion’s death at the hands of a rich safari-hunting dentist. Of course proposals for “privatization” generally come from the Right, and what they mean by it is reorganizing some function on a for-profit business model under the control of a commercial firm. A case in point is James Kirkup’s article at (naturally) the Telegraph: “The real scandal of killing Cecil the lion: the price” (July 29).

There are all kinds of problems with such a model (more on this below).  But there’s a great deal to be said for the general approach of defining property rights in natural resources. Note:  By “property” I simply mean a set of rules governing access to a scarce goods, not “Property” in the sense of Proudhon’s “Property is theft.”

Chris Dillow, a Marxist who writes at Stumbling and Mumbling blog, points out that there’s a rich variety of available alternatives for allocating such access rights (“Creating markets,” July 31). They include not only the two alternatives usually discussed in stereotypical “debates” on wildlife management — state ownership and ownership by capitalist corporations — but the kinds of commons-based management the late Elinor Ostrom discussed in her work on the governance of common-pool resources.

A major consideration in deciding between such rule-sets, Dillow continues, is that they all to some varying degree carry transaction costs of enforcing the interests of the owners against their subordinates. Clearly the enforcement of game laws carries a cost under state ownership of wildlife reserves, as Kirkup notes. Regardless of laws aimed at protecting endangered species, he says, the demand from people who like killing exotic animals is “something the world will always attempt to satisfy.” Right now it’s satisfied “often clandestinely, by park rangers and others generally paid a pittance to watch over rare animals, who accept bribes from hunters. In other cases those rangers are simply outgunned by commercial poachers who can earn vast sums bagging rare creatures for others.” Either way, “our current system… is not working.”

He’s right about that. Other than market pricing of the right to kill lions, though, he’s quite vague about how his system would work. What would prevent park rangers from clandestinely giving would-be hunters access to lions like Cecil at less than the new higher price, or to more lions than the sustainable yield of a wildlife park, under whatever ownership regime — government or corporate — Kirkup prefers? He doesn’t even give a hand-wave by way of answer.

New Institutionalist economists like Oliver Williamson tell us that the best way to minimize transaction costs is to vest ownership and control in the owners of the factor which is most difficult to police. I would argue that this is usually the workers directly engaged in production. Their superior direct knowledge of the production process — “local” or “distributed” knowledge, as Friedrich Hayek called it — gives them an advantage over those who attempt to manage them. This is why corporate management in the 20th century put so much effort into developing “scientific management” techniques to deskill workers and make the production process transparent. And it’s why deliberately withholding the benefit of workers’ direct knowledge of the production process, by working-to-rule, is such a brilliant strategy for sabotaging production.

Generally speaking, the further removed the nominal owners of an institution are removed both from the physical location of what they’re managing and involvement in the process itself, the more difficult the institution will be to manage. In the case of absentee management by a corporation or a government agency, the people in the central office will always know less about what’s going on than those in direct contact with the situation.

In the case of wildlife preserves, the obvious implication is that they should be managed as common pool resources, like the common pastures of medieval European villages and many other similar institutions around the world surveyed by Ostrom. Hunting, strictly limited to sustainable yield, and for a high price — as Kirkup suggests — might be part of the rules. Or as more people find trophy hunting morally abhorrent — as I do — perhaps ecotourism is a viable source of revenue for the local population.

The best way to ensure a ranger won’t clandestinely give a millionaire dentist access to a lion for a bribe is to make sure all the rangers are local villagers with vested economic rights in preventing hunting beyond the long-term sustainable yield of the preserve. And even when a crooked ranger decides that a bribe is worth more than their shared rights in the common, the most effective way to stop it is policing by their neighbors and fellow owners of the common, who all have a shared interest in preventing depletion. The same principle operates in the plywood cooperatives of the American Pacific Northwest, which require only about a quarter of the front-line supervisors of capitalist-owned enterprise because — unlike a capitalist enterprise where all the benefits of efficiency go to management in the form of bonuses — workers all have a common interest in preventing slacking and inferior work.

Hierarchy — authority — always creates conflicts of interest. Hierarchies were created in the first place to make it easier for those at the top to extract more labor from those at the bottom, and keep the surplus for themselves. So long as ownership and control of natural resources in a region is vested in authorities separate from those who live there, who have no interests in common with those who live alongside the resources, our management of the natural world will be characterized by looting and depletion. Anarchy is the mother of order.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory