Monday, October 1, 2012

Public Lands and Property Rights

Simply put, property rights, or the right to property, are the rights to obtain, to keep, and to dispose of material values. The right to property is not simply the right to a given object, rather it entails several complexities. According to Armen Alchian, private property entails three key elements: "exclusivity of rights to choose the use of a resource, exclusivity of rights to the services of a resource, and rights to exchange the resource at mutually agreeable terms."

In America, the government has dipped its fingers into all three of the aforementioned elements of property rights. While price controls levied against landlords garner substantial national attention, governmental meddling among so called "public" lands and waters is more serious.

Take for example activities such as hunting and fishing. Viewed by some as merely recreational activities, in reality these two enterprises are crucial to the livelihood of thousands of individuals around the country. But, hunting and fishing are both highly regulated by the government. The government controls hunting and fishing seasons, allowable locations, and the quantity of wildlife that can be harvested. These "public" lands are meant to be shared among all who desire to access them. That means everybody should share the property rights, and with that comes the option for each individual to decide what to do with the given resource. What happens though, when the government coercively ( through fines and arrests) manages our property rights and allocates our resources, is that inefficiencies occur. The government will never be able successfully allocate a scarce resource in a economically efficient manner. This leads to either shortages or surpluses of wildlife.

If however, things were left in the hands of individuals and all public lands were privatized, resources would be allocated efficiently and smoothly. Contrary to what some might think, without governmental control, extinctions would not occur. Take this scenario as an example: all lands and waters (harder said than done) in the United States are privately owned. In order to hunt or fish, those with the desire must first seek out landowners. Certain agreements will be made, and both parties will have an incentive to use the land wisely. If the landowners allow their properties to be over harvested, they will be bereft of a very valuable profit source. So, one can be certain that they will regulate their own property. Likewise, in order maintain continued use of a certain property, the hunters and fishermen will be incentivized to use the land in a manor that coincides with their contractual agreements. In this way, the land will not only maintain its integrity, but fishermen and hunters will be given a fair price for the use of those lands.

This theory has a lot of merits, but with it come certain challenges. Although public waters are already sold in blocks to oil companies for explorational purposes, the task becomes more difficult when dealing with fish. Because there is no guarantee that a school of fish will remain within one owner's property limits, some method of tracking these schools needs to be developed. To date, no such feasible option has been created, but progress is being made. Until that day does arrive though, I fear we have little choice but to let the government control our waters. For, if there is no ownership at all, unscrupulous individuals will overuse the "public" goods. In an ideal world though, the government's only role in the property rights issue would be to simply uphold contractual agreements between two citizens.

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