Privatization of Migratory Birds – EconLib

My motto is: if it moves, privatize it; If it doesn’t move, privatize it. Since everything either moves or doesn’t move, the logic is, personalize everything.

Why this radical call for privatization? There are three ways of dealing with simple property: public ownership, non-ownership, and private ownership. The problem with the first is the failed examples of the USSR, East Germany, and North Korea. Without market value, which can only be created on the basis of private property, central planning is blind. It cannot realize scarcity and opportunity cost. There is no reasonable way to determine whether railroad ties should be made of steel or platinum, for example, or whether a new road should go through or around a mountain.

Non-ownership, in turn, is the subject of the tragedy of the commons. If no one owns it, the asset is wasted very quickly. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of this weakness is the comparison of the fortunes of the cow and the buffalo. Biologists will certainly be uncomfortable with this, but to the average person (including me) they are all the same animal. They are both big, smelly, dirty, hairy. If you go to any of them in the absence of a tank, you’ll be second best. Still, privately owned cows never came within a million miles of extinction; On the contrary, this was almost the fate of the buffalo, until its privatization was legally allowed.

Migratory birds are no exception to this general rule of thumb for privatization. They are a runaway resource that challenges arise from. Buffaloes too, of course, but the benefits of privatizing them clearly and radically outweigh the costs of doing so. It is entirely possible, at least given the current level of technology, that this will prove to be the case with migratory birds as well. But it may not be. Will it ruin my motto? Absolutely not. After all, with current technology, the cost of privatizing land on the Moon or Mars—to say nothing of other celestial bodies in our solar system—clearly far outweighs any benefits we might gain from it. If not today, maybe someday, technology will enable us to economically privatize both birds and the planet.

What about now? In one respect we are far from ready. The human race is still plagued by dishonesty. There is cattle rustling, and it will undoubtedly hurt migratory bird ownership as well, when and if this program gets off the ground, so to speak. However, it must be admitted, it is much easier to engage in criminal behavior with our feathered friends than with our cows. That is, they will be much easier to steal from their rightful owners.

Let’s assume complete honesty and see where that takes us. If we do that, we can borrow a leaf from the potential ownership of whales, while they are still in the ocean. Shoot an electronic device in them that will alert all subsequent homesteaders that this particular is now off limits. Such a device would not negatively affect the life, and therefore economic value, of that marine mammal. But Boyd (as we say in Brooklyn) being unhappy about their survival is a different matter altogether. They are much more subtle. Perhaps, instead, a small, tiny, plastic band could be wrapped around their feet to indicate ownership.

We can consider private butterfly ownership. These species are captured and placed inside large tents that contain all the plants they need for a thriving existence. These facilities also serve as tourist attractions. True, birds cover greater distances than butterflies, and thus require much larger tents, but if there’s a will, there’s a way. That is, if a profit could be made by housing birds in such a way, it would probably occur under a free enterprise system. At the very least, some members of this species can be saved as such, even if many more succumb to the tragedy of the commons.


Walter E. Block is Harold E. Worth Distinguished Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans and co-author (with Thomas DiLorenzo) of An Austro-Libertarian Critique of Public Choice.

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