The Lorax And The Tragedy of the Commons

Dr. Seuss’ classic tale, The Lorax, has just recently hit the silver screen as an animated feature, with Ed Helms providing the voice of the Once-ler and Danny DeVito doing the same for the Lorax itself—which might just be the worth the admission price, though the price of concessions would be a tad questionable. I’m not going to give you a review of the movie itself, both because I haven’t seen it, that’s not really the point, and from what I’ve heard, it diverges considerably from the original—and it’s horrible. But that was the Washington Post, so take it with a grain (or thirty) of salt.

We should all probably know the basic story of The Lorax. Basically, a guy shows up in a forest, cuts down all the trees to make his invention, while being chastised by a little orange furry creature, though he doesn’t listen, and at the end of it there’s no more trees and everyone is happy and gosh darn it, we should be taking better care of our planet. The message at the core of this story is environmentalism, pure and simple.

Now, let me pull a Kinsella, and as he did to Avatar, I shall do to The Lorax.

The Lorax illustrates a very important economic concept that eludes most people: the tragedy of the commons. It is when no one owns the things there, said things are usually destroyed because no one has an incentive to take care of them. On the flip side, if one does own the land and the resources there, one usually puts forward more effort to actually take care of it, and allowing it to grow and prosper. As the Econ Library which I just linked to says:

In 1974 the general public got a graphic illustration of the “tragedy of the commons” in satellite photos of the earth. Pictures of northern Africa showed an irregular dark patch 390 square miles in area. Ground-level investigation revealed a fenced area inside of which there was plenty of grass. Outside, the ground cover had been devastated.

The explanation was simple. The fenced area was private property, subdivided into five portions. Each year the owners moved their animals to a new section. Fallow periods of four years gave the pastures time to recover from the grazing. The owners did this because they had an incentive to take care of their land. But no one owned the land outside the ranch. It was open to nomads and their herds. Though knowing nothing of Karl Marx, the herdsmen followed his famous advice of 1875: “To each according to his needs.” Their needs were uncontrolled and grew with the increase in the number of animals. But supply was governed by nature and decreased drastically during the drought of the early 1970s. The herds exceeded the natural “carrying capacity” of their environment, soil was compacted and eroded, and “weedy” plants, unfit for cattle consumption, replaced good plants. Many cattle died, and so did humans.

The rational explanation for such ruin was given more than 170 years ago. In 1832 William Forster Lloyd, a political economist at Oxford University, looking at the recurring devastation of common (i.e., not privately owned) pastures in England, asked: “Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bare-worn, and cropped so differently from the adjoining inclosures?”






Lloyd’s answer assumed that each human exploiter of the common was guided by self-interest. At the point when the carrying capacity of the commons was fully reached, a herdsman might ask himself, “Should I add another animal to my herd?” Because the herdsman owned his animals, the gain of so doing would come solely to him. But the loss incurred by overloading the pasture would be “commonized” among all the herdsmen. Because the privatized gain would exceed his share of the commonized loss, a self-seeking herdsman would add another animal to his herd. And another. And reasoning in the same way, so would all the other herdsmen. Ultimately, the common property would be ruined.

You wouldn’t think this is a complicated concept, but somehow, many on both the right and the left just don’t get it.

Property rights are the foundation of a free and prosperous society, and they are also be the foundation for a society that respects the environment. Let’s face it, folks: if we screw over our planet, it’s game over. We’re dead, and there are no respawns. Perhaps in 500 years when we have orbital habitats and colonies on Mars and maybe a scientific outpost in the Tau Ceti system, massive ecological damage would be something we could deal with. We are nowhere near that time yet.

The problem, though, is that the left—who really, really care about the environment, or so they say—want to turn it all over to the government, and as we can see from the tragedy of the commons, that will only bring on more ruin. “Government property” is really “common property,” meaning it’s “no ones property.” If you vest property to a group, who will take care of it? Everyone will just point to another, and eventually it will just degrade. The answer, then, is not to put control of the environment into committees and distant bureaucrats—who care more about their own careers than anything else—and let private property rights maintain our planet.

In the Lorax’s case, if the Once-ler had bothered to put up a fence to stop his rapacious relatives and friends from coming in and cutting down the rest of the Truffula trees, and established property rights over those trees, he would have had an incentive to make sure they kept going so as to prolong his profit. But, alas, the Once-ler is not a libertarian theorist. Nor, apparently, is he a good businessman.

For even more proof, just check out this video Jon Stossel did on the plight of tigers in China, who were in danger of extinction. (It contains perhaps one of the best lines ever: “Tigers may soon go extinct. How do we save them and other endangered species? Here’s an idea: let’s eat them.”)

So next time you read your kid The Lorax, make sure what he or she gets out of it is not just an appreciation for the environment, but also one for strong property rights.

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