Green Eggs and The Tragedy Of The Commons

In the last week I’ve seen a bunch of friends on Facebook mention the new Seuss movie “The Lorax.” I’ve heard of the book but had absolutely no idea what the story was. A few right-leaning posters made comments about “enviro-wackos” and the like. And a few left-leaning posters made understandably antipodean comments in response.(pic via Wiki)

So I had to figure out what the story was. A little searching and reading later I learned that it’s about some creature that destroys a forest that other creatures depend on. It’s a classic tale of the tragedy of the commons and a lack of private property rights as good as anything from Bastiat. Not only is the mess in the story easily explained by sound economics, it’s quite predictable. Though I am confident that Dr. Seuss (it’s unclear to me if he is an actual physician) didn’t realize this when writing it.

Anyway, this is a brief and easy read from the always good Steven Horwitz. It will explain all better than I could. So read on and enjoy. ;-)

The Economics of  The Lorax – The Freeman: Dr. Seuss clearly portrays greed and profit-seeking as antithetical to environmental health. Is he right? Must profit-seeking always end in environmental disaster? The answer from economics is a definite no. The key, as is almost always the case in these matters, is property rights. The problem in The Lorax is that Dr. Seuss never clearly indicates who has the property rights over the trees. If the animals of the forest do, then the Once-ler clearly violates their rights by cutting down the trees, not to mention the pollution he creates. However, if the Once-ler has the rights, then he may cut down the trees, though the pollution he creates might still be a violation of the rights of the animals.

  • Joe

    The “Commons,” often described as a pasture or other property always gets depleted, worn out, or destroyed because it’s always “someone else’s” responsibilty to care and maintian it. This does not discourage overuse as private property would. No farmer would intentionally ovegraze his personal land, but would be very likely to put as many cows as possible on land he didn’t own. There are very strong parallels between the Commons described throughout history and our modern day Commons such as governmrnt paid healthcare and other forms of welfare, social or corporate. This is not new human behavior. Aristotle was concerned about it.

    Aristotle (384-322 BC) similarly argued against common goods of the polis of Athens: “That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest…”

    • speedmaster

      Wow, Ari had the concept that long ago, nice find! ;-)

      And you know how the public/common coffee maker in the office is always empty, and the sink is a mess? That’s the tragedy of the commons.

      You know how oceans are polluted and over-fished? That’s the tragedy of the commons.

  • Michael E. Marotta

    Against that are Thidwick the Moose and Horton the Elephant.  The truth can be complicated and we see the aspect of it most convenient to us.  This has been demonstrated repeatedly with studies of balanced political statements interpreted by self-defined liberals and conservtives.  “Research Paper #205: Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus” by Dan M. Kahan, Hank Jenkins-Smith and Donald Braman  from the Yale Law School is available via the Mother Jones archives.  Basically, we endorse the experts who agree with us and discount the credentials of those who do not.  Hence, Richard Feynman’s plea to define scientific objectivity as a ruthless desire not to fool yourself.