In 1964, a woman was stabbed to death outside of her apartment, while a host of neighbors heard the screams but did nothing. Sociologists use the story as the prime example of the bystander effect, where “the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.” Assuming someone else would take the step to call the police or intervene, no one did. The Amazon rainforest currently suffers a similar fate as public ownership and a lack of property rights creates an environment of dispersed responsibility for its destruction.
Although forest fires are a common occurrence during the “dry” season, there has been an 84-percent increase from just last year. Speculations into the cause of this uptick have included cattle ranchers, loggers, climate change, government policy, and slash and burn agriculture. While each plays a role, fundamentally people need a direct stake in the land in order to conserve it. If land is communally owned, firms that pollute or destroy are not accountable to other individuals. One Brazilian put it perfectly, writing that “it is only with a legal environment that respects private property — not something currently found in Brazil — that we can begin to avoid these problems.”
As it stands, São Paulo was “plunged into darkness” from the smoke but little happened in response. Were property rights upheld, individuals and corporations would face a huge legal liability for reckless practices. Celebrities and world leaders like Emmanuel Macron draw to the fires but no one knows who’s responsible for their suppression.
Many assume that private ownership is the cause of environmental damage. However, when land is communally held we often see a problem similar to the bystander effect known as the “Tragedy of the Commons” in which there are incentives to exhaust publicly held resources because there is no way to exclude other’s consumption of it. Conversely, when resources are owned privately, there is a market incentive to exercise sustainable practices. For example, if a logging firm owns land they have a direct incentive to replant trees. Economist Murray Rothbard said that property owners have a disincentive to deplete resources because their future returns on the property will plummet, lowering the capital value of the land.
With this in mind, the group Rainforest Trust proposes an effective strategy to conserve the rainforest: buy it. Their goal is to “purchase and protect the most threatened tropical forests, saving endangered wildlife through partnerships and community engagement.” In place of public ownership, those who value conservation should be allowed to purchase sections of the rainforest. Entrepreneurship can create economic value and tie it to undeveloped areas of the rainforest. If firms were allowed to own and profit from sections of the rainforest, they would come up with innovative ways to make use of the pristine rainforest. Unfortunately, government restrictions on private ownership of rainforest make this exceedingly difficult.
A free-market system would not ensure perfection. However, businesses use land and resources differently when they are public versus their own private property. Private ownership would incentivize individual owners and firms to protect their own little plot, collectively acting to preserve the forest where currently we all stand by and watch it burn.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.