Property rights and the tragedy of the commons
Posted by aogFriday, 10 October 2003 at 08:29 TrackBack Ping URL
A recent article over at USS Clueless is quite clueless about libertarians in general and property rights in specific. The article starts off badly with this mistaken quote:
But for the Libertarians, the idea of using government coercion this way is axiomatically bad, since (capitalized) Libertarianism is a political movement built out of a relatively small number of basic axioms, one of which is that government regulation is always a Bad Thing.
There is of course, a large amount of libertarian writing on exactly that subject concerning under what conditions a government should act on “externalities” (costs to others of one’s actions) to convert them to internalities (actions where the actor pays the cost).

I’m not going to go in to gory detail, but Den Beste’s big mistake seems to be his view that if property rights don’t solve all problems with commons then they’re not worthwhile for any problem with commons. This is the classic the perfect as enemy of the good meme. I wouldn’t argue that property rights are a panacea that can solve any commons problem, but I think that solution works for the large majority. It should certainly be the first thing tried, as it is a solution that promotes liberty and rule of law. Only if there is no plausible property rights mechanism should government coercion be considered (and even then, it’s important to ask if the cure is worse than the disease). In the specific case of car pollution, one could consider property rights based on the roads, not the cars. I think Pennsylvania is trying this, where the owner of the roads (the state) requires that any car driving on its roads. Maybe that will work, maybe not, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to dismiss it out of hand as Den Beste does.

Den Beste does hit on one problem with certain strains of libertarian thought, which is the “tragedy of the courts” problem. While in a frictionless world it would be possible to have people file lawsuits over every little infraction of their property rights, the transactional friction of real life means that the costs of resolving small disputes is more than the loss from the infraction. In such cases government regulation could (overall) minimize the loss of liberty by imposing general rules. I think that should be a last resort (instead of a first) but the fact is that in real life sometimes one must choose between least undesirable option because there are no good ones.

P.S. I was actually just as disappointed in Den Beste in his comments on Movable Type where he says that it serves pages dynamically. No, it uses static pages. This isn’t an obscure issue but probably the single most important fact about weblogging software and Den Beste gets it completely wrong in an assertive way.