Tragedy of the Commons — NOT

The Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw®
Life Extension NewsTM
Volume 6 No. 3 • June 2003


‘After the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, General Washington and the Continental army lay in wait around beleaguered, British-occupied Boston for nine months, refusing to attack.’ Why the delay? The city was gripped by an epidemic of smallpox, and Washington knew that, unlike British General Howe’s troops, his own forces had not been exposed to the disease as children. ‘Washington suspected that the British were deliberately planting smallpox victims among the refugees they permitted to leave Boston during the siege, in an attempt to infect the Continental army.’
— Donald J. Wear, M.D., in a review of The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History by Donald R. Hopkins (JAMA, March 5, 2003)

Tragedy of the Commons — NOT

One example [of a commons problem] is the Swiss Alpine cheese makers. They had a commons problem. They live very high, and they have a grazing commons for their cattle. They solved that problem in the year 1200 A.D. For about 800 years, these guys have had that problem solved. They have a simple rule: If you’ve got three cows, you can pasture these three cows in the commons if you carried them over from last winter. But you can’t bring new cows in just for the summer. It’s very costly to carry cows over to the winter—they need to be in barns and be heated, they have to be fed. [The cheese makers] tie the right to the commons to a private property right with the cows.
— Economics Nobel laureate Vernon Smith, in an interview in the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Monthly Planet (see www.cei.org)

Comment on the above: The problem of the commons in grazing lands in the arid West has also resulted in use of a system since the mid-1800s very similar to the one described for the Swiss Alpine cheese makers. In the grazing allotments found in the West, private ownership of water rights is required to have your cows graze the “public” lands. Your cows cannot live on just the forage found on these lands; they must have water, and in the West, water is scarce in most places. Thus, private ownership of water determines whose cattle can use the grazing lands that would otherwise be a commons. This system has worked well in allowing use of water (regulated by the prior appropriation doctrine under state—not federal—law, mostly in the arid West) and the forage on what was previously a commons for beneficial purposes, while giving the ranchers who own water rights a proprietary interest in maintaining the quality of their grazing areas in the previous commons.

Recent years have seen the development of political wars between owners/users of privately owned water under state law and interests supporting federal government takeover of state-controlled water. The tragedy of the commons in grazing allotments is that previous arrangements for which people have already paid (for example, the IRS estate taxes that ranchers have to pay on the value of their grazing allotments and the higher price ranchers have had to pay for a ranch that has an attached grazing allotment) and that have established a peaceful means for 140 years to make beneficial use of resources are now the subject of expensive and destructive political wars.

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