Saturday, November 29, 2008

Stop eating bluefin tuna

...if you haven't already, that is. Details at Time and BBC. See also World Wildlife Fund press release. While you're at it, you may wish to see the MBA's seafood watch guide for more advice.

To be honest, outcomes like the ICCAT decision just make me scratch my head. Everyone knows that overfishing leads to depleted stocks, which leads to reduced catch, which leads to impoverishment for the fishing industry. But nobody can agree to reduce fishing to a sustainable level. This is textbook Tragedy of the Commons, and everyone knows the outcome, yet it seems that human beings cannot reliably construct the social institutions which would handle this situation gracefully.

Lest the free-marketeers in the audience cry "property rights!", note that I said "reliably construct", not "recognize". About which several things can be said...

First, as far as I can tell, the ICCAT licensing regime is a property rights system. There's a cap on the total tuna catch and there's some mechanism whereby parties are allocated rights to fish or process a portion of the tuna catch. I assume those rights are transferable, at least in the sense that interests in the boats and other facilities with such licenses can be sold/leased/etc.

Unfortunately, it's a property rights system which does not produce good incentives. Constructing a property rights regime in the tuna fishery — where, for example, it is not practical to tag every tuna and assign it and its spawn an owner — requires more than the mere recognition that this is a property rights problem. It is critically important to construct and enforce the correct regime, which is tricky.

(Aside: in fact, it seems to me that the rights regime that produces the maximum incentive to grow the tuna fishery stock, and enforce compliance, would be one where a single body possessed property rights in the entire tuna population, sold rights to catch fixed amounts of tuna, and spent part of its money on hiring armed men to enforce its rights. Note that this looks suspiciously like a government monopoly, and not a very sophisticated one. It would have been perfectly recognizable to a feudal lord.)

Second, plenty of ostensibly capitalist companies in recent years have been hell-bent on destroying their long-term futures to produce short-term gains for certain individuals who run those companies. It is not clear to me that even a well-constructed property rights regime could stand up to sustained assault by the same type of people who just burned down Wall Street.

Third, a property rights regime with appropriate incentive alignment may have led to more responsible management of tuna stocks. But this raises the question of why free market ideology does not have enough persuasive power to win over the relevant parties, even in a textbook scenario like this one. Part of the reason is the caveats that I note above. But another part is that fishermen in European nations have enough political power to thwart the best arguments of the well-intentioned. Their livelihood is on the line, and free-market ideology has no comfort to offer them.*

At this point, many libertarians just throw up their hands and say "Bah! Politics! If only people read more Ayn Rand." But there is actually a hard and serious problem here, and it's futile to hope that more ideological indoctrination will save you. America's been exporting free-market ideology for decades. At a certain point, you have to accept that deploying more missionaries is not by itself sufficient.

From a political scientist's point of view, these fishermen are simply exercising their rights. Their aims may be misguided, but their claim to political power is not illegitimate. They didn't execute a coup; all they have are votes and lobbying, the same mechanisms that any other group uses to influence a democracy. Therefore, the hard question is this: how do you construct a political system that possesses the markers of legitimacy — the consent of the governed, transparency, accountability, etc. — and that will not be hijacked by people like these fishermen? And, having constructed such an institution once, how do you reliably and reproducibly construct new institutions (or modify existing ones) in response to crises?

So, in summary, every road leads back to the inability of humankind to construct well-functioning institutions: answerable to the concerns of those who take part in them, but also robust against subversion.

Incidentally, this whole business does not make me optimistic about a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide. An emissions tax seems preferable.

* Note that a socialist planner with sufficient will could just repossess the boats and relocate the fishermen to a different sector of the economy. A benevolent socialist planner would give them a compensatory stipend and job training; a malevolent socialist planner would just say tough cookies, make a new life. Either way, socialism has an political solution to the problem of ornery fishermen. It is interesting to ponder what would happen if the Mediterranean were located in China.

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