Earlier this week I was sitting in my house when I heard a knock. I went to open the door and it was a man from a tree trimmer service. It was actually a pleasant surprise because I needed some trimming on my two beautiful maple trees. He told me that he was here to give me a quote on cutting my two precious trees down! I was flabbergasted! Why anyone would think that I wanted to cut down my trees was beyond me. They are wonderful to look at and clearly raise my property value. The man was quick to show me that the black stains that are developing on the trunk are a fungi that will eventually rot the tree. This is why some of the limbs have already started to die. I was devastated.

This offer reminded me of a conversation that I had with an environmental policy professor. The professor said that we need government regulations to maintain the environment when there is market failure. At the time I had not been familiar with market failure so I asked him what it was and he explained that, “Market failure is when the free market is not efficient”. He went on to explain that if timber companies were allowed to cut down all the trees on public land with no restriction, we would no longer have trees! The flaw with this kind of thinking results in either the conservative view of unrestricted regulations on public land or the liberal environmentalist approach that would have us destroy the economy to save the planet. Neither of these options are viable so we must shift the current paradigm to strict property rights v. no property rights.

The reason that the timber companies are abusing the lands is because they are public lands. They have no incentive, unless they are environmentalist tree loggers, to take care of the land. The government rents out this land for abuse. If the government was to sell the land to individuals for ownership then the companies would have the incentive to maintain the land for profits and property value. These logging companies would now have the incentive to plant new trees for future harvests. It would now be in their own self interest to keep their land environmentally friendly.

Now a common retort to this thinking is that yes people will care about their own property, but they will not care others. That is true, people are selfish and therefore there would need to be strict property rights. A person is not allowed to violate or damage another person’s property for any reason. This resolves many problems starting with river pollution. Rivers are considered public property. Anyone can use them. Some activities might require a tax, but for the most part these rivers are free for humans and businesses to abuse. If the rivers were privatized any company that was polluting them would be sued. One might ask ‘well what if General Motors (GM) buys the whole river to dump all their waste?’ Economically that would not be a profitable decision. In reality GM would maintain the river to sell it as drinking water or sell it off for its services (boating, fishing, swimming, etc). If the river was owned by a water company it would be in their own self interest to monitor the river for pollutants. They would not want to be brought to court or be publicly known as providing a disease causing product.

It is inevitable that a person is going to abuse another person’s land. This is why we would need strict property rights. If a person or their property (fields, animals, air, etc) was being damaged by the pollutants than their right to property would trump the other person’s right to pollute no matter what their reason for pollution. In Ohio, Antonik v. Chamberlain (1947), the Ohio supreme court ruled that a private property owners rights were going to be ignored, because an airports service to the public was more valuable to the common good. Many environmental cases end similarly. Individual property owners are complaining about a “nuisance” (pollution), but the companies product is more important thus the property owner is told “tough luck”. This should not happen! Government should not be allowed to give companies rights over individuals. When this issue is remedied we will start to see a cleaner environment.

I did not agree with the tree trimmer  when he advised me to chop down my trees. They are still beautiful and have a couple years left, but in the end I will have to chop them down. The year that I do chop them down I will plant three more, because I love my land, trees, and property value. Many people feel the same way when it comes to their own property. If we look at how people treat apartments and homes, we can see that homes are more valued, cared for and invested into. There is no difference when it comes to public lands. People do not own them so they therefore abuse them and dry up all the resources and move on. If they owned the property this would not happen, because it would not be profitable. When strict property rights are protected we will see a more voluntary society and cleaner environment.