By Don Boudreaux
Today on the radio I heard an ad for a DC-area supermarket chain that boasts that it now has on sale – as in, selling for a reduced price – “sustainably farmed fish.”
I really dislike the word “sustainable” (and all of its variations) as used today to signal holier-than-thou environmental ‘awareness.’ As Robert Solow said about this concept,
It is very hard to be against sustainability. In fact, the less you know about it, the better it sounds.
But advertising “sustainably farmed fish” – implying, as it does (rather bizarrely), that unsustainably farmed fish are common – is especially annoying. While the absence of property rights in oceans and other large bodies of water, and in uncaught fish, might well lead to overfishing (that is, to a genuinely unsustainable manner of acquiring fish for human consumption), the very essence of a fish farm implies property rights in the fish stocks. And where there are property rights there is sustainability. A fish farmer is no more likely to allow his stock of fish to be depleted than is the owner of Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh to allow his horse to be slaughtered for sport, or than are you to allow the cost of motor oil to prevent you from ever changing the oil in your car.
Private property rights give to each owner incentives to consider not only the current values of alternative uses of the things that he or she owns, but to consider also the future values of alternative uses. In other words, private property rights internalize on each owner not only the immediate, current costs and benefits of the chosen use of the property, but also the more-distant, future costs and benefits of that use. Your cost today of changing the oil in your car might well be greater than the benefit such an oil change would yield to you if you knew that, say, your car would be stolen and destroyed tomorrow. But because you own the car and expect either to keep it for several more years or to sell it, you care about the car’s future. Your ownership of the car makes you care about that asset’s future. Ownership is very much like a pair of eyeglasses: it cures economic myopia.
It’s depressing that those people who today are most likely to worry about resources being “unsustainable” – people who are most likely to prattle publicly about “sustainability” – are those people who also are most likely to disparage private property rights and to argue for government policies that weaken and attenuate such rights. Such people are those who are most likely to wish to further collectivize the provision not only of environmental amenities such as park space and animal conservation, but also of health care, of education, of housing, and of a host of other private goods and services. Such people also are those who are most likely to protest prices made higher by market forces, and to applaud rent-control and other government-imposed price ceilings on a variety of consumer goods and services.
In short, the people who today howl most frequently and loudly for “sustainability” are those who most frequently and loudly oppose the legal and economic institutions – private property and market-determined prices – that alone reliably promote genuine sustainability.
The above originally appeared at Cafe Hayekk.