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The limits of market-based conservation

My brother and I were talking last night about the state of Wicomico County, Md. He has lived on a farm near the Nanticoke River for about a decade and is concerned about the loss of agriculture around him. Since he bought his place, many houses, both on large lot and small, have sprung up around him. He feels caught between what he feels are competing notions—farmland preservation and private property rights.

I would define my brother as generally politically conservative. He strongly supported Ron Paul in the recent election. The point here is not to delve into politics but to note his propensity to err on the side of private property rights. We discussed last night the idea that government should not be involved in farmland protection—if people want to stop agricultural conversion to other land uses then they need to buy the land or engage in a private civil process of some type to stop it. We discussed the pros and cons of this perspective, including the fact that zoning as we know it today sprang from nuisance cases a century ago, so we have plowed this ground before.

After we hung up, I pondered why it is so hard to get a handle on this issue. It occurs to me that the reason is because the “market” is multi-dimensional and composed of allocation, distribution, and scale. Herman Daly, in his book, Beyond Growth, discusses each of these dimensions in a sustainable economy. He makes the point that allocation should be determined by the market. However, distribution and scale are social decisions and therefore demand different policy solutions. He says:

Distribution and scale involve relationships with the poor, the future, and other species that are fundamentally social in nature rather than individual. Homo economicus as the self-contained atom of methodological individualism, or as the pure social being of collectivist theory, are both severe abstractions. Our concrete experience is that of “persons in community”. We are individual persons, but our very individual identity is defined by the quality of our social relations…We are related not only by a nexus of individual willingness to pay for different things, but also by relations of trusteeship for the poor, the future, and other species. The attempt to abstract from these concrete relations of trusteeship and reduce everything to a question of individual willingness to pay is a distortion of our concrete experience as persons in community…

As a society, we’re conflicted about issues like farmland preservation, I think, because they involve these three economic dimensions; allocation, distribution, and scale, with each demanding its own unique policy solutions. In my view, “market-based conservation” does not mean no government intervention. It means appropriate government and other NGO intervention, specifically in the arenas of distribution and scale. When it comes to allocation, there is no more efficient mechanism than markets.

As I reflect on this post, I ask myself why this has to be so complicated. At this moment, I don’t have an answer. It is what it is.

Image courtesy of Wetlands Ecology and Engineering Lab

- Michael Collins


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