Property rights and wrongs, or: the iron fist of socialism in a free-market kid-glove?

It’s really good when right-wing people think about addressing environmental problems, because the more people that put their brains to these intractable issues, the better.  But there is a danger where you put the mantra before the problem.  A case in point is “property rights”.

Property rights are vital for getting people to look after things.  If you own the toilet you will pull the chain and wipe the seat.  If it’s someone else’s, then hey, who gives a shit, as it were.  Move on.

This is why, it is argued, when people own their own houses they look after them, but when they live in rented council accommodation, they trash the place.  This is why rivers are polluted in communist countries but they are clean in free-market countries.  Kind of.  It is more complex and subtle than this (what about people who are tidy and respectful by upbringing or culture and don’t need to be paid for that?), but at least in a world of selfish people it’s mostly true: people look after their own things (i.e. the things over which they have property rights) but don’t really care about other people’s things.

Economists and policy-makers then extend this thinking and apply property rights to so-called externalities.  If the right to pollute is regulated – you have to pay to obtain such a right – then you think twice about polluting and might even try to your pollution.

[Incidentally there is a subtle but important difference between property rights over things which I can feel proud ownership over, and other things which do not engender that feeling.  Owning a home and your own land is tied up with powerful, positive emotions which stretch back to childhood or to our emergence as settled creatures.  That does not extend to things like the right to emit CO2.  So using property rights associated with your home as an economic argument to support extending property rights to other things is a false argument.  People look after their home because it is their home, not because of what it cost.]

Still, policing pollution through property rights seems to work reasonably.

However, there is a case where application of property rights can backfire.  That is in the case of patents or intellectual property, and specifically in food and agriculture.

When you get a patent the deal is this: You come up with a cool way of making grass look green.  So you buy a field, you fence it and you put in a gate.  You make the grass look really green in that field.  Then you collect a rent from the sheep wanting to go through the gate.  (Then if you are smart, once they are in you make the fields outside look even greener, and charge again to let the sheep out.)

The way patents work is that you can only get them for new things which people didn’t know about before.  Take fertiliser.  You can’t patent horse shit.  But you can patent the Haber-Bosch technology for making nitrogen fertiliser, or whatever new technologies eventually follow it (a hundred years later).  Or, in the case of healthcare, take a herbal remedy, for example.  You can’t patent that because it’s already known.  But you can patent some synthesis of it.

This kind of property right concentrates economic power with the holder.  It makes it more attractive economically to chase after patents than to use traditional approaches which any one can use for free.

The problem is worse because sustainable farming is about good practice.  Unsustainable farming is about technology.  Property rights law is lop-sided.  It allows you to protect technology but it doesn’t allow you to patent practice.  So if I spend money to innovate in farming practices and I figure out that planting carrots next to onions protects the carrots from some bug, no-one’s going to give me the right to charge other people for doing that.  But if I invent a spray to kill the bug, I can get the right to charge for others who want to make that spray.

So people who innovate with technology get protected.  People who innovate with practice don’t get protected.  That looks very like socialism to me: an arbitrary reward by the government for one kind of businessman over another kind of businessman.  So why do they say that property-rights are the right-wing approach?  They are a government intervention; a subsidy from society to one particular interest group.

Property rights, in the case of patents, can create an uneven playing field by creating an economic presumption for new technology over good practice.  They favour the drugs industry and reject traditional remedies; they weaken the incentive to live healthily as living healthily is about good practice and not good technology.  They spawn agri-chemical companies and rub horse-shit in the face of the skilled, traditional farmer.  This is a case where property rights are not a good approach for addressing environmental problems.  I don’t think that government policy recognises this.

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