“Free Market” Environmental Ethics and the Tragedy of the Commons (Blog 8)

Economists have done considerable exploration of the environmental issues that we are currently facing. These economists have produced a large source of defense for the use of market mechanisms for environmental regulations and policies. “The market allocates resources to myriad productive functions and provides a mode for distributing benefits.”[1] The value in this system is placed on efficiency. But this type of system does produce negative externalities, which are those who are uniformed and not a part of the voluntary exchanges and are worse off as a result. Economists are cautious to label these negative externalities as signs or instances of market failure but rather they say that they come as a result of a market not existing. As applied to the environment, this leads to the argument that the free market system is not what has produced overexploitation of resources, pollution, overpopulation, etc. Rather, it is the lack of privatization and existence of a market for air, water and other natural resources that are being overused. This is linked to Garrett Hardin’s theory of the tragedy of the commons, in which, each person seeks to maximize their own utility without limit (or concern for the ones around them) in a world that is limited. Furthermore, William Baxter, believes that humans only act when it is in their best interest to do so. He believes in people oriented policies and actions. With this in mind he advocates for a trade-off relationship, which is giving up certain things so we can get those that yield greater human satisfaction.


To try and impose free market values and mechanisms to the environment is to operate in a very human-centered way. It was said, “to claim that something has moral standing is to suggest that it is not the sort of thing that can be owned in any full-blown sense, including the right to destroy it for any reason.”[2] It is clear that humans have, or consider themselves, to have moral standing but if we grant property rights and privatize various entities within the ecosystem then we are saying that those things living within the owned ecosystems have no moral standing. I don’t think we have the right to make that choice. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the theory of the tragedy of the commons too and that the system (or lack thereof) we have in place right now is not sufficient in protecting the environment from overuse. The example of the “freedom of the seas” leading to this

overfishing-thousands-of-pounds-of-jack-mackerel-noaa-images idea that the ocean provides inexhaustible resources is a perfect illustration of our unsustainable practices. But I don’t think that opening up the environment to be ruled by the free-market system is the answer, because although resources are being abused in the way of the “commons” now, allowing these natural resources to be owned is opening them up to a whole other type of abuse. I think that we have to come up with some type of mutually agreed up coercion that will create responsibility. Baxter thinks that the only responsibility that we have is to ourselves and if we work on environmental policies that benefit ourselves then we will in turn benefit the surrounding environment (i.e. the Penguins). But this is a type of planetary management and stewardship that I don’t agree with. Garrett Hardin says “education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.”[3] I completely agree with this statement and I think that a lot of problems and objection we face in terms of environmental ethics and policy may not be resulting from the lack of refreshment in knowledge and education but rather a lack of willingness to accept these changes.

Question: William Baxter uses the ability to vote as one of his arguments as to why humans can and should act in selfish ways. But is the ability to vote really a valid criterion on which to base someone’s or something’s moral value?

[1] Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce, The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomas Learning, 2003), 312.

[2] VanDeVeer, 360.

[3] VanDeVeer, 367.


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