Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dr. Seuss: Property Rights Advocate

Yesterday Philo serenaded us with some Theodore Geisel on the occasion of the resignation of Alberto Gonzales. Today Ilya Somin reminds us of Jonathan Adler's reinterpretation of the story of the Lorax -- formerly the Dr. Seuss tale I liked the least:

Viewing the tale of the Lorax through an institutional lens, ruin is not the result of corporate greed, but a lack of institutions. The truffula trees grow in an unowned commons. (The Lorax may speak for the trees, but he does not own them.) The Once-ler has no incentive to conserve the truffula trees for, as he notes to himself, if he doesn't cut them down someone else will. He's responding to the incentives created by a lack of property rights in the trees, and the inevitable tragedy results. Had the Once-ler owned the trees, his incentives would have been quite different — and he would likely have acted accordingly — even if he remained dismissive of the Lorax's environmental concerns.

he story ends with the Once-ler giving a young boy the last truffula seed. He tells him to plant it and treat it with care, and then maybe the Lorax will come back from there. The traditional interpretation is simply that we must all care more for the environment. If we only control corporate greed we can prevent environmental ruin. But perhaps it means something else. Perhaps the lesson is that this boy should plant his truffula trees, and act as their steward. Perhaps giving the boy the last seed is an act of transferring the truffula from the open-access commons to private stewardship. Indeed, the final image — the ring of stones labeled with the word "unless" — could well suggest that enclosure, and the creation of property rights to protect natural resources, is necessary for the Lorax to ever return.

Hat Tip: Glenn

Update: Corrected because I errantly attributed the cite to Eugene Volokh, when it ought to have gone to Professor Ilya Somin, who called my attention to the mistake. My apologies.

1 comment:

Ilya Somin said...

Actually, I was the one who posted this on the VC, not Eugene Volokh.