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The Problem of Public Beaches

Mises Daily: Tuesday, June 20, 2000 by


As with so many mainstream publications, the news division of my local paper repeats unhesitatingly nearly all of the panic about the environment. Why not? How independent can editors and reporters really afford to be? This question is especially appropriate in a climate of widespread political correctness and about members of the profession that has been polled and demonstrated its loyalty, as a group, to contemporary liberal values.

Consider that at summer's beginning we are told, on the front pages of many publications, how terrible people will treat their public beaches.

It is "a season in which more than 10 million pounds of trash and debris is likely to end up on" the beaches in my area. This is followed by a detailing of all the kinds of trash and debris we can expect to find and all the standard and ineffective ways that have been tried to cope with this menace.

The only "solutions" even mentioned are the standard efforts to get public authorities and volunteer groups to do more cleaning. However, bit of in depth thinking, that does not stop with the huge color picture spreads and the several hundreds trucks lined up next to one another, would have shown that the problem is far from insolvable. But that would amount to thinking outside a box, the box, to be specific, that seeks solutions only in government programs. It is relatively simple, to boot!

Think of it this way: if you make a mess in your home, do you just leave it for others to clean it up for you? Even if you are called away suddenly and cannot attend to the matter right away, don't you usually return and eventually clean up your mess?

What about businesses? Suppose last nights customers made a mess at your little restaurant but you were tired and didn't feel like cleaning up. Don't you rush back before the place opens the following day and do the cleaning? Or you want something even more impressive? What about Disneyland or Knots Berry Farm or the thousands of other privately owned establishments where millions of people gather for various purposes? Have you seen that when you enter Disney early, just after it opens, the place is clean?

The same is so with all those other places, usually, although here and there exceptions can be found. The reason for this is what UC Santa Barbara evolutionary biologists Garrett Hardin dubbed "the tragedy of the commons." Back in 1968, drawing on materials from ancient and modern thinking about the topic, Hardin observed that commonly owned and freely accessible resources tend to become depleted when or if the population exploiting the resources is large enough.

For example, a common grazing area is made available for use to numerous ranchers will be overgrazed and its replenishment neglected. A tragedy occurs because people pursue their goals with the means available to them but the results are disastrous for all concerned. Communal resources are available to everyone, so everyone has an economic incentive to use them; but no one has an equal incentive to husband the resources. And that is just what goes on at the beaches that are of such deep concern to environmentally concerned citizens, including news reporters and bureaucrats.

One would think, however, that this concern would impel them all to pay closer attention to what exactly is going wrong here. They would discover that the main problem is the lack of private ownership. Plainly put, if the beaches were owned privately, they would be clean or at least cleaner than they are. They would also be better preserved.

But such a radical solution does not occur to folks who have worked with a framework in which solutions to problems are required to come from the state. Never mind how miserable are the results of such "solutions," over and over again. What counts is that no innovation get considered--certainly none that relies on the free market and private initiative--and the status quo be preserved.

All that hand wringing about the environment turns out to be little more than an opportunity to seek more power for government to continue to do its useless reforms.

The tragedy of the commons is unavoidable, however, and without some serious rethinking of the basic framework within which the media, environmentalists and bureaucrats operate, at the end of the day the motto has to be: "The beaches can rot." It would be nice to see--actually read--some break through articles on the topic instead of materials that simply reshuffle old approaches to and go on simply to lament the problem.


Tibor R. Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. Send him MAIL.