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University of Illinois law professor Andy Morriss (who co-blogs with me at Market Correction) sent this excellent letter yesterday to the Financial Times.


Your story on the overfishing problem in the EU (“Report tears into Brussels fishing policy”, Sept. 27) quotes the author of a report critical of current regulatory efforts as attributing the problem to politicians’ and bureaucrats’ lack of will in standing up to fishing interests.  Fisheries are the classic tragedies of the commons and fishermen are behaving rationally when they overfish, for all of the benefits of each fish caught accrue to them while the costs are borne by the population as a whole. Fishermen are also behaving rationally when they “fish” for politicians in Brussels or national capitals, for if French fishermen do not, they will suffer when Italian fishermen do and vice versa.

Since the problem is a tragedy of the commons, the solution lies in an infusion of property rights rather than one of political will. Garrett Hardin, author of the original 1968 article describing  the tragedy, concluded that it was solved by “private property or something formally like it.”  Since then Iceland and New Zealand’s respective successes with “individualized tradable quotas” (ITQs) have demonstrated that property rights can solve the tragedy of the commons in fisheries in fact as well as theory. Rather than devolving power to regional councils, as the fishing commissioner suggests, the solution is to devolve power to individuals by creating property rights via ITQs. If the EU does so, the incentive to fish in Brussels will evaporate, while the fishermen will have incentives to protect the health of the fisheries.

Andrew P. Morriss
H. Ross & Helen Workman Professor of Law and Business
Professor, Institute for Government and Public Affairs
University of Illinois