TCS Daily

The Tragedy of Collapse

By Joel Schwartz - May 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Jared Diamond is now well known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and more recently for his new bestseller Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The book's thesis is that societies -- such as the Maya, Easter Islanders, Vikings in Greenland, and many more -- collapse when they squander and/or despoil their environmental resources, ignore signals of upcoming disaster, and overpopulate their lands. He uses these past societies as analogies to what he believes is a high risk that modern societies will soon collapse as well.

Diamond has been criticized for failing to account for the role of institutions such as property rights, market exchange, and the rule of law. These institutions force people to consider the effects of their decisions on other people and others' property and to pursue the interests of others at the same time they pursue their own interests. As Adam Smith memorably put it, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." The result is greater prosperity and cleaner environments in societies that have such institutions.

I saw Diamond speak at UC Davis last week and gained more insight into his views, or lack thereof, on the importance of human institutions. After his talk, a questioner asked Diamond for his thoughts on whether market prices protect modern societies from overrunning their resources, since these prices let everyone know when various products are abundant or scarce. Diamond responded that free markets work in some situations, but fail in others. As examples of the failure of free markets, he pointed to overfishing of the world's oceans, and the complete clear-cutting of Easter Island's forests by its Polynesian inhabitants.

What Diamond calls a free market is actually the tragedy of the commons -- the state of affairs that results from common ownership of resources and absence of price signals -- exactly the opposite of a free market. A free market requires well-defined, freely exchangeable, and enforceable private property rights. Diamond casually discounts free markets, but doesn't seem to understand what a market is, or to be aware that it is the absence of free markets that causes much of the environmental degradation he laments. Indeed, the creation of free markets in fishing rights is beginning to address overfishing problems around the world.

Easter Island was deforested by the early 1700s. During his talk, Diamond asked "what was the Easter Islander thinking as he cut down the last tree?" He provided a few potential answers given by students in his classes at UCLA:

  • It's my property and I'll do what I want with it.
  • Don't worry; new technologies will come along to replace wood.
  • This proposed ban on logging is premature -- we need more research.

This is as deep as Diamond went in his economic analysis, and was also indicative of his style of argumentation. He brought facts and reason, the discourse of science, to bear when discussing his favored explanations for societal collapse, but resorted to ridicule and caricature to preempt reasoned discussion of alternatives that don't fit into his incomplete paradigm.

Diamond is an engaging speaker, his erudition is extraordinary, and his discourses on past civilizations are fascinating. And yet, while he has been wildly successful as an author, his Collapse thesis fails as science. Diamond claims to have uncovered the factors that determine the success or failure of human civilizations. But he has done so without reference to the societal institutions that have played a major causal role. As a result, despite his detailed and captivating case studies, he draws spurious and misleading conclusions.

The question still remains: what was that Easter Islander thinking when he cut down the last tree? Here's my guess: "If only we had well-defined property rights instead of common ownership, and if only we had the rule of law instead of the law of the jungle. Then we would have avoided the tragedy of the commons that's forced me to cut down this tree before the next guy gets it. We would be trading among ourselves and with other tribes, instead of fighting each other for control of an ever-shrinking resource base. We would have created new technologies that would allow us to make more stuff from a given amount of resources, transform formerly useless materials into new resources, and create substitutes for resources that become scarce. And we would have supplanted wood with better and cheaper materials a long time ago."

Joel Schwartz is a Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.



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