TCS Daily

A Blast from Communism's Past

By Kamila Pajer - July 1, 2005 12:00 AM

To "celebrate" the first anniversary of Poland's accession to the European Union, Polish fishermen came up with something unusual. They established a "Crisis Headquarters" to defend their interests against the European Commission and the Polish Ministry of Agriculture. This was right after they had complained to the public prosecutor's office that the agriculture minister had agreed to more restrictive quotas on the fishing of cod and herring in comparison with last year's levels, thus ensuring considerable losses for the Polish fishery.

The fishermen strongly oppose this year's EU policy. Not only does it reduce the amount of fish they can catch by more than 15%, but it also prolongs the summer ban on Baltic Sea cod from two to four-and-a-half months (and, curiously enough, mainly in the areas where Poles fish). This ban means tourists visiting the Polish coast will not be able to eat fresh cod, which has been a traditional attraction.

Frustrated, the fishermen warned they will ignore the new rules and continue catching cod. (They also warned they will vote against the EU constitution, but they may never get the chance to carry out that threat). The EU Commission is taking the situation seriously. It has promised that next year the ban will be shorter. It also admitted it made a mistake calculating the cod stock in those Baltic sub-divisions. In the meantime, to placate the fishermen, the Polish Ministry of Agriculture decided to pay them for not working during those additional two and a half months during which they cannot make a living. In short, it will "bribe" them, following the example of other EU countries, where fishermen receive such grants.

Subsidies for not working are just one aspect of EU fisheries policy that Polish fishermen discovered in this first year of their EU membership. There is also the EU policy of restructuring the fisheries sector. This is to be achieved by scrapping vessels and thus contributing to "a better balance between the fishing capacity of the fleet and available fish resources." What this means for the rejuvenation of the Polish fishing fleet, where the average age of Polish boats is 30 years whereas for Danish boats it is ... well, also 30 years, the EU and Polish Ministry of Agriculture will pay more for scrapping a vessel if the boat is ... younger.

The EU aims to preserve fish stocks for the sake of the fishing industry. Otherwise, the reasoning goes, fishermen would over fish the seas and all would end in misery. So EU policy limits access to the fishing profession. Since last year, following EU regulations, the agriculture minister decides how many fishermen there should be. The fishermen are obliged to register with detailed information on when, where and what was caught as well as what was not caught but thrown back. The minister and EU regulate everything from mesh lengths to the dimension and construction of fishing gears. And above all this the minister can deny a fishing permit if it would provoke surpassing the "fishing potential of the fleet". Obviously, the "potential" is also regulated in such a way that it not only protects the fish but also "preserves the profit of the fishermen". Thus - according to the EU - the less the fishermen operate on the market, the better their competitiveness. Behold "regulated competition".

The regulation philosophy is premised on studies showing that cod stocks are diminishing. But in fact it is a direct consequence of a lack of private ownership of sea water. Not only are the waters not privately owned, they aren't even nationally owned. They are the common property of all the countries of the European Community. So even those who might refrain from abusing the fish stock for national reasons have no incentive. In fact, they have the incentive to catch the most fish possible. Poles believe that if they do not hurry, then the Danish will catch all the cod.

The bottom line is that this combination of public property with excessive regulation leads to anger, a grey economy and devastation.

If fisheries were sold to private owners the water would be cleaner, for its owners would take care not to let anyone destroy their property. More importantly, there would be no cod war. Only private property - unlike common property or tenancy, which also provokes the tenant to take as much profit as possible during the time he uses the region - can preserve the stock of fish and motivate people to act for the benefit of the environment. The private owner would take care of the fish stock he possesses to make a profit on it. If there were too many fish on the market, he would refrain from catching any more and wait till supplies fall when he could demand a better price for it - thus preserving the stock of cod and providing consumers with the fish as long as they were willing to buy it.

In his book For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, Murray N. Rothbard observes:

        There is a vitally important area in which the absence of private property in 
        the resource has been and is causing, not only depletion of resources, 
        but also a complete failure to develop vast potential resources. This is the 
        potentially enormously productive ocean resource. The oceans are in the 
        international public domain. ... As a result, the oceans have remained in 
        the same primitive state as was the land in the pre-civilized days before the 
        development of agriculture.

        The way of production for primitive man was "hunting-and-gathering": 
        the hunting of wild animals and the gathering of fruits, berries, nuts, and 
        wild seeds and vegetables. ... It was only with the development of agriculture, 
        the farming of the soil, and the transformation of the land through farming that 
        productivity and living standards could take giant leaps forward. ... But to 
        permit the development of agriculture there had to be private property rights, 
        first in the fields and crops, and then in the land itself. With respect to 
        the ocean, however, we are still in the primitive, unproductive hunting and 
        gathering stage. ... And if private property in parts of the ocean were permit­ted, 
        a vast flowering of aquaculture would create and multiply ocean resources in 
        numerous ways we cannot now even foresee.

On the other hand it is quite easy to foresee the effects of the present EU all-must-be-regulated policy. The present system looks familiar to all those who have experienced the "real socialism" offered by the Soviet Union to so many countries in Europe.

Under "real socialism" politicians also decided that private property does not serve the land. Under that policy the countries looked dirty and poor and the forests were devastated. In that system politicians decided how much fish should be caught and how much should be eaten. In 1970s Polish politicians decided people should eat more cod and ordered increased fishing. Soon, there was so much of this good on the market that it stayed in the shops and every one was dreaming about some diversity. Poles had even a saying to illustrate this reality of compulsory governmentally regulated diet which went: "Eat cod, shit is worse."

To this day, over 15 years after communism's collapse as an economically inefficient system, those countries still are trying to catch up to the West.

The Europe that experienced the absurdities of "real socialism" can do better than follow its example.


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