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Home / Tim Worstall /It’s so immensely annoying when George Monbiot almost gets there

It’s so immensely annoying when George Monbiot almost gets there

Summary:
Monbiot tells us that:The central premise of neoliberalism is that the locus of decision-making can be shifted from democratic government to the individual, working through “the market”. Rather than using politics to change the world for the better, we can do it through our purchases. If neoliberals even half-believed this nonsense, you’d expect them to ensure we were as knowledgable as possible, so that we could exercise effective decision-making in their great consumer democracy. Instead, the media keeps us in a state of almost total ignorance about the impacts of our consumption.Given that we are neoliberals we do indeed put our hands up to that prejudice. We’d shade it a bit of course. Even among those who insist that fewer pints must be sunk, less soda pop consumed, everyone does

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Monbiot tells us that:

The central premise of neoliberalism is that the locus of decision-making can be shifted from democratic government to the individual, working through “the market”. Rather than using politics to change the world for the better, we can do it through our purchases. If neoliberals even half-believed this nonsense, you’d expect them to ensure we were as knowledgable as possible, so that we could exercise effective decision-making in their great consumer democracy. Instead, the media keeps us in a state of almost total ignorance about the impacts of our consumption.

Given that we are neoliberals we do indeed put our hands up to that prejudice. We’d shade it a bit of course. Even among those who insist that fewer pints must be sunk, less soda pop consumed, everyone does agree that precisely which flavour be consumed by which person is to be left to individual choice, not democratic government. So we all agree, at one end of the possible range, in the liberal ideal.

We neoliberals just disagree about the other end of that range, where is it that individual choice and markets stop working so well and government becomes the solution? We think it extends much further than Monbiot does.

We even run this site and write books and make speeches and run conferences and produce position papers pointing out to the public at large how far that spectrum of market efficiency reaches - to then blame us for how the BBC doesn’t pick up the story is just that little tad unfair perhaps. It’s not us limiting the knowledge available to the public that is.

This has its importance with the specific that George wants to talk about:

Many “marine reserves” are a total farce, as industrial fishing is still allowed inside them. In the EU, the intensity of trawling in so-called protected areas is greater than in unprotected places. “Sustainable seafood” is often nothing of the kind. Commercial fishing is the greatest cause of the death and decline of marine animals. It can also be extremely cruel to humans: slavery and other gross exploitations of labour are rampant.

Only 6.2% of the world’s marine fish populations, according to the latest assessment by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, are neither “fully fished” nor “overfished”, and they continue to decline. “Fully fished” means that fish are being caught at their “maximum sustainable yield”: the most that can be taken without crashing the stock.

This is a central aim of fisheries management. But from the ecologist’s perspective, it often means grossly overexploited.

From the neoliberal’s point of view such stocks are grossly overexploited. Blaming us for the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy moves well beyond unkind to a calumny. We have been, for many years now, pointing out the foolishness of the policy.

Backed by considerable evidence too. The base problem is that described by Garrett Hardin, the commons problem. Revised by Elinor Ostrom who gained the Nobel for her work. What actually is the management system that should be imposed upon a commons that actually needs a management system? As Hardin pointed out - Ostrom’s revision being that in smaller groups of humans communal management also works - it needs to be either government regulation or private property ownership with markets. Which depends - depends upon the specifics of the resource under discussion.

Coase, another Nobel Laureate, pointed out that mining spoils can be privately dealt with - can be, not must be. Widespread air pollution is going to need at least some regulatory interference, a result that conforms to Ostrom.

So, what is it that works with fisheries? Yes to marine reserves, then private ownership of the stocks outside them. We’ve seen this work in situations as diverse as salmon netting off Scottish rivers, orange roughy off New Zealand, the Alaskan halibut fisheries. The Icelandic and Norwegian fisheries are near entirely built upon individual transferable quotas, ITQs, a best approximation to such a system.

The reason these work is because profit is maximised where the fish stock is well - and it is well - above sustainable levels. It being easier to catch fish if there are more of them to catch.

That is, this is not a knee-jerk reaction, this idea that individual choice and action within markets works better than politics, government and democracy. It’s a result of direct observation of the world around us. The CFP is vile and governmental, more market and private property based fishing systems work better.

That is, the only neoliberal knee-jerk that exists is a propensity to believe that “the market” works better than the alternatives. A propensity that we’re entirely willing to see disproven as it is in the case of, say, nuclear weapons, the price regulation of a natural monopoly - it was us who insisted that the national grid and the like needed price regulation - and public goods.

That is, the neoliberal reaction to a proposal that government solve a problem is not to run from the room shrieking in horror, it is to insist upon “Prove it, Sunshine”. Something that doesn’t in fact work with fishing, as Monbiot complains. Which is why we support more market based solutions to the agreed problems of fishing.

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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