Washington’s Unhelpful Efforts to Stop the Ivory Trade — Richard Epstein

 

Regular readers of my work are aware that I have had more than a few occasions to criticize the policy goals of the Obama Administration. In my column this week for the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas, however, I take on an issue of a different nature: one in which the Administration’s goals are laudable, but the means by which it aims to achieve them are hopeless.

The Department of the Interior announced last month that it is imposing a sweeping ban on the commercial trade of ivory — one that will cover both the sale of objects that contain any amount of ivory, however small, and the shipment across state lines by the owner of any object that contains ivory. This policy is part of a well-intentioned effort to protect animals like elephants and rhinos from poachers by strengthening enforcement mechanisms against the illicit markets in which products made from their horns and tusks are traded. It suffers, however, from a total disconnect between ends and means. As I write:

Any sensible program that addresses the illegal ivory trade faces serious difficulties in distinguishing between the sale of new and old artifacts. Stopping the sale of these lawfully owned objects unfortunately will do little to nothing to slow down the slaughter of elephants and rhinos. Indeed, the removal of these objects from trade could have the opposite effect. Indeed, the correct strategy may be for countries like South Africa, which have large stores of confiscated ivory, to drive the price down by releasing it into the market.

The strict ban now proposed only applies to goods sold or moved across state lines in the United States. Yet the worldwide implementation of an effective ban requires, as the Department of Interior acknowledges, the cooperation of foreign governments in enforcing the ban in their own countries. The sudden removal of existing ivory from the market will increase the value of new sources of ivory, which will in turn incentivize illegal traders to refocus their efforts to satisfy the huge world-wide demand. It is likely that any ban in the United States will redirect the trade to places like Russia, China, and India, which are likely to prove unwilling or unable to stem these illegal sales. There is no reason to believe that a domestic ban in the United States will have any discernibly positive effect on the illegal ivory trade—and could well be counterproductive.

The proposed ban is perverse in yet another sense: it frustrates the efforts of legitimate firms to grow and maintain herds of elephants and rhinos on private ranches, which could then provide a stable permanent stock for ivory trade. As a 2011 account from the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) has shown, a far better way to deal with poachers is to encourage and support business entrepreneurs who want to raise wild elephants and rhinos on privately owned ranches.

They will only do so, of course, if they are allowed to sell their ivory in legal markets in order to recoup their costs of production. But once those sales are allowed, these owners have strong incentives to protect their herds from poachers. Private enforcement of property, driven by the profit motive, is likely to succeed where flawed and often corrupt systems of government enforcement fail. But these sales too are subject to Interior’s ban.

Read the whole thing for a full accounting of why this effort will not only fail, but likely make things worse.

There are 11 comments.

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  1. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    The best way to save wild elephants from poaching would be to allow commercial farming of elephants for their ivory.

    • #1
  2. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Misthiocracy:
    The best way to save wild elephants from poaching would be to allow commercial farming of elephants for their ivory.

     100%. Animals that can be legally farmed/ranched/eaten are never endangered.

    If you want less animals, ban owning and killing them. If you want more animals, legalize owning and killing them. 

    • #2
  3. user_278007 Inactive
    user_278007
    @RichardFulmer

    Richard, your critique would be right on target if Obama’s goal is really to protect the animals in question.  If, however, his goal is to be seen “doing something” in order to burnish his legacy or to win votes for Democrats this November, then laying out the facts is a waste of time.

    • #3
  4. Publicola Inactive
    Publicola
    @user_551608

    Anyone ever eat at Ted’s Montana Grill? I’m immensely grateful to be able to eat Bison more than 100 years after the end of the Wild West. Praise the Lord for Bison ranching.

    • #4
  5. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Agreed 100% with previous comments.

    An old neighbor of mine hunted all over the world back when these things were legal. I didn’t know it until I joined him on a visit to his son’s house. There was a elephant-foot stool, elephant tusks leaning in a corner, a lion skin draped over the couch, various antelope mounts and so on. One wonders how many menageries are scattered in humble homes around the country.

    • #5
  6. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Richard, does prohibiting someone from taking their possessions with them when they move home not constitute a violation of the right to travel, or under some circumstances, a regulatory taking? If I sell my home in Rhode Island and move to North Dakota without intending to return to Newport, it appears that I would have no choice other than to surrender my ivory possessions to the government.

    If the Obama administration increases the effective price for ivory by becoming a major purchaser of ivory items in this manner, that would be kind of funny.

    • #6
  7. PracticalMary Member
    PracticalMary
    @

    The Gibson Guitar situation is part of this story under the Lacey Act and CITES. People were having their acoustic instruments confiscated while travelling (overseas at that point) because of ‘endangered’ shell and abalone (or what was thought MIGHT BE the endangered species as most MOP is farmed now), plus the woods used etc. The Feds backed off because of the outcry, but it was a sure thing they would be back. I will not bore you with my personal experience with this when they were just starting the crackdown. The Lacey Act and CITES can be compared to socialized medicine: instruments of control. Read them yourselves as they basically say we can do/ban anything we want and anytime we want, you are a criminal if you don’t keep up with the current bans (really severe penalities, too), and nobody can answer your questions: lawyers, import agents, even the gov’t itself (just like the IRS).

    • #7
  8. PracticalMary Member
    PracticalMary
    @

    James Of England:
    Richard, does prohibiting someone from taking their possessions with them when they move home not constitute a violation of the right to travel, or under some circumstances, a regulatory taking? If I sell my home in Rhode Island and move to North Dakota without intending to return to Newport, it appears that I would have no choice other than to surrender my ivory possessions to the government.
    If the Obama administration increases the effective price for ivory by becoming a major purchaser of ivory items in this manner, that would be kind of funny.

     Richard may say it violates your Rights- everyone may agree it violates basic Rights. However we need to catch on to the fact that this DOES NOT MATTER to bureaucrats. Haven’t Obama’s decrees convinced anyone? I am not being defeatist but the true realization of how far this has gone needs to take hold. When people were getting their guitars (antiques, etc) confiscated many took notice and I as say they backed off. Until now, it seems. 

    *the Lacey Act is for intra and interstate, CITES is international

    Until something like this happens to them, people can call themselves ‘moderates’, then are we just helpless?

    • #8
  9. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    PracticalMary:

    James Of England:

    Richard may say it violates your Rights- everyone may agree it violates basic Rights. However we need to catch on to the fact that this DOES NOT MATTER to bureaucrats. Haven’t Obama’s decrees convinced anyone? I am not being defeatist but the true realization of how far this has gone needs to take hold. When people were getting their guitars (antiques, etc) confiscated many took notice and I as say they backed off. Until now, it seems.
    *the Lacey Act is for intra and interstate, CITES is international
    Until something like this happens to them, people can call themselves ‘moderates’, then are we just helpless?

     Has Obama ignored court judgments? I’d be surprised if he refused to pay fines. The Gibson case is different because it’s prospective; the Lacey act included a grandfather clause, which meant that no property was being expropriated. It sounds as if this regulation expropriates existing property without compensation, which would be a problem.

    • #9
  10. PracticalMary Member
    PracticalMary
    @

    http://www.fretboardjournal.com/blog/new-us-ivory-trade-restrictions 

    (link icon isn’t working)

    It is touching that some still believe that these general laws, filled in by ‘regulations’ that can be changed at will, are binding. I saw it myself as the Lacey Act gov’t website morphed many times.

    Also, the time to regulate these substances it at the raw material level and not the manufacturing and finished goods level. At the later points everyone becomes a criminal unless they prove otherwise.

    • #10

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