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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.