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Let’s ban bans, and start with CITES

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Trade in endangered species, unlicenced guns, hard drugs, illegal oil refineries, forced prostitution, gambling without paying off the government – all of these are banned. So why are they so common, and so profitable? When will it dawn on those who claim to oppose this, that or the other, that bans quite simply do not work?

The New York Times started the year in style, with a “green column” that appears to bemoan the rising affluence of the developing world, especially in Asia, since this fuels rising demand for illicit goods.

That rising affluence also fuels rising demand for ordinary goods and services that improve quality of life is, one presumes, secondary to the fate of the orange-spotted tokay gecko if one is a green columnist bemoaning the threat to endangered species.

That said, it is true that illegal goods are a vast market. To the extent that it can even be measured, the Center for International Policy’s Global Financial Integrity programme estimated last year that illicit goods account for a $650-billion market.

Here’s their top ten:

  1. Drugs: $320-billion
  2. Counterfeiting:$250-billion
  3. Humans: $31.6-billion
  4. Oil: $10.8-billion
  5. Wildlife: $7.8 to $10-billion
  6. Timber: $7-billion
  7. Fish: $4.2 to $9.5-billion
  8. Art and Cultural Property: $3.4 to $6.3-billion
  9. Gold: $2.3-billion
  10. Human Organs: $0.6 to $1.2-billion

The most visible and long-standing “war” on illegal goods also accounts for the most profitable. Go figure. It clearly has not occurred to government officials that movies about the moonshiners of the Prohibition Era aren’t just entertaining fiction. They are a history lesson. Ban something, and soon you’ll get a thriving trade at astronomical prices, funding crime syndicates, and employing armies of gangsters with bigger guns and faster cars than the police. If alcohol were still banned, it would probably have topped the list.

The same is true for endangered species. It is absurd that poachers find it profitable to equip themselves with helicopters and automatic weapons, against which private game farm owners – and even the police – find it hard to defend themselves. Cattle and sheep are also poached, but you don’t see paramilitary expeditions assembled for this purpose.

Since 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES, which today counts 175 countries among its signatories, has been the primary means of banning the trade in products of endangered species.

As the anecdotal evidence cited in the Times column makes clear, it is largely a failure.

At its 35th anniversary dinner in 2010, Thomas Jemmi of the Swiss Federal Veterinary Office could cite only crocodilia, vicuña (a relative of the alpaca) and a few medicinal herbs as stories, from among 35,000 plant and animal species that are protected under the convention.

Considering the vast expenditure on combating the traffic in endangered species products, this should truly embarrass the CITES bureaucrats. But no. They believe they’re doing “good work”.

This “good work” resulted in record rhino poaching in 2011, at a rate that really does threaten the survival of the species. (See my previous proposal to just farm them, in this regard.)

It was also an “’annus horribilis’ for African elephants”, according to wildlife trade group Traffic.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace celebrated that it won a refusal for Namibia to sell ivory stockpiles, while bemoaning that local communities were permitted to trade in ivory carvings.

The poor shall starve, if Greenpeace gets its way, while the African elephant destroys ecosystems in national parks and game farms because of overpopulation.

By what logic is this “good work”? By what reason is it moral to stop someone from hunting, when it is either much more profitable than scraping by on backbreaking subsistence farming, or even the only way to survive? And if hunting is so bad for animals, why haven’t commercially farmed animals been reduced to membership of CITES appendices and the IUCN Red List?

Ecomentalists are living in a fool’s paradise. They cling on to expensive bureaucratic means for reaching goals that in over 35 years have proved unreachable by the means they propose.

Why would people who claim to have the best interests of endangered species at heart be so wedded to ideas that so obviously do not work?

Banning guns has never stopped illegal weapon trade, nor crimes committed with guns. Banning alcohol leads to moonshining and speakeasies, and restricting its sale or taxing it leads to unlicenced shebeens and smuggling. Banning prostitution leads to disempowered and abused sex workers, and human trafficking on a vast scale. Banning drugs has created the most profitable illegal business on the planet.

Of course, one obvious motive for advocating failed but extensive bureaucracies is that this affords many environmentalists with a well-paying career at taxpayer expense. Vast numbers of people have been moved to study “environmental science” with a view to working for groups like Greenpeace, Earthlife Africa, the IUCN and Traffic, and are dependent for their incomes on complex international treaty legislation such as laws that give effect to the CITES treaty.

That they turn out to be a completely useless drain on tax revenue, increasing poverty and encouraging crime, doesn’t occur to their self-important little minds. Who’d like to think of themselves as deeply immoral, when you’re “saving the planet”?

Besides, the “habitat protection” element of endangered species legislation, while doing nothing for the protected species, is a useful club to use against development and industry, which appeals immensely to the naïve socialists that are attracted to the green movement.

How useful green legislation is at crushing industry is illustrated by a fascinating story that broke in August last year. It perfectly captures the unintended side-effects of endangered species protection. Also writing in the New York Times, Andrew Revkin noted an armed raid by federal agents on the criminal enterprise of… Gibson Guitars. He seems mostly alarmed that such harsh action against a company that actually tries to comply with endangered species regulation will give ammunition to those opposed to regulation. He should be. It does.

“This isn’t environmental protection; it’s hostage-taking,” writes Kimberley Strassel in a thorough piece for the Wall Street Journal on the impossibility of complying with the well-intended but ineffective and ultimately counter-productive Lacey Act, which since 2008 bans certain wood species protected by laws designed to comply with the CITES treaty. But it’s not just right-wing radicals like Wall Street Journal columnists who think so. Even the New York Times itself, which is hardly renowned for the kind of anti-government rhetoric Revkin fears, ran a piece in which Kathryn Marie Dudley points out the ludicrous side-effects of the pernicious ban.

So, we’re destroying the businesses of luthiers and impoverishing traditional craftsmen the world over, all in the name of endangered species protection that doesn’t work. Why?

One might hope governments wouldn’t bow so easily to ecomentalist rhetoric, but consider that government officials tend to be power-hungry lawmakers, corrupt profiteers, or mindless automatons. None of these categories have any incentive to abolish the bureaucratic powers that ban or tax everything that moves.

It isn’t their freedom or business that is under threat. It is ours. So before you reflexively demand that this, that or the other problem – whether real or imagined – should be met with a forceful ban, ask yourself whether a ban will even work. History suggests that bans rarely work, and that the unintended consequences usually exceed by a large margin the intended consequences.

And if bans don’t even work, what good reason is there to incur their costs, by granting officials more power, smugglers more firepower, and criminal syndicates more profit?

You can still oppose whatever it is you have a problem with, such as mother-of-pearl or ebony guitar inlays (the horror!) without advocating stupid solutions that don’t work.

Instead, support smart solutions that don’t require costly regulation and take into account economic reality. Advocate solutions that are proven to work, such as extending property rights to forests and seas, and legalising trade in endangered species products.

Encourage breeding and farming programmes. Market the resultant goods as desirable and even environmentally friendly, because that is exactly what it is. If you value a rare wood, or a rare meat, why would you want to see its supply endangered?

High demand for goods produced under a strong property rights regime establishes a sound commercial basis and profit-motive for protecting, breeding, propagating and farming species that now fetch artificially inflated prices on the black market. As a consequence, making such goods legal reduces the motive for poachers and smugglers to wreak destruction.

It might not work all the time, but it’s not like occasional extinctions are unnatural, or necessarily constitute a far-reaching ecological crisis.

More importantly, if it does work some of the time, that’s already a far better record than the CITES treaty and national trade bans can claim.

Granted, sensible solutions based on property rights would put thousands of eco-bureaucrats out of work. The world’s poor, the world’s taxpayers, the world’s luthiers and the world’s musicians will be heartbroken.

In 2012, let’s ban bans.


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