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Bluefin Tuna and Progressivism

PH2009072401666.jpgI'm about to quote Brad Plumer on the sharp decline in bluefin tuna and the possible end of the most delicious type of all nigiri. But what's interesting to me is not that bluefin stocks are declining. It's that everyone knows they're declining and the people who make their living fishing tuna aren't doing anything about it.

The World Wildlife Federation has estimated that Northern bluefin could get wiped out within three years, while the Southern bluefin is critically endangered. If those two species vanish, fisherman will set their sights on the only-slightly-less-beleaguered Pacific bluefin, which, presumably, won't appreciate the newfound attention.

So far, conservation efforts have proved inept—last year, the nations that make up the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) set an annual quota of 22,500 tons worth of tuna per year. Not only is that far above the amount scientists recommend (think 7,500-15,000 tons per year, max), but fisherman are basically ignoring the ICCAT agreement—last year some 60,000 tons of Northern bluefin were hauled ashore. The tuna industry is just too lucrative—and the fishing industry doesn't seem to care if it could evaporate within a decade.

Knowing that there's such a thing as "the tragedy of the commons" does not seem to be preventing us from destroying the commons. But there are a lot of examples where short-term profits undermine long-term goals. The financial industry was one of them. As Chuck Prince, head of Citibank, said, “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.” Doing the smart thing in the short term would have meant losing market share to other banks. There were short-term necessities that overwhelmed a sober analysis of long-term risks.

Put simply, markets fail.

That's one thing I'd add to Tyler Cowen's list of progressive beliefs. He focuses quite intently on the rationales for redistribution and the welfare state. But a similarly important element of contemporary progressivism is the belief that markets are powerful and important and beneficial but that failures are common and visible and, in many cases, correctable. The plight of the bluefin tuna is a good example. Without some structure on the market, the species will go extinct. That will be bad for the fish, yes, and the people who like to eat the fish, and the ecosystems that depend on the fish, but it will also be bad for the market.

Health-care reform, incidentally, follows a similar logic. Left unchecked, the actual market of people who can afford insurance will shrink radically and quickly. You might respond that new insurance products will emerge that are cheaper. That's true. But they'll cover less. This is the meat of my argument with Megan McArdle. If you believe that innovation is driven by demand, then innovation would be dealt a devastating blow if Medicare and Medicaid and subsidies for employer-based insurance and all the other policies propping up demand disappeared. The question is not whether we should structure the health-care market, it's how we should structure the health-care market.

Photo credit: Remy Scalza Photo .

By Ezra Klein  |  August 7, 2009; 3:35 PM ET
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Next: Is the Problem With Meat Simply Factory Farming?


Wildlife management is a distinct commodity much like land that you can't treat with a broad brush and indict the free market.

If animals could not become extinct then market forces might be enough to protect them for one simple reason...scarity would increase the price.

This is the reason why we will never run out of oil. It may be too expensive to be practical and way too expensive to base an economy on...but it will be around because the price will increase along with its scarcity.

Everything fails. That is the law of entropy. Question is which failure would you rather live under?

I would rather live with the failures of freedom than the failures of Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany or a stagnating socialism which we it appears we and Europe are sliding into.

Modern Progressivism discounts the freedom of the individual to such a degree that no amount of promises (which it has never delivered) could ever make up for. There is a dignity to the individual that is deserved above all else. It is the gift of existence and freewill. It has value beyond the circumstances and resources such that redistributed wealth can provide.

Posted by: letmapeoplego | August 7, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

"Knowing that there's such a thing as "the tragedy of the commons" does not seem to be preventing us from destroying the commons."

Well yeah otherwise it would be called "the shiny, happy phenomenon of the commons."

Posted by: redwards95 | August 7, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

Uh, I don't think you really understand the tragedy of the commons, or at least you haven't fully thought out what it means in this instance. You can't say that this is an example of a market failure, because the market solution to the tragedy of the commons (i.e. private ownership) has not been implemented.

If the tuna you are talking about or the zones of the ocean in which they are farmed were privately owned (or at least if there was an exclusive license to fish these fish), the owners of the fish or the exclusive license would have the correct incentives to preserve their property, and limit the supply of their product to the market (which would push up their prices), both in the short term and the long term. So long as the ownership or license is exclusive or limited to a small cartel, there would be no problem of losing market share by preserving the stock, and no fear that the stock will be depleted by others anyway if fishing is limited (the two sources of the disincentives to preservation in this case).

Because fish in the open ocean are considered a common resource of all mankined, you have the tragedy of the commons, and because you do not have the market based solution, you do not have a failure of the market, but a failure of government. I am not saying the market based solution is the only one, or even the best one, I am just saying you cannot in good faith call this a market failure, because the market solution has not even been tried.

Posted by: ab1301 | August 7, 2009 6:54 PM | Report abuse

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