Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Property rights and poverty in Niger

For a long time Niger has been regarded by Western governments and aid groups as a basket case, one of the absolute poorest countries in the world and the epitome of Third World problems of disease, poverty, and environmental decay. But according to The New York Times, something surprising is happening in one very poor region of the country: the population is growing but the economic and environmental situation is improving (contrary to the conventional wisdom). In one previously hard-hit village, not a single child has died from malnutrition since 2005.

How is this happening? Trees are returning in great numbers. Why? Rainfall has increased, and farmers are no longer ploughing trees under when they plant crops but are keeping and cultivating them, which has a tremendous effect on soil conservation. What has caused this change in behavior? Surprise, surprise:

Another change was the way trees were regarded by law. From colonial times, all trees in Niger had been regarded as the property of the state, which gave farmers little incentive to protect them. Trees were chopped for firewood or construction without regard to the environmental costs. Government foresters were supposed to make sure the trees were properly managed, but there were not enough of them to police a country nearly twice the size of Texas.But over time, farmers began to regard the trees in their fields as their property, and in recent years the government has recognized the benefits of that outlook by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money from the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because those sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the tree for firewood, the farmers preserve them.

It bears repeating: economic growth is the best weapon against problems of poverty and the environment in poor countries, and property rights are the key to economic growth. How long will it take for securing property rights to be high on the agenda for international aid groups?

Discussions - 13 Comments

Jeff, absolutely correct (although property alone is not a complete cure for all the world’s ills). Everyone should read Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capitalism.

And by the way, this is one of the major reasons anarcho-capitalism and other crazy Randian notions are non-starters in the real world. States are absolute requisites for both economic and social order. Conservatives shouldn’t be hammering away for less government, but rather for the right kind of government (which will generally be smaller).

Of course. You need government to protect your property rights.

Jeff, while you are absolutely correct about the real point of what is happening in Niger, the article seems to emphasize the trees and ecological balance, rather than the trees as property. Somebody send that reporter the de Soto book, quick.

Should we be surprised by this? Madison himself stated that the first order of government was to protect property rights.


As on of those "anarcho-capitalists" you mentioned -- don’t be so quick to dismiss. Iceland had a society system in place very much like anarcho-capitalism during the Middle Ages, having privatized even firefighting services. Granted - this was 900 years ago, but I think it merits mentioning that the demise of that society (a civil war) was brought about by increased government and power struggles among the various clan rulers.

What anarcho-capitalism forces is personal responsibility of the governed -- literally, self-government in its truest form. Given the current level of Nannyism we get from our ruling class, maybe a more anarch-capitalist approach isn’t such a bad idea?

Where you see an "absolute requisite" for economic order (EG: the State), I see an entity incapable of following even its own laws regarding Property Rights (Kelo). Drug dealers certainly have no property rights, but that’s a discussion for another thread. Certainly, various EPA Wetlands enforcement schemes usurp property rights. Our only true "property" (EG: labor) is taxed, excised, and levied to the conservative tune of about 40 or 50%.

Protection of property rights? Nosir, the State does not protect property rights. Rather, it is like rust, slowly but surely oxidizing our property rights, until there is nothing left but a pile of dust.

Thanks for calling our attention to this, Jeff, while you labor away in the salt mines of Charlottesville (where you avoided the 20+ inches of snow that fell on northern Ohio in the past 26 hours).

Just as a point of clarification, Randians don’t support, nor have they ever supported, anarcho-capitalism. Rand always insisted that government was necessary to protecting property rights. So did Hayek, Mises, Milton Friedman, and virtually every other person that dain would classify as "libertarian," with the exception of Murray Rothbard.

Iceland? That was a small-holder, small-scale society that relied on clan governance (kind of like ancient Ireland). As it populated, the need for government became more obvious, and yes, often governance breeds incipient violence. Anarchy does the same (although anarchy has a really short becomes thugocracy very quickly).

I’m sorry, John, I don’t allow either Randians or their close cousins, the libertarians, the luxury of delusion. Having your cake and eating it too is a nice thought, but government has consequences. Expecting it to protect your property and do nothing else...really silly...such thinking demonstrates the unreality of libertarian thinking. Their concept of humanity is dumb.

Fine, dain, we all understand that you don’t like libertarians. But don’t respond to what is basically a libertarian argument--that property rights, not government action (beyond the defense of those rights), is the key to environmental protection--by saying "see, that’s why libertarians are wrong."

Now go ahead and have the last word, because I know you can’t stand not to.

Irrespective of the merits of the debate, Dain’s "Word" post brought a smile to my socially conservative face. (I much prefer wit and humor in my controversies to invective and insult.)

Paul, I’m happy to make you conservatives have far more natural humor that other types of people...we see the silliness (and tragedy) of life, and knowing not much can be done, we chose to laugh instead of cry.

John knows full well that saying "you must have the last always" is a show-stopper. It short-circuits honest debate...and displays a certain disrespect. John has made a habit of insulting me in various ways...’sokay, I’m a grown-up

But now I really will have a last word. John, as in so many things, you are sadly mistaken. Libertarians use the property argument, but they didn’t initiate it. Edmund Burke did (and probably some old Greeks and Romans before him). What libertarians LACK is Burke’s circumspection...too bad.

The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself. It makes our weakness subservient to our virtue, it grafts benevolence even upon avarice. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

Of course, I meant "choose" instead of "chose" in the above.

And here’s another little technique to preempt debate: I now predict that John will return and say "I told you you’d have to have the last word."

Cheap rhetorical tricks are just that, cheap. I dislike them.

You should have stuck with "Word." It brought a smile to my face, too.

You may be surprised to learn that I’ve read Burke; indeed, I’ve assigned his Reflections in my courses, and I even consider it one of my favorite books. Obviously, libertarians weren’t the first ones to defend the idea of property. What is originally libertarian is the argument that property rights protect the environment better than do government edicts. Burke, to the best of my knowledge, never addressed environmental concerns. None of this is to say that a non-libertarian couldn’t accept this argument; indeed, I would hope that most conservatives would. My objection was simply to your using it as the basis for an anti-libertarian screed, because it can’t be so used without distorting what the vast majority of libertarians actually believe. That’s not to say that there aren’t convincing anti-libertarian arguments out there (indeed, you’ve been known to use some of them); it’s just that it’s intellectually dishonest to claim that this is one of them.

Well, John, I didn’t even use the word "libertarian" in my initial post. It might surprise you to learn that I’ve read Rand and Julian Simon and a goodly number of other scholars of the libertarian faith. Honestly, they seldom emphasize the role of the State in best, they tip their hat to the need and then continue on, slamming state-sponsored "looters." My broader point is that without the state, there is no sustainable capitalism because there is no "property." I think its a deep contradiction in libertarian thinking. A correction would call on them to develop a true theory of the state, and to explain how, in real-world terms, you can have an effective state without political pressures to "loot." IMO, I doubt human nature allows such a state.

And perhaps I should have stopped with "Word." Yet, I value the exchange of ideas (even the sharp exchange of ideas) -- and ultimately I didn’t want to reward your use of rhetorical stop-thrust.

Dain, I agree with everything you said in this last post. I don’t like your tendency to use "libertarian" loosely to label anyone on the right who disagrees with you. Nonetheless it was I, not you, who first brought the term into this particular exchange. I apologize for being snotty.

Fairly-said. I accept, and accede to the notion that not all libertarians are stamped from the same mold. Moreover, some market solutions for environmental problems are very good; it has long been my favorite part of libertarian thinking, in that it is optimistic and policy-relevant.

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