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Rognvaldur Hannesson, The Privatization of the Oceans.

Rognvaldur Hannesson, The Privatization of the Oceans (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press 2004)

THIS BOOK supports the privatization of the oceans, accepting the neo-liberal economic argument that marine common-property rights have led globally to the problem of open-access depletion of fish stocks. (1) Hannesson favours individual transferable quotas [ITQs]: fish quotas assigned by the state to economic entities, which may be transferred for specified periods or permanently by lease, sale, or other forms of property transaction such as inheritance. Such private property rights would ensure that fishers use resources for long-term productivity rather than squandering them in the short term. The author cites New Zealand and the Pacific coast of Canada as examples of the successful application of ITQs, while Chile and Norway are cases where the potential success of ITQs succumbed to the problems of democracy. Hannesson sees Iceland and the United States as places in which ITQs have proved economically efficient, but politically controversial because of the manner in which such efficiency has concentrated wealth and capital.

Hannesson argues that ruthless self-interest defines humanity. Such self-interest has had grave consequences internationally, according to the author: "most of human history is a history of ethnic cleansing and the rule by the club, the sword, the cannon, the machine gun, and the bomb. Gradually, and with setbacks, we seem to be entering the phase of the rule of law." (39) However, our Hobbesian struggle of all against all proved its worth by being at the heart of the American victory over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Hannesson feels that "private property is a manifestation of self-interest and greed; if we were happy to share everything, there would be no reason for private property. It is indeed paradoxical that a system based on self-interest and greed has proven itself superior to socialism, which is based on shared interests and common ownership." (9) Hannesson argues that the self-interest of private property drives us to be as economically efficient as possible, but we need a strong state to set the rules for the pursuit of our interests. These rules should not protect the weak, but rather ensure that the sanctity of private property is not harmed by our competition. Hannesson lauds the Pinochet regime in Chile for having the power to force ITQs on the fishing industry in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, industrial and labour interests took advantage of the democratic reforms of the 1990s to limit the extent of fisheries reform. States should be strong enough to impose ITQs on initially unwilling publics, Hannesson argues, but they should not want to retain any control over the quota rights that would "detract from their instrumentality." (78)

Hannesson concedes that ITQs may trouble people who worry about the unequal distribution to private entities of what should be public rents generated by fisheries. He concedes that governments might use taxation to ensure that society benefits from rents, but concludes his discussion of this issue with arguments against such taxes. These arguments suggest that governments would only waste the money on public services, and that rents would "reduce the value of the quotas," reducing the ability of holders to reinvest extra profits as capital in their enterprises, and providing incentives for them to push for higher quotas. (60) Particularly foolhardy, he argues, are the objections of coastal community groups, the organized labour movement, and social democratic parties and governments which, as in the case of Norway, opposed the development of ITQs on the grounds that they would encourage the consolidation of wealth and capacity in fewer communities and among fewer people. To Hannesson, such objections are manifestations of a misguided ideological commitment to the imposition of "Soviet-type" planning in fisheries management. (107)

While happy with the development of ITQs in the Canadian Pacific rockfish fishery, Hannesson sees similar misconceptions at work on Canada's east coast as well as in Iceland. In the latter cases, he argues, governments have been too concerned with managing fisheries for social as well as economic purposes. Hannesson feels that governments should reject political pressure from coastal communities, which fear that ITQs would result in the loss of their local share in the fishing industry. Hannesson argues that communities which might face plant closures and job losses under an ITQ regime likely had little comparative advantage in the fishing industry anyway. It would be inefficient and wasteful to prop them up, or to prevent labour from finding some more productive use elsewhere. Hannesson clearly feels that workers in fisheries are primarily factors of production that must be free to find their best use. Social and economic policies designed to support fishing communities are misguided because they inhibit the free circulation of such labour. Hannesson acknowledges that people's anxieties about losing their jobs and communities underlie much of the international opposition to ITQs. He further claims that in areas such as the eastern seaboard of the United States, where ITQs have been introduced into surf clam and quahog fisheries, workers and fishing communities have worried less about them because there are other industrial sectors close by to absorb their labour. However, the clear message in this book is that fisheries managers must not worry about the social consequences of property rights policies. The only cases in which Hannesson accepts that fishers might have a positive role to play in fisheries management are when producers' cooperatives, as in the case of the Alaskan pollock fishery, are willing to accept ownership of ITQs.

History, argues Hannesson, is "a victory march of property rights," especially as demonstrated by his understanding of the English enclosures and the Scottish Highlands. (14) Relying solely on the late 19th-century work of T.E. Scrutton, E.C.K. Gonner's Common Land and Inclosure (1966), and E. Richards' s work on the Highlands and Patrick Sellar (who was acquitted by a jury of landowners of charges of murder and brutality as he served as the agent for landowners demanding tenant evictions), Hannesson accepts without question every contemporary observation that the right of the commons led only to rural poverty. Common rights to the land, like common property in contemporary fisheries, created "a poverty trap." (18) Those who could not appreciate the progress of the clearances were simply "rural romantics and defenders of the old ways and culture of the Highlands." (21) The concentration of capital in fewer, but larger and more efficient units of production, whether 19th-century farms, or 21st-century fishing enterprises, leads to a knee-jerk reaction: "Everyone loves the family farm but curses the large corporation, even if our material well being is due in no small measure to the fact that the former is largely gone out of business while the latter provides us with energy, communications and even food." (77)

Hannesson's "history" of the enclosure of the commons in Britain is appallingly outdated and ideologically loaded. This is not surprising; Hannesson does not take seriously ideas other than his own. He dismisses as "Panglossian" the voluminous research that questions the assumptions underlying Hardin's tragedy of the commons thesis, assumptions which form the basis for his book. (82) Environmentalists, he claims, have a "charming naivete" that frustrates sound economic management of the fisheries. (67) His penchant for disregard suggests that Hannesson would not have treated seriously the more recent, extensive literature on the nature of the commons and enclosure in Britain, or anywhere else for that matter. In the New Zealand case, for example, Hannesson discounts Maori opposition to the potential dispossession of their traditional fishing rights by ITQs as having "many of the hallmarks of rent seeking with vicarious arguments." (90) Further, Hannesson has no time for democratic institutions if they countenance anything besides a commitment to his market-based ideology. Hannesson condemns the structure of fisheries management councils in the United States because they listen to and act upon popular and industrial opposition to ITQs. It would be "better," according to Hannesson, "to get politics out of fisheries management" by replacing democratic institutions "with market-driven incentive structures that will ensure maximization of economic benefit in the long term." (161)

This book is a fine illustration of the problems that arise from the neo-liberal economist's obsession with market models and market ideology. The least harmful effect of Hannesson's book is a truncated and erroneous perspective on the history of the popular use of the commons in many of the countries of the North Atlantic rim. More alarming is the implication throughout the book that the world will be a better place when we all accept that our resources and activity must only be used for the pursuit of self-interest. Governments should not concern themselves with social priorities when attempting to implement ITQs. Instead, governments should demonstrate the strength of will to rule in the interests of private property, regardless of the democratically expressed priorities of any particular society.

Sean T. Cadigan

Memorial University of Newfoundland
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Author:Cadigan, Sean T.
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
Words:1478
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