See here for a Washington Post article on this “law”.
I’m not intending to write about the enormous unconstitutionality of the Obama administration’s actions here; legislation by the executive branch, and an at-will reversal of the burden of proof in a criminal case (ie. you are now guilty unless you can prove yourself innocent, as to the matter of the age of the ivory or its purchase date) is nothing to a president who has publicly declared his authority to kill anyone on Earth with a drone strike, purely at his own discretion.
Rather, I want to write about the actual effect such efforts have on the survival of the African Elephant, including recent policies such as the destruction of contraband ivory (See this Fish and Wildlife page for details). Now the conservationists are concerned about the record level of elephant poaching in 2011, at 10,000 elephants killed. This level of pressure is pushing the species back into danger of extinction, and has been the impetus for the renewed cries for legislation beyond the original provisions of the CITES treaty and the 1989 ivory ban. Obviously, obstructing the Ivory trade should undermine and reduce poaching, shouldn’t it? And by thus reducing poaching, we should be able to drag the species back from near-extinction, right?
On a topic that may seem unrelated, in the same year that 10,000 elephants were killed in the continent of Africa, fifty times that number of cows were slaughtered in the state of Nebraska. And the state of Texas. And the state of Kansas. In the month of January. And every successive month for the whole year except for February in Kansas, when they only slaughtered 495,000 head, and December when it was only 497,800. Slackers. In fact, there are only handful of US states that did not kill more cows in 2011 than the whole of Africa killed elephants. The USDA reckons the total cows slaughtered in the US in 2011 at over 34 million head, which exceeds the elephant take by rather a large degree. And the trades are not dissimilar; both are large herbivorous mammals that cannot be non-lethally harvested (as in the shearing of sheep). Though the elephants do have a longer life cycle, they are not at a radical reproductive disadvantage compared to cattle as they are against say, roaches. Both animals produce young singly and take a long time to mature. Both are only subject to predation by the largest and most powerful of predators. And the elephant is actually at a substantial advantage in terms of intelligence and adaptability. So how is it that a harvest of 34 million doesn’t scratch the surface of the cow’s chances of survival, whereas a relatively miniscule poaching take (well under 1% of the cattle harvest) is a real threat to the continued survival of the African Elephant?
The obvious answer is that the total population of cows is millions of times larger than that of elephants, but that is only a short term answer. The elephant population is below its natural, unharvested level, just as the cow population is above its natural level. The human practice of slaughtering cows for consumption in a particular way has had an effect of radically increasing the number of cows in existence. Human interference and consumption has had an effect on the total populations of both species; the policies which have caused the elephant to be vulnerable and the cow invulnerable to extinction by harvest need to be examined. It is not enough to say that there is an enormous cow population and a tiny elephant population and so dispense with the comparison; those two facts are consequences of human action, and so there may be much more effective policies for preserving a species than trying to desperately stave off its final demise after decades or centuries of interference that brought it to the brink.
First, there is the issue of demand. Governments of course prosecute the consumption and trade in ivory essentially in order to increase the total cost to the consumer (including risk, and risk premiums charged by sellers) and so move us down the demand curve and reduce the volume sold. They may not think of it in those terms but that is the most economically viable way a ban can reduce consumption of desired good. What these governments have seen, particularly in drug prosecution, is that this has an obvious corollary effect; by reducing volume by restricting supply and driving up price, they increase the payoff for the remaining suppliers. The illegal trade is always more lucrative than the legal trade. From an incentives standpoint, anything that prevents other suppliers from joining the market has a monopolizing benefit to a supplier; every time a government shuts down a poacher, they simultaneously enrich every remaining poacher.
More than that, the aggregate increase in price is actually worsened by government policies that restrict non-poached supply. Any ivory that can be offered by a means other than shooting a live elephant should emphatically be offered, if only as an alternative to poaching. From an economist’s standpoint, the destruction of ivory as in the US Fish and Wildlife crushing operation, does not send a message that the ivory trade will not be tolerated; it sends a message that the ivory trade will be wildly compensated. It sends the same kind of message that would have been sent had Fish and Wildlife offered to pay a bounty for every elephant slaughtered. They are needlessly restricting the supply of ivory and thus increasing the incentive to shoot elephants in the wild, rather than simply consume what has already been produced.
Bastiat said that there are two means by which a man can consume what he wants: Production, and plunder. Plunder is obviously the more short-sighted and destructive of the two, as it takes resources from others and evades the costs involved. When you slaughter a wild elephant or a neighbor’s cow for your own use, you aren’t concerned about the future size of the herd the way you would be if it were your herd. In fact, in a situation of general plunder your view turns the opposite way; your incentive is to consume absolutely as much as possible as fast as possible, before others plunder what you want. Production on the other hand, using defined property, leads to the long-term incentive to sustain the herds and actually increase their size, so that you may actually consume more. I’d like to add that a situation of general production with minimal plunder actually leads to more consumption; beef is more plentiful than ivory specifically because of the partial restraint shown in its consumption, in the practice of not exterminating one’s own herd for a single huge payout.
“When does plunder cease then? When it becomes more burdensome and more dangerous than labor,” declared Bastiat in The Law. But what we have here, in the case of ivory, is labor (production) being made more burdensome and dangerous than plunder. The illegality of operating an elephant ranch or shepherding a commercial herd has more effectively extinguished these possibilities than it has restrained the practice of plundering the wild elephant population. As in the case of gun control, the law has been far more effective in restraining what is legitimate than what is truly criminal and destructive. What we have here is a situation where governments simultaneously do everything in their power to increase the scarcity value of ivory, thus increasing the profits of any poacher, while taxing their populace to pay for the questionably adequate armed defense of the elephant herds by Rangers. The people of the African countries are deprived of the income from ivory that could easily be produced simply by harvesting the carcasses of elephants at the ends of their natural lives, and is taxed on top of it, but it’s worth it, to protect the elephants, right? Not if this exact policy produces the massive profits that are the very incentive for the poaching of elephants in the first place.
Now, the condition of the commercial cow population in the US is certainly not ideal in terms of their living situation, I won’t try to claim that. What I do claim is first that the survival of that species is not in question, and secondly that its survival on these terms relies on natural incentives rather than fighting them. In the case of deliberately conserving the elephant population through legislation, the general situation of humanity is one of abstinence and restraint, living within reach of a desired resource, but never consuming it. More than that, a portion of the resources that could otherwise be consumed and enjoyed have to be dedicated to the permanent effort of fighting against poaching. Lives are spent, dollars are taxed, vehicles and material re-routed from consumer enjoyment and quality of life, towards maintenance of the animal herds that cannot (by law) provide any desired resources back to humanity. Such a situation is unsustainable unless the passions of the public which must abstain from consumption are aligned to the cause. Without a truly popular commitment like the Indian attitude towards cows, legislation cannot successfully overcome the human impulse to consume what we desire. What is remarkable is that the wholly opposite course, that of satisfying the public desire for ivory as thoroughly as the public desire for beef and milk is satisfied, and by the same means, actually does almost automatically, and very thoroughly secure the species against extinction by harvest.
Legislators often imagine that their actions will produce effects like those of true public sentiment, as they think that they can put a legal hedge around an animal that will be as effective as the religious hedge around the sacred cows. In reality what they do is put a monopolizing defense around those who would violate the law, and channel all the unfulfilled desires of the public (which does not share the politician’s view of the sacredness of the animal) into illegal channels. In this case government policy alone has prevented the commercial raising of elephants for ivory, which alone would reduce the price of the substance and reduce the incentive to poach, and would itself most likely not involve the slaughter of elephants at all since the maximum harvest of ivory is achieved by maximizing the individual lifespan of the bulls. The commercial production of ivory in private herds would unquestionably result in greater and more sustainable investment in protection against poaching than tax revenues can sustain, and without the element of forcing hardships upon humans for the good of an animal, which must be considered in a case where taxation and foregone income are enforced by law. And in place of this natural economic process, which would impose no involuntary costs on anyone, enrich poor countries, provide a demanded resource, and avert the destruction of a marvelous creature, we are instead left with governments doing everything they can to strengthen the incentive to poach the remaining herds, by inflating the price of ivory. To prevent the sale of an existing piece of ivory, be it of ancient origin, or harvested from natural death, or a piece of confiscated contraband, is to at the same time provide a reason to kill an elephant in the wild, to satisfy the same demand that could have been supplied harmlessly. It is to artificially add to the scarcity of poached ivory, and so make the slaughter of elephants still more lucrative than it was. And more than any of these, to outlaw the sustained production of ivory through private herding is to defeat the most natural pattern of humanity’s ability to satisfy its needs in the long run, and naturally abandon short-sighted, plundering destruction. The men who are exterminating the elephants are drawing their paychecks almost directly from the governments that participate in this kind of legislation, and the Obama administration has just announced that they are giving the poachers a raise.