The Chimpanzee and the Whale

Guilty-planetJennifer Jacquet over at her Scientific American blog Guilty Planet:

[A] Nature commentary, titled “A market approach to saving the whales,” begins with how whaling has doubled since the early 1990s, despite the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) moratorium on whaling. The authors go on to propose how a whale conservation market might save some of the 2000 whales destined for slaughter this year – never bothering to note plenty of work in economics, at this point painfully popular, on how putting a price tag on behavior most people see as negative (e.g., picking your children up late from daycare) can actually exacerbate, not temper, a trend (e.g., more parents arrive late because the market has now undermined the norm and the financial penalty is less burdensome than guilt or shame). In the case of whaling, an international price tag, which the authors argue would allow conservationists to buy the lives of whales, would create a clear incentive in favor of whaling and undermine the norm (a norm that Sea Shepherd is using its multi-million dollar media-driven campaigns to cultivate and spread — a hard-to-quantify but valuable addition to the 350 Sea-Shepherd-saved minke whales that the authors report).

This is economics at its most naïve – the same Milton Friedman number crunching that might try to justify markets for child labor, organs, or adoption.

But worry not. This idea operates on the premise of a ‘cap and trade’ system. It would not be an open market; some bright guys would regulate how many whales could be taken each year – a job that that sounds suspiciously like the current role of the IWC, which, as the authors note, is still arguing, thanks mostly to Japan, over the numbers. So much for an improvement on the current situation, and so much for the free market.