Not economically knowledgeable, Our Polly

Polly Toynbee is having a very hard time grasping what Brexit is really all about. It’s not that we want – and do recall I was part of this movement, having worked for Ukip, stood for them – to simply take control of the bureaucracy and then allocate the goodies to favour us and our a little more. It’s that leaving means we can do away with the bureaucracy itself and move to better solutions to agreed and admitted problems.

Take this about fishing and quotas. The point is not that British fishermen should gain the quotas, the licences over what they may fish. It’s that British fishermen – or even just some damn fishermen, whoever – should own the fish in order to solve our basic fisheries problem.

There always were and always will be fishing treaties between countries, now more than ever to preserve precarious stocks. Unless navies are to go to war to defend their fishing fleets, there must always be agreements. Fishing treaties existed before Britain joined the EU. Quotas fixed long ago often don’t seem fair now, nor do they preserve stocks well enough. But the EU is only one element: ask Grimsby fishers about friction between English and Scottish rights, as global warming sends cod migrating north. Fish don’t obey treaties.

Here’s the Brexiteers’ dishonesty. Each country is free to share out its national quota as it chooses – but free-market Britain, unlike others, let fishers sell their quotas abroad. The Dutch ship Cornelis Vrolijk, registered in Caterham, owns 23% of the entire UK quota. “Slipper skippers” sold their quotas abroad – it was easier to put their feet up than to fish. Could Gove seize it back post-Brexit? No more than Jeremy Corbyn could seize back rail or energy companies from foreign owners without hefty compensation. It’s not prevented by the EU, but by basic property law.

The correct analysis of this goes all the way back to Garrett Hardin and the Tragedy of the Commons. Shared resources, under Marxian open access rules will, if demand rises above regeneration capability, become exhausted. Yes, sure, it didn’t actually happen to “commons” because a commons was a method of regulation of access. Hardin went on to point out that regulation could be state, socialist in his word, it could be private, capitalist in his word again. Either someone makes a law about who can have access or we make it private property and the owner determines access. Elinor Ostrom went a little further and described how those commons survived – those that did at least. Communal and voluntary restrictions upon access, something that can work up to a grouping of a couple of thousand people, no more.

Note, please, well that Hardin insisted that which works for which resource, well, it depends. Depends upon the details, there is no one size fits all solution here. And we now know very much more about what fits for fisheries.

The private solution, ownership. Fishermen should own fish just as farmers own fields. As opposed to the bureaucratic wrangling which has produced the quota system – which is a short term and only short term ownership in the fish stocks. We want people to have long term ownership in them, you know, actual ownership.

The biggest finding here is that profitable fish stock levels are higher than sustainable. There are costs to going out and finding fish. These are reduced the more fish there are around. When people actually own the fish – systems off Alaska, New Zealand, having shown this – they leave more of the stock to breed for longer so that the stock level rises to the maximally profitable one, again that being higher than the merely sustainable one.

Sure, that still leaves problems with fisheries beyond the 200 mile exclusive economic zones but then that’s something that’s beyond either the EU’s or the UK’s remit, isn’t it?

All of which is rather the point about Brexit. It’s not simply that we want to wrest control of the extant bureaucracy. It’s that we want to ability to destroy it where that makes sense. As with fisheries. The point is not to alter nor repatriate the Common Fisheries Policy it’s to kill it in British waters.

And yes, I do have a little list about what else to kill….

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  1. Never really understood that “Tragedy of the Commons” thing, as a title. The “Common” was very much the rules about those who were entitled to use it & for what. Locals, drovers with custom & use etc. Grazing, swine foraging, cutting of wood. Who. When. In what quantities. They were never a free for all. If anything, it was Enclosure saw over-exploitation of the land because the “Commons” had been the bits not really suitable for economic farming. Or someone would have been farming them. In England, at least, there really wasn’t any un-owned, un-managed usable land for most of a thousand years.

    • Or, like so much of economics, writing from theory rather from reality. There’s weren’t many “tragedies” because folk (or at least Northern European folk*) are pretty good at cooperating in the mutual interest. Like the subject of Pollytwaddle’s article. Long before the EU was a politician’s wet dream. In fact long before most of the current European states even existed. Fishermen were quite capable of managing fishing grounds & preserving fish stocks in their local waters in the common interest. Or their wouldn’t be any fish, now.

      *Not big keepers of goats, Northern Europeans. Not known for turning good land into deserts either.

      • Well, yes and no. Those commons which were’nt managed didn’t survive. So, we’re watching only those that did – ergo, only those that were managed.

        The megafuana pretty much everywhere humans went got not managed out of existence for example….

        • I don’t see this, Tim. To meet your criteria you’d need to be looking for land that was exploited out of productive use. You don’t really see that in England. Areas like the Downs, maybe. Where the primal forest was stripped back to leave thin soils not much use for agriculture. But you’d need to go back to the neolithic, for that. The Enclosures were hardy a failure of management. More a change of management. Northern Europeans have generally been rather good in creating productive land out of non-productive. Or out of nothing, in Holland.
          Surely the megafauna were rather effectively managed out of existence. You’d need to be very modern to think it a good idea to have bears running around loose.

          • Again you’re getting a little hung up on definitions here. To an economist a commons is any resource held in common. Open access is just that. Therefore megafauna is a commons to an economist.

          • As I said in the original post, it’s the title I’ve never much liked. Not the economics behind it. Yes, it’s easy to see how something to which all have access for which none have responsibility can suffer depredation to the dis-benefit of all. But it’s surprising, historically, how little this happened. The Northern European culture seemed to be remarkably good at brokering some form of consensual restriction to prevent it. On its own patch, at any rate. In fact the ability to have done so may account for a measure of the success of North European culture.

          • And it’s a strong argument against the EU. It’s an unnecessary encumbrance. Bar the wars started by their rulers, the peoples of Northern Europe have a long history of working together in the common interest. The dysfunctional south, not so much.

  2. ‘“Slipper skippers” sold their quotas abroad – it was easier to put their feet up than to fish.’

    This is verging on evil. Most small boat owners sold up because the quota they were given was so inadequate that it made it impossible to make a living.

  3. I disagree that “there is no one size fits all solution here.” The solution of property rights fits all markets — even fishing, where the key resource swims out of the intuitive boundaries of ownership. In some markets like fishing and ranching, the owner has to fence his resource in, as they are doing in the fjords. The “Commons” (to the extent there is a Tragedy of it) describes an unmanaged (unowned) resource, where fishermen get all their catch and pay only a small share of the price of overfishing: little to catch the following year.

    Having the EU be the owner and grant permits to its schools of fish suffers from the problem that politicians never pay the price for bad decisions on the part of the fish stewards they designate. Fish scarce in the market? Try writing your MEP.