How Antitrust Laws Impede Conservation Efforts – Inverted logic
Inverted logic

How Antitrust Laws Impede Conservation Efforts

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Introduction:

Quite often capitalism and environmentalism are viewed as being at odds. The very word “industry” conjures up images of factories releasing caustic smog into the air. Filling our waterways with toxic sludge. This perpetuated image is somewhat anachronistic. Stringent environmental regulations strongly discourage such wanton disposal of production byproducts. It should also be noted that the majority of industrial production has shifted overseas.

Despite the persistence of such misconceptions, business interests, and conservation efforts are not antithetical. The proliferation of the “Green” Business movement solidifies this point exquisitely. Environmental consciousness is absolutely imperative for anyone in the business of harvesting natural resources. That includes fishermen, loggers, and even recreational hunters. All groups that have it within their own interest to conserve finite resources. Limited resources in which access is not constrained by definitive property rights.

Due to resources being scant and access unfettered we soon are faced with the Tragedy of the Commons. This concept was first postulated by William Foster Lloyd back in 1833. Then was revived in the modern era and applied to population ethics by Garrett Hardin. Hardin elaborates upon Lloyd’s grazing rights example by stating:

“… the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination..” (Hardin, 1968, P.2) [1].

It only stands to reason that consumption limits need to be placed upon commonly shared resources. Typically, such restrictions take the form of government regulations. Couldn’t private fishing firms merely mutually agree upon daily catch quotas? Per researcher Bruce Yandle “… Ronald H. Coase has taught us, every firm is a transaction-cost minimizer..” (Yandle 1998, P.7) [2]. Another way of putting it is that private firms could more efficiently and effectively coordinate such measures. Private enterprises face one large obstacle and that is antitrust laws. Frequently antitrust laws hamper conservation efforts made by private businesses (Yandel, 1998, P.4)[3]. In this essay, we will examine how mutually agreed upon conservation efforts qualify as antitrust violations.

Per the Law Conservation Collectives = Collusion

Coordinated efforts among private enterprises to conserve a commonly shared resource may be a novel solution. Unfortunately, under current antitrust statues could be defined as a collective effort to constrain competition.  Collusive behavior among competitors is explicitly prohibited under the Sherman Act (1890). Section 1 of the Sherman Act states:

“… every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce…” (Shenfield & Stelzer, 1998, P. 15) [4].

The emphasis on cooperative efforts is considered a major legislative flaw in the Sherman Act (Shenfield & Stelzer, 1998, P. 16) [5].  However, it is broad enough to encompass privately formed conservation collectives. Restricting supply can be construed as an indirect form of pricing fixing. One of the more salient behaviors associated with cartel arrangments (Shenfield & Stelzer, 1998, P. 43)[6]. It seems like such an effort would qualify as an antitrust violation.

The Conspiracy or Cooperation?

The broad interpretation provides some malleability to the application of the law. Which can be a double-edged sword. Above all the intent of Antitrust laws is to act as a form of consumer protection. Insulating patrons from inflated prices and artificially reduced supply (Alder, 2004, P.20) [7].  A laudable goal that could, unfortunately, conflict with other genuine interests such as environmental conservation. For this reason, the courts need to carefully access any potential benefit of the anticompetitive behavior (Adler, 2004, P.21) [8].

Unless protected by statutory exemptions most agreements that seem anti-competitive can be prosecuted under the Sherman Act (Alder, P.10) [9]. The problem becomes that in most cases intentions of the participating businesses are not taken into consideration.  In the case of Manaka v. Monterey Sardine Industries (1941)reflects such a misstep.  Frank Manaka was prohibited from fishing in Monterey Bay by the Monterey Sardine Industries. To make matters worse the local canneries wouldn’t purchase fish from  Manaka. The efforts of the collective were clearly “.. to conserve fish stocks..” (Adler, 2004, P.4) [10].  The court wasn’t on the same page:

“Such an association as that of the boat owners is not freed from the restrictive provisions of the anti-trust act, because they profess in the interest of conservation of important food fish to regulate the price and the manner of taking such fish “unauthorized by legislation and uncontrolled by proper authority.” (Adler, 2004, P.31) [11].

Unless there is clear documentation intentions are subject to speculation. Even there is still the threat of a Per se antitrust violation. Defined as “… the rule permits the court to make a categorical judgment as to the permissibility of a given business practice..” (Adler, 2004, P.22) [12]. Leaving individuals at the mercy of a judge’s digression.  Incredulity towards the claims of colluding businesses seems reasonable. The waters muddied by the faults of human nature.  Cases such as Hawaiian Tuna Packers Ltd. v. Int’l Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (1947) the motives were much murkier. The plans to manipulate prices of fish sold to the Hawaiian Tuna Packers cannery by members of Local 150 were not overtly environmentally minded (Alder, P.13) [13].

Have Conservation Regulations Failed?

Informal restrictions in a resource “commons” are far from a new concept. Gentlemen’s agreements managed rights to hunting grounds in medieval Europe. Native tribes indigenous to Pacific Northwest established customary rules for managing salmon fishing (Yandle,1998, P. 9) [14]. It wasn’t until nascent years of the Progressive era that such arrangements became problematic.

In theory, antitrust laws are aimed to protect the customer. However, aren’t “… high-priced fish are preferable to no fish at all?” (Adler, P.11) [15]. This question may sound exaggerated but does hold some merit. Circling back to the case against the Monterrey Sardine Industries, overfishing decimated the fish population in the area (Yandle, 1998 P.14) [16]. Despite the implementation of regulations restricting fishing quotas, 65% of all fisheries are either “.. fully exploited or overexploited…” (Adler, 2004, P.6) [17]. Regulations have made a meager recovery to nearly depleted fish stocks globally. Overall, government initiatives to replenish fish stocks globally have failed (Adler, 2004, P.7) [18].

It is only natural to questions why such efforts end up falling short. It is expected that in the absence of property rights formal restrictions would aid resource conservation. As Bruce Yandle would put it governments often adopt a “one-size-fits-all” solution. When the Canadian government implemented a system of fishing permits, even individuals not actively fishing purchased them. Reducing the fisheries once again to a state of common access (Yandle, 1998, P. 10) [19]. While this is only one example of regulatory failure it demonstrates a common pattern. The porous nature of many regulatory solutions leaves them open to loopholes. Gaps that can be easily exploited.

 

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