Ben and I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Jonathan Anomaly, a faculty fellow at the Parr Center for Ethics and a visiting professor at the Duke/UNC program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Dr. Anomaly’s field, often called PPE for short, might sound dry. But it’s one of the most interesting areas of the social science. In fact, it seems to be mor￼e of a way of thinking about all disciplines than a discipline in itself.
Our conversation that night drifted through many topics, but all were somehow relevant to PPE. To familiarize yourself with the field, consider one of the most basic PPE thought exercises: pollution. No one likes dirty air. So why do we pollute? Well, consider my morning commute to work. I alone reap the benefits of working, but everyone shares the cost of breathing my car’s emissions. The pollution I create is immaterial, but what happens when everyone uses my logic? My readers in LA already know the answer. Laws limiting pollution are necessary, because individuals alone cannot be trusted to limit their own pollution for the sake of everyone’s comfort.
Another collective action problem recently caught my attention. Animal lovers, consider switching to another blog post at this time. In May of this year, the last known rhinoceroses in Mozambique—about 15 in all—were killed by poachers. The worst part: the game rangers in charge of protecting these animals were paid off by the poachers, and actually helped the poachers track the rhinos. Now that I’ve ruined your day, let’s analyze this situation from a PPE perspective. Well, poaching in general sounds a lot like my pollution example. Everyone enjoys biodiversity, probably even the poachers. But poachers value money more than they do biodiversity. When a poacher shoots a rhino for its horn, or an elephant for its tusk, he alone reaps the benefit of selling the prize. Meanwhile, everyone suffers, since we all lose some of Earth’s most majestic creatures. Such collective action problems can only be stopped by the rule of law. In this case, the law prohibits poaching, and game rangers (supposedly) enforce this law.
This brings us to the Mozambique case. Clearly, the law alone wasn’t enough to stop poaching. Why not? Well, the rangers were poorly paid, and Mozambique’s organized poaching gangs gave them a better offer. Of course, the rangers lost their jobs, and face disciplinary action. Still, colluding with the poachers might have been the rational choice. A single ranger’s options may well have been:
- Don’t help the poachers, and other rangers don’t help poachers. No cash bribe, all rhinos live, keep job.
- Help the poachers, but other rangers don’t help the poachers. Cash bribe, some rhinos die, might lose job.
- Don’t help the poachers, but other rangers help the poachers. No cash bribe, all rhinos die, might lose job.
- Help the poachers, and other rangers help the poachers. Cash bribe, all rhinos die, lose job.
Option 1 sounds great, but it risks option 3, which is the worst of all. Option 2 is quite tempting because, after all, just because you turn doesn’t mean your peers will. Of course, even if they do turn, at least option 4 still guarantees cash. In sum, choosing not to help the poachers is a dangerous gamble, while choosing to help them guarantees a reward. Of course, option 5 is also a possibility:
- Don’t help poachers. Get killed by poachers. Rhinos still die.
Members of poaching gangs are often heavily armed and extremely dangerous. Many are ex-soldiers. They’re unopposed to killing both animals and humans, and are well able to do so. Now aiming for option 1 seems like even worse a gamble. And, even if the poachers don’t kill you for your disobedience, let’s not forget option 6:
- Don’t help poachers. Report poachers to government. Get fired, since government officials are paid by poaching gangs to fire nosy park rangers. Dishonest rangers take your place; rhinos still die.
Option 1 is becoming less and less likely by the minute. The ugly truth is that, in a world as corrupt as Mozambique, honesty becomes irrational. One lone altruist can hardly hope to protect the rhinos, even if he wants to. It would take a society of altruists—and not just that—it would take a society in which we all trust in each other’s altruism. Pipe dreams. The real solution lies outside of Mozambique altogether.
African poaching is fueled by demand overseas: the rhinoceros horn is viewed as an essential remedy in East Asian traditional medicine. Of course, rhino horn is completely useless as a cure. It’s made of keratin, the same stuff that makes up your fingernails. But, as long as the Chinese and Vietnamese are paying top dollar for pseudoscientific remedies, poaching will remain too profitable to fail. Only education can put an end to the erroneous belief that rhinoceros horn has any potential as medicine. And only then will poaching cease to be profitable.
In the meantime, however, a good understanding of the problem from a PPE perspective can’t hurt. After all, here in the US, efforts to reduce pollution and protect the environment, beginning with the environmental movement of the 1960s, have had some success. Let’s hope that the same can be true of efforts to save our tusked and horned friends in Africa.