Epstein says ivory ban would have — wait for it — unintended negative consequences

Richard Epstein explains in a column for the Hoover Institution’s “Defining Ideas” why the Obama administration’s  proposed ban on the ivory trade could create more problems than it solves.

That ban will cover both the sale of objects that contain any amount of ivory, however small, and the shipment across state lines by the owner of any object that contains ivory. Unfortunately, the detailed White House Report that outlines a “National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking” is all too oblivious to vital concerns of private property owners and to the low probability that its draconian measures will reduce the illegal ivory trade.

To be sure, no one doubts one essential premise of the report; namely, that international trafficking in ivory poses serious threats to the survival of rhinos, elephants, and other animals from the oft-ruthless poachers who kill thousands of animals and then sell their illegal ivory to eager buyers throughout the world, including to many parties in the United States. The illegal trade has also claimed its toll in human lives lost to smugglers who sometimes, as in Kenya, have connections to terrorists.

But the choice of a legitimate end does not address the more difficult question of what means should be used to address the problem. With all guns blazing, the White House report steps up enforcement at all stages of production and distribution, without once mentioning the competing interests of current property owners of ivory: piano keys, chess sets, ivory pegs and bridges for fancy guitars, dice, tea sets, and thousands of other decorative uses are all caught in the downwind. Massive collections, acquired over decades, could lose millions, indeed billions, of dollars in value. By ignoring these interests, Interior’s draft proposals provoked, as The New York Times reports, an “uproar among musicians, antique dealers, gun collectors, and thousands of others whose ability to sell, repair, or travel with ivory objects will soon be prohibited.”

Any sensible program that addresses the illegal ivory trade faces serious difficulties in distinguishing between the sale of new and old artifacts. Stopping the sale of these lawfully owned objects unfortunately will do little to nothing to slow down the slaughter of elephants and rhinos. Indeed, the removal of these objects from trade could have the opposite effect. Indeed, the correct strategy may be for countries like South Africa, which have large stores of confiscated ivory, to drive the price down by releasing it into the market.

The strict ban now proposed only applies to goods sold or moved across state lines in the United States. Yet the worldwide implementation of an effective ban requires, as the Department of Interior acknowledges, the cooperation of foreign governments in enforcing the ban in their own countries. The sudden removal of existing ivory from the market will increase the value of new sources of ivory, which will in turn incentivize illegal traders to refocus their efforts to satisfy the huge world-wide demand. It is likely that any ban in the United States will redirect the trade to places like Russia, China, and India, which are likely to prove unwilling or unable to stem these illegal sales. There is no reason to believe that a domestic ban in the United States will have any discernibly positive effect on the illegal ivory trade—and could well be counterproductive.

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