The Tragedy of Open Range

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

The Tragedy of Open Range

by Ari Armstrong, September 3, 2003

I reckon Open Range is about as good a major film as we're liable to see this season. At least as interesting as the film itself, however, are the deep political issues the film raises but leaves unexplored.

The movie's slow, deliberate pace is a welcome change from today's frantic "action" pieces. The gun battles are well executed -- though they are no match for Clint Eastwood's unsurpassed Unforgiven. It is fortunate that most of the movie revolves around the characters of Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner, as the rest of the cast (save Abraham Benrubi as the happy-go-lucky side-kick) seems strained. Duvall carries the movie, really.

The upstart romance between the characters of Costner and Annette Bening is unbelievable. After the film's satisfying climax, we have to wait around for this annoying and clumsy sub-plot to resolve itself. The romance does carry through the theme of redemption, though there could have been better ways to do this.

Open Range wins First Prize for offering the best movie line of the summer: "There are some things that gnaw on a man worse than dyin'." Other than that, the movie is pretty much the standard "good guys whup the bad guys" Western in which justice is restored and the locals recapture their dignity. Offhand, it's probably more difficult to think of a Western in which that isn't the plot.

Afterwards, though, I found myself thinking more about the political underpinnings of the film than the actual movie. It doesn't take much contemplation to conclude the conflict between "good" and "bad" is completely contrived. That is, there's no inherent reason to believe the "free grazers" should be good, while the established, sedentary ranchers should be bad. In Open Range, of course, the local rancher is a dastardly fellow who hires the usual gang of ruffians to harass and molest innocent parties, whereas the free grazers (led by Duvall) are kind and virtuous (though of course hard and unyielding) men. The story could as easily have reversed the roles.

At one point, Duvall makes the moral pronouncement that it's wrong to tell a man where he can and can't go in this country. Well, that's obviously true to a point. It would be wrong, say, to prevent a person from moving from one state to another. However, that common wisdom has its limits. After all, few readers would be sympathetic if I set up camp in their backyards without permission, and, when asked to leave, retorted, "You cain't tell a man where he can and can't go -- not in this cu'nry!"

There is this little matter of property rights, the foundation of civilization. Property rights are the legal mechanism by which property is assigned -- hopefully justly -- to particular individuals or groups. Secure, stable property rights are essential for providing a good set of incentives for people to produce life-supporting goods and services. If property rights are insecure or poorly defined, people partly lose the incentive to produce, and conflict is the inevitable result.

Open Range sets itself upon the classic problem of economics called "the tragedy of the commons." It would be great if the sort of green, lush fields shown in the film were so limitless that cowboys could move their herds freely, without running up against each other or overgrazing any particular plot of ground. Obviously, this isn't the case. When land becomes limited relative to the population of those who want to use it, the "commons" often are tragically over-utilized and abused.

Here is a simplifying hypothetical. Let us say a few people live near a field where wild strawberries grow. At first, everybody can pick all the strawberries they want, and nature replenishes the supply. No problem, no conflict. However, when more people move to the area, they start to compete for the limited supply of strawberries. Individuals have little incentive to care for the land, so they tend to stomp down the wild plants, and thus reduce future production. Rather than wait for the berries to reach maturity, people rush out to pick green strawberries, for fear their neighbors will beat them to the picking. Rather than pick an amount they can easily consume, they pick all they can find, because they (rightly) believe the berries won't be there when they come back. A field that once provided yummy strawberries to a few people becomes almost useless to the community.

Ah, but if we can establish property rights! This can be done in a variety of ways, of course. The entire community could hold a vote and elect a board to care for the field and distribute the strawberries. The problem with this strategy is that the political process itself suffers from similar problems as the original "commons." People still have little incentive to care for the land, and strawberries are likely to be distributed on the basis of political connections rather than brute strength.

The other major alternative is to assign property rights according to "first in time" usage -- that whole "mixing your labor with the land" theory from Locke. Unfortunately, while this theory is relatively easy to apply to virgin land, in most real-world cases property usage develops slowly by multiple potential owners. And so we see conflict. The sad fact is that, throughout history, property disputes have often been settled by one party killing the other or driving the other party off the land. Thus, Open Range (implicitly) touches on a problem as old as humanity -- and indeed one that preceded humanity in important respects.

Civilized people recognize the undesirability of violence and the importance of setting fair rules to determine property ownership. The better the rules and the better they are enforced, the less violence arises. In the case of our strawberry field, we can imagine a number of happy outcomes. Perhaps one berry picker works a deal to take control of the land, and promises other pickers a certain percentage of berries every year. Perhaps individual pickers divide up the land, then distribute it according to the rules of commerce. The solution must depend upon the particulars of the case.

In the case of Open Range, imagine the perspective of the sedentary rancher. (Assume the rancher is a good fellow who tries to do right by people, rather than the villain of the movie.) Perhaps you irrigate the land during times of drought. You make sure no particular plot of land is over-grazed. You want to stay in business for a long time, then pass it on to your children, so you have an incentive to make sure the land is viable for the long term. Then along come these free grazers, who let their cows graze the land without respect for your carefully laid plans, who generally run over things and then disappear, leaving you to clean up the mess.

The conflict of Open Range is possible only when property rights are poorly defined. In this case, two parties lay claim to the same fields. Conflict is inevitable, regardless of the character of those involved. Of course, those of good character are more likely to reach a fair settlement. For instance, the rancher might tell the free grazers, "Look, I put a lot of work into improving this particular valley for my own cows. However, the valley across the way is unclaimed." Or the rancher might offer to allow grazing in exchange for money or cows. Or the free grazers might be able to establish (perhaps in court) that the land in question has not been adequately "mixed" with the labor of the rancher to qualify for ownership.

Property rights are easy in theory, and they're fairly easy once everything has been claimed and the rules for usage have been worked out. In modern-day America, property rights are so well entrenched (except in the political sector) that we hardly pay them any mind. But ultimately there is no human issue more difficult to solve, and more fundamental to the rise of civilization, than that of property rights.

In a way, it's unfortunate that Open Range raised the matter of "the tragedy of the commons" but then managed to mostly ignore it by turning the local rancher into a demon. It's a decent "good vs. evil" flick, but it's the same story we've seen a hundred times before. A more clever story might have been titled "Free Riders," and its climax would have been the just resolution of property rights following tense negotiation and the threat of small-scale war. Had that been the story, I would have happily overlooked the hokey love story, though I think a much better love story could have been developed in the context I describe.

* * * * *

In the August 28, 2003 edition of Boulder Weekly, one of Colorado's finest journalists, Joel Warner, writes a story that is a local study of the "tragedy of the commons." Of course, the story focuses on politics, the realm in which property rights remain poorly defined. Warner doesn't explicitly discuss the case in these terms, but his excellent story readily submits to deeper political analysis.

Warner's title expresses the ambiguity of political solutions: "Not in my backyard: Is a proposed town a spirited cry for self-determination or a greedy land-grab?" Here is my summary of the quite complicated case:

  • LifeBridge, a Christian church, "purchased 313 acres just north of Colo. Highway 119 about five miles east of Longmont." The church plans an expansive complex (or "compound," if it gets on the wrong side of the mass media).
  • Some local residents are upset that neighboring land will be used in ways they never anticipated, given the zoning codes. They fear the local government-owned roads will be over-used.
  • The land was rezoned to allow the LifeBridge complex to be built. LifeBridge is a non-profit entity. At least one Weld County commissioner openly supported LifeBridge.
  • Local residents responded by proposing a new town of Freedom. This would give local residents greater control over local land use.
  • Advocates of the town Freedom want to include within the town's boundaries a number of local businesses -- so that the businesses can pony up a sales tax to fund the town.
  • Understandably, the local business owners don't like the town of Freedom.

My brief summary cannot do justice to Warner's exposition. It is a fascinating story. What is quite obvious, though, is that the entire set of problems arise from poorly-defined property rights. At the whim of a vote, local politicians can change the rules for property uses, thus impacting property values. Government properties, such as roads, automatically have no well-defined owners. Local towns can (in some cases) arbitrarily expropriate funds from previously unmolested businesses.

The problems surrounding the proposed town of Freedom are the same set of problems that provide the story line for Open Range, the same problems that people have fought over since people existed. When two or more parties claim rightful ownership of the same plot of land or other property, conflict is the inevitable result. At least in Weld County, people aren't riding around shooting each other. So the political process brings some measure of civility to the problem. Still, the conflict is enormously costly, and poorly-defined property rights necessarily generate misincentives for land management.

The libertarian solution, while still costly, promises to be less costly, more stable, and less capricious than the alternatives of brute force and political warfare. In short, the libertarian neo-Lockean alternative calls for "first in time" property enforcement whenever possible, a sound system of courts to hear disputes, and land uses determined by first use and unanimous contracts. While the problem of defining property rights can never be finally "solved," good rules governing the establishment of property rights can be established, and they can minimize the conflict and cost associated with the problem. "Let us work to establish just, well-defined property rights" may not sound as sexy as "no man can tell another where he can or can't go," but it's a lot closer to the truth of how to resolve human conflicts.

The Colorado Freedom