The Lorax and Private Property

With Dr. Seuss’ classic book The Lorax making its way to U.S. theaters March 2, 2012, now is a good time to address some of the positions the children’s tale takes in regard to environmentalism and industrial production.

The Lorax follows the typical structure of any Dr. Seuss classic as it contains a simple plot structure, a fantasy world, and is laced with imaginative but continually rhyming words.  At the time of its publication, The Lorax was seen as a social commentary on the damage ravaged on the environment by corporations.  The plot involves a young boy who pays a creature known as the Once-ler to hear its retelling of why the Lorax left a once thriving forest it was supposed to protect.

When the Once-ler first arrived at the land of the Lorax, he was astounded at the beauty of the “Truffula Trees.”

But those trees! Those trees! Those Truffula Trees! All my life I’d been searching for trees such as these.  The touch of their tufts was much softer than silk.  And they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk.

The Once-ler proceeds to set up shop and begin chopping down Truffula Trees.  With the “tufts,” he produces a kind of body suit called a “Thneed.”  Immediately, the Lorax appears and declares that it “speaks for the trees” and pleads for the Once-ler to reconsider harvesting Truffula Trees.  But the Once-ler finds customers for his Thneeds and expands production while cutting down increasing amounts of trees.  Eventually, the Once-ler chops down all the Truffula Trees and ceases production of Thneeds while leaving only pollution behind.  It’s easy to see how this fictive can ignite the passions of environmental movement who see capitalism as exploitive over nature.

Though environmentalists have made a habit of petitioning the government for economic intervention to halt environmental decay, the solution to preserving nature is much simpler.  The conception of private property serves as a means to both establish ownership over a given area and incentivize sustainable practices.

But in the Lorax’s world, it’s not clear whether or not there exists the institution known as the state.  If the state does exist and the Lorax, who displays human-like qualities and acts as a caretaker,  has clearly defined rights over the Truffula forest, then it is a failure of the state to enforce private property.  In a stateless society, the Lorax could file a grievance for legal arbitration between itself and the Once-ler within a system of competing, independent judges.  Whatever the situation, the Lorax would have a case to make against the Once-ler’s use of the forest if it properly acquired the use of the land beforehand.  Under a libertarian system, or system built upon the non aggression principle, of laws, the only legitimate way one acquires property of an unowned piece of land is homesteading.

Writing in Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, Murray Rothbard writes on this process which finds its origins in the theorizing of John Locke and St. Thomas Aquinas:

…cultivation and use of previously unused land establishes a just property title in the land in one man rather than in others. St. Thomas’ theory of acquisition was further clarified and developed by his close student and disciple John of Paris… Quidort declared that lay property ‘”is acquired by individual people through their own skill, labour and diligence, and individuals, as individuals, have right and power over it and valid lordship; each person may order his own and dispose, administer, hold or alienate it as he wishes, so long as he causes no injury to anyone else; since he is lord.”

The Aquinas–John of Paris–Locke view is the “labor theory” (defining “labor” as the expenditure of human energy rather than working for a wage) of the origin of property…

The theory of homesteading rests on natural law which holds that man has the absolute right to his body.  As Hans Herman-Hoppe puts it in reference to the all-important thought construct of an isolated Robinson Crusoe, “every person is the private (exclusive) owner of his own physical body. Indeed, who else, if not Crusoe, should be the owner of Crusoe’s body?”

The same logical deduction can be applied to homesteading as well for if unoccupied or unused land is to be ascertained and claimed by an individual, how else could it be done outside of mixing one’s labor with it?  The state is only made up of self-interested individuals; if those government officials sought to declare a portion of unused land forever more within its jurisdiction, then this constitutes an act of homesteading as well since adequate measures of securing the land would need to be taken.  However, considering the state obtains it resources to operate through theft, homesteading can’t ultimately be seen as legitimate when performed by public officials.

Because the Once-Ler set about chopping down Truffula Trees without any regard for previous ownership, there were no defined private property rights as to ensure the Lorax and his fellow animal companions maintained ownership over the forest.  This lack of definitive ownership resulted in the Lorax forest essentially becoming public property.  Like the overgrazing of land in the American West or the failed experiment of communism in early colonial Virginia, the inadequate enforcement or nonestablishment of private property rights resulted in a wasting of natural resources.

As Mises pronounces,

If history could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilization.

Though not a man per say, the Once-ler behaved purposefully by using natural resources to produce consumer goods.  In a world of strictly defined property rights, it would have to reach an agreement with the Lorax to make use of the Truffula Trees.  Otherwise, the Once-ler would be violently aggressing over the property of the Lorax.  The Lorax would then be justified in defending its property.

A common criticism launched against libertarian legal philosophy is that it assumes men act as angels.  This is blatantly false as libertarians would be the first to agree that the violent tendencies of man would exist in a free society.  The process of rectification and when force is really justified is where libertarians disagree with their statist opponents.  The truth is that while private property serves as the best means for man to produce and maintain wealth, its existence alone does not guarantee the owner any safety against the scheming of unscrupulous individuals.  If the Lorax had legitimately obtained the rights to the Truffula forest, it would have to act in order to repel the Once-ler’s attempt at using the property instead of merely trying to convince it through words alone.

While Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax serves as intellectual fodder for the environmental movement, it’s overly simplistic plotline is demonstrative of the author’s confused thinking on the issue.  Businessmen only destroy the environment if they have little desire to maintain the value of their land or seek to violate the property rights of others and take advantage of undistinguished public property.  The Lorax’s failure to establish its ownership over the Truffula forest was its fundamental error.  The victims were the Humming-Fish, Brown Bar-ba-loots, and Swomee-Swans which saw their habit destroyed.

On a more interesting and economic note, the Once-ler charges $3.98 for one Thneed which he describes as “It’s a shirt. It’s a sock.  It’s a glove. It’s a hat.  But it has other use.  Yes far beyond that.  You can use it for carpets. For pillows! For sheets!”  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI inflation calculator, what cost $3.98 in 1971 (the year of publication for The Lorax) costs $22.27 today.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Dr. Seuss foresaw the advent of the television infomercial which typically charge $19.99 for a good that promises to solve various ailments!

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One Response to “The Lorax and Private Property”

  1. Mike says:

    And how do you resolve conflict between those competing judges?

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