See You Later, Alligator?

An employee holds a Hermes diamond and Himalayan Nilo Crocodile Birkin handbag at the Heritage Auctions offices in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2014. The handbag has 242 diamonds with a total of 9.84 carats. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)California’s ban on exotic-animal hides runs counter to the approach that has allowed the American gator and other previously endangered species to thrive.

For the past few months, online retailers of products such as luxury handbags and wristwatches have been publishing a notice on their websites: Beginning on January 1, 2020, some of their products cannot be shipped to California.

The reason? Alligator and crocodile hide.

That’s bad news for, among others, former California first lady Maria Shriver, who has been photographed carrying an assortment of crocodile bags from Hermés, a collection worth a few hundred thousand dollars. (I am reminded here of the time I witnessed National Review editor Rich Lowry walking into a Manhattan apartment that was quite spacious, in the way a football arena is spacious, and muttering, “Maybe we should raise taxes on the rich.”) Other celebrity types love those exotic purses, too: Ashley Olsen, Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez (Jenny with the croc?), Kirsten Dunst, Sarah Jessica Parker, Beyoncé, Jada Pinkett-Smith — all have been photographed with handbags that are today, as far as the powers that be in Hollywood (and Sacramento) are concerned, contraband.

Beyond handbags, potential offenders include shoes, wallets, and wristwatch bands.

The campaign to ban the sale of alligator and crocodile products across state lines into California was led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the same group responsible for the cancelation of this year’s New Year’s Eve possum drop in Andrews, N.C. You cannot ceremonially lower a possum in North Carolina, but you can still make a handbag out of one and sell it in California, assuming you can find somebody to buy it. It’s a funny old world.

The California ban is temporarily on hold thanks to a lawsuit from Louisiana, the swamps of which are the Silicon Valley of carnivorous-reptile hides. Louisiana regulates the skin trade intelligently: In the wild, the majority of alligator eggs never reach maturity — either the eggs are eaten before they hatch or the young are eaten before they reach adulthood. (Louisiana is a tough place.) And so the state permits the harvest of wild-alligator eggs from the swamp nests in which they are laid (it is difficult to breed alligators in captivity) by entrepreneurs who see to it that the eggs are hatched and that the young thrive. The portion that would have been expected to survive in the wild is returned to the wild, and the rest become purses and cowboy boots and kebabs.

Whether Louisiana’s lawsuit has any merit is a question for the courts. But what is not up for debate is that the alligator business has been the main actor in turning around the fortunes of the American alligator, which once was an endangered species and is today a thriving one.

That is a familiar story. Earlier this year, I was a guest on Bill Maher’s show, promoting my most recent book. Maher had two great themes that evening: One was pissing on the grave of the recently deceased philanthropist David Koch, and the other was demanding to know why the world’s billionaires do not chip in and buy up land in the Amazon, which is being deforested, cleared largely by fire for agricultural purposes, something that the Brazilian government under President Jair Bolsonaro is either unable or (more likely) unwilling to stop. Maher was and is on to something with that: Creating property rights in endangered assets is an often-fruitful way of protecting those assets. What Maher did not know was that this is an idea that has long been supported by the very institutions bankrolled by David Koch and his network. The Property and Environment Research Center, for example, has provided valuable research and advocacy for the property-oriented policies that helped to turn around the fortunes of the southern white rhinoceros, whose numbers have gone from about 20 to about 20,000. Rhino poaching, PERC argues, is driven by economic forces — and economic forces in the form of property rights are what’s most effective in combating it. People will defend their own property — and invest in it.

Say what you will about Ted Turner: When it comes to preserving the wild places in the West, his big mouth was backed up by big money; he bought up more than 2 million acres in seven states. His sometime-colleague John Malone of Liberty Media has done even more.

American alligators were taken off the endangered-species list in 1987. Today they are thriving, with millions of them in the wild, thanks in no small part to the collaboration between the alligator industry and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which monitors the alligator population and the business practices related to it. Their efforts represent a genuine environmental success story — not the only way to save an endangered species, but one that works in many circumstances.

The deforestation of the Amazon is a textbook example of the tragedy of the commons — what happens when a lack of property rights (or a lack of effective enforcement, which amounts to the same thing) creates exactly the wrong set of incentives for the management of a scarce and precious commodity. The blanket prohibitions so often offered in response to that can have the opposite of their intended effect by raising prices and encouraging black-market production.

The command-and-control model that prevails in Sacramento is not always the wrong one, but it is not always the right one, either. Sometimes, coordination of interests is more effective than prohibition. Markets do their magic when people have self-interested reasons to pursue social ends.

You don’t have to take my word for that. Three million wild alligators in Louisiana would offer their own testimony, if you wanted to go ask them.

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