"Reaffirming the Power of Innovation"

Liberals, Property and the Environment
News21.06.2018Anirudh Burman
Liberals, Property and the Environment

The seminar on “Liberals, Property and the Environment” was an exhilarating deep dive into the first principles of liberal philosophy, economic theory and comparative institutional analysis. The seminar, organized in the city of Gummersbach, was superbly designed and conducted. I have benefitted deeply from the course material, the lectures and most of all, from the insights of my fellow participants from around the world.

The seminar began with a discussion on common liberal and economic concepts, and quickly delved into questions regarding incentives, knowledge and property rights. I found the discussion deeply engaging since it allowed me the opportunity to gain a theoretical perspective about much of the work I do in India. Discussions on state subsidization, rent-seeking, and unclear property rights were extremely relevant to much of my work on land rights and regulatory governance. The discussion on the tragedy of the commons was illuminating, as it cast light on the problems of unclear property rights, made worse by the absence of rule of law in different jurisdictions.

I found the discussion on Cornucopian and Malthusian philosophies particularly enriching. Since I was completely unfamiliar to this intellectual debate, discussing these opposite points of view with my fellow participants was particularly enriching. It re-affirmed my beliefs in human ingenuity and the power of innovation in solving environmental problems, as well as those of food security. It was particularly satisfying that a large part of our group agreed with this point of view.

The guest lectures and the excursions beyond Gummersbach were the highlights of the seminar. We had an opportunity to hear Prof. Mark Pennington on polycentrist approaches to combating climate change, as well as Prof. Michael Faure on a property-rights based approach to environmental protection. Both of these interactions clarified my thoughts on how a decentralized, property-rights based system can lead to better environmental outcomes. Their lectures were powerful critiques of the centralizing tendencies in not just environmental issues, but also others that are equally relevant to India – public health and sanitation, land rights, etc.

Local solutions for local problems

The visit to the Renmaker cheese factory was particularly fascinating, since the owner had actually re-invented his farm by paying attention to the local conditions in his farm, limiting the use of chemicals, antibiotics and fertilizers and achieving the same or higher levels of productivity as his peers in a much more sustainable manner. It gave me an opportunity to compare and contrast with the massive state-directed efforts at agricultural improvements in India that promote the use of fertilizers and water in an unsustainable manner, and how local farming could benefit from clearer property rights and better access to finance.

An important insight that emerged was the importance of the rule of law in promoting decentralized systems of governance, polycentrism and local innovation. This was brought out in the discussions with the representatives of the local administration of the city of Aachen. Their initiatives in sustainable management of the local environment were a good example of local solutions to local problems. This would be hard to replicate in India without creating the necessary rule of law mechanisms that allows local self-government to flourish.

The most rewarding aspect of the seminar however, was the chance to interact with my fellow participants. Their friendliness and warmth ensured that discussions were always focused and never personal. It was a great opportunity to share experiences on similar issues and understand how they are attempting to promote liberal causes within the context of their own countries and communities. The quality of the discussions conducted by the facilitators Mr. Sven Gerst and Dr. Emmanuel Martin was very high. Their knowledge of local contexts across different jurisdictions and their respect for local issues ensured everyone felt involved in the lectures and group activities.

Anirudh Burman

The seminar has been extremely instructive for me not just in relation to thinking about environmental issues, but also in thinking about other issues that I work on with my organization. 

Anirudh Burman

A liberal manifesto

The lessons learnt during the seminar were clearly brought out on the last day, when we developed a liberal manifesto for environmental protection. The manifesto professed a clear belief in anthropocentric values towards resolving real-world problems. Clear property-rights within a well-regulated framework was unanimously agreed upon as a better approach to environmental protection than to pursue ecocentric methods that could lead to unintended and negative consequences. At the same time, we re-affirmed the prerequisite of the rule of law in facilitating not just anthropocentric approaches, but also to creating decentralized systems of governance.

We also agreed that while polycentrism is a better approach than centralized bureaucratic systems, comparative institutional analysis is necessary before such solutions can be proposed. I felt that this was particularly relevant to India, where solutions have to be found at different institutional levels for similar problems, given the scale of India’s variation in ecological systems, self-government institutions and the relative strengths of different communities in cooperating to solve problems by themselves.

The seminar has been extremely instructive for me not just in relation to thinking about environmental issues, but also in thinking about other issues that I work on with my organization. The insights with respect to the problems of central planning (limitations of knowledge and incentives), the value of property rights in addressing pressing contemporary problems, and the power of human innovation to solve their problems will aid me greatly in thinking about similar approaches to land rights and devising public administrative systems based on greater devolution of property rights to individuals.


This article first appeared on southasia.fnst.org.

Anirudh Burman

Anirudh Burman

Anirudh works with National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) in New Delhi. He recently attended FNF-IAF's leadership program in Gummersbach, Germany on Liberals, Property and the Environment. In this report, he is sharing his personal thoughts.