Meet Walter Palmer. He is a dentist who (allegedly) illegally shot a lion in Zimbabwe.
Now meet Robert Mugabe. He is a power-mad dictator who for the better part of four decades has used terror and intimidation to maintain his stranglehold on power in Zimbabwe. He uses rape and murder to subdue his political enemies. Virtually everyone around the world agrees that he has ordered multiple acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing. In one campaign alone he is credited with being responsible for over 20,000 (human) deaths. There is essentially zero political freedom, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press in his country. Speaking out against him will likely get you and your family tortured and killed by his secret police. And here’s what he has done with the economy…
Remind me again which of these is the bad guy? Which is the one that Piers Morgan is calling for the execution of? Which is the one that all of your friends (well, all of mine at least) are vilifying on facebook day after day after day?
Do people really, legitimately, believe that poaching should be a capital offense? Just for lions, or for all animals? Just for rich, white, Americans? Or for native Zimbabweans as well (although under Mugabe, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was already the case)? My intent here isn’t to do a post on animal rights or anything like that – but rather to think about what happened here for a second and what poaching really is.
Poaching is the illegal killing of an animal – presumably when the person who kills an animal is not entitled to do so. This implies that property rights in said animal exist. The animal was owned by someone other than the person who killed it. Sometimes, the animal may be the private property of an individual (a cow owned by a rancher), or, in the cases of endangered species or animals who reside on land where “hunting is illegal,” the animal would properly be considered to be owned by the state. After all, if you pay a butcher to come slaughter your cows, he is not poaching – because you had property rights in the cows and authorized him to do so. Similarly, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a government agent being arrested for “poaching” while engaged in the killing of an animal within the scope of his job duties (which happens, even for endangered species, if the animal is considered dangerous, unable to survive on its own, or for the purposes of thinning out the herd). This is because the state claims property rights in the animal, and has authorized its agents to kill it, for whatever reason.
Therefore, to the extent that Palmer is guilty of poaching, it is because he, without permission, killed an animal owned by the state of Zimbabwe. Well guess what… in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is the state. For all practical purposes, Palmer is guilty of the crime of vandalizing Mugabe’s personal property. This is not dissimilar to accounts of Robin Hood being prosecuted by the local authorities for daring to kill “the king’s deer.”
In many cases, someone who vandalized the personal property of a genocidal dictator would be lauded as a hero, but Dr. Palmer has received no such recognition. Nor have the tens of thousands of Robert Mugabe’s human victims, as well as the entire nation who continues to suffer daily under his tyrannical rule. But for those who (for whatever bizarre reasons) value the lives of lions above the lives of actual people – it should be pointed out that the best way to protect lions would be to assign property rights in them to private individuals, who would thus be incentivized to properly protect them from poaching. Assigning them collectively to the state puts their entire disposition in the hands of the state. Maybe that seems like a good idea if you live in America and believe in the “we are the government” nonsense. But it probably isn’t such a great idea if you live in Zimbabwe and “the law” is “whatever the crazy genocidal dictator decides it is.”
Look, I get that we’re all busy people and there’s a limit on the amount of outrage we can feel for the tyrannical monsters of the world at any given moment. My point is not to say that because Mugabe is bad that means Palmer is okay, nor is it to diminish the notion of animal rights in a general sense. I just think this issue would strongly benefit from some perspective of the relative harm done by certain individuals – as well as an economic understanding of the property rights that help determine what is, and what is not, a crime.