Saving Antiquities by Selling Them

This weekend, CEI co-hosted the conference, “Empowering Green Bureaucrats: How Global Environmental Treaties Threaten National Sovereignty and Hurt the World’s Poor,” with Universidad Francisco MarroquÃn. But first, CEI President Fred Smith spoke on how the market can help preserve archaeological treasures, at the conference, “Human Nature: Destructive or Creative?” hosted by UFM’s Center for the Study of Public Decisions (CADEP).

Governments, Fred noted, have not done a very good job of protecting nations’ archaeological treasures. The problem is what he termed an “antiquities commons”—the fact that because no one is allowed to own what are considered cultural artifacts, it is very difficult to ascribe value to those artifacts. Thus, they are left to the goodwill of civil servants. Because there is no incentive for these civil servants to care for these cultural goods—other than the intangible desire to do a good job—the cultural goods’ fate is left
too uncertain. “There are Mother Theresas in the world, but experience tells us that there aren’t that many Mother Theresas,” said Fred.
“The language in this area is poison,” he noted, since the people who do the actual digging are denounced as “looters.” Yet exploratory entrepreneurship is what’s needed. Unless, things change, “collectors are going to cease to exist.” And it is collectors who can capitalize archaeological ventures. Moreover, if prices are allowed to function, “the rich collectors of archaeological treasures act like oysters. They sift out the detritus” and give value to these treasures. Imagine if coffee were valued the way archaeological treasures are valued now—by not letting it be exported. Here, noted Fred, the Biblical parable about the talents is apropos. You gain nothing by burying something and leaving it in the ground.

Yet there are other problems with the archaeological commons, and here Gareth Harding’s “tragedy of the commons” is instructive. In the political world, noted Fred, protecting pasture competes with other priorities. Private property owners have the proper incentives to give the proper amount of protection. The resource adequacy question is resolved in the private case, less so in the political case, in which opportunities for rent-seeking and corruption arise.
Citing Louisiana (“We don’t tolerate corruption; we insist on it!), Fred noted how corruption pervades all societies. However, “In the private sector it’s very hard to have corruption within your land because it’s very hard to cheat yourself.”

In the public sphere, on the other hand, this competition over tradeoffs among various players—none of whose claims trump the others—creates the conflicts that give rise to corruption and rent-seeking. A pasture, for example, can be used for many things— grazing, recreation.

How do you resolve this? In the political process you have the machinations” of bureaucrats and politics. In the private sphere, these conflicts are avoided.

What are the incentives for political civil servants to use resources the best they can?

To do a good job, but that’s no guarantee.

In the private world, you have that, plus what is called the residual claimant status — the benefits accrue to you.

Complete political management of cultural goods, Fred concluded, would look very much like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the Ark of the Covenant gets sealed in a crate and stored in a government warehouse.

During the question-and-answer section, an audience member asked Fred if he could provide an example in which markets have protected cultural artifacts. He noted that a good parallel is the art market. Today, there is no example of markets protecting cultural artifacts because that market is outlawed. In fact, this has created a black market in antiquities which does lead to looting of arch treasures. The worst thing today is the inability to experiment. After all, you don’t move public policy forward by arriving at
perfect solutions, “you experiment.”