Response to Cecil the Lion’s death is a sad lesson in the irrationality of public opinion

Alas poor Cecil! Close personal friend of mine, sadly dead now.

The catchphrases of the Scottish comedian Bob Doolally capture the outpourings of grief among the Twitterati at the death of the now famous lion. The mourning is mixed with incoherent rage, as long-standing opponents of torture and capital punishment demand that the American dentist who killed the animal have his teeth pulled out without anaesthetic and then be sent to Zimbabwe to be hanged.

Yet the story illustrates two deep features of the current world. We can usefully reflect on the truly appalling outrages which have been inflicted on Zimbabwe by President Robert Mugabe. At the start of his regime, he used Cuban and North Korean troops to murder 20,000 political opponents. One of the most fertile countries in Africa has been reduced to destitution and starvation by racially motivated land grabs. Economic mismanagement, which far surpassed that of the Greeks, led to an inflation rate of one million per cent. But these outcomes scarcely rate a mention, in contrast to the global swamping of social media occasioned by the shooting of a lion.

In cyber society, there is in general only a tenuous connection between the objective content of an incident and the amount of popular attention which it receives. It is not a matter of people gathering all available information and then making a considered, rational choice, as standard economic theory assumes they do. Popularity is self-reinforcing, and in a dramatic way. Network theory is beginning to illuminate why some stories or products spread like wildfire while most receive virtually no attention. But this is due to the subtle mathematical properties of the connections rather than the content or the competing merits of the product.

Economics does much better at understanding the second aspect of the Cecil story. There is a big demand across the world to hunt exotic and dangerous species. The markets for trophies and other by-products of hunting, such as the alleged aphrodisiac of powdered rhinoceros horn, are probably even larger. Unrestricted entry into such markets would lead to the so-called problem of the commons. This arises when the actions of individuals, each making decisions independently and in a rational way, generate an outcome which is bad for the group as a whole. Resources become depleted to the point of extinction.

The Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom spent much of her career researching how this problem is managed in contexts such as fisheries and farmlands. The existence of a well-defined community, whose members influence each other through their shared values and cultural norms, is a good indicator of success. But the urge to hunt is global, and so we face a market failure.

The regulation of hunting is one of the very few functioning aspects of the Zimbabwean state. It is a way of limiting access to rare species, and the permit fees received from legal hunters provide the resources required to combat poaching. Calls to ban hunting are ill-informed, for this would simply magnify the problem of the commons and lead to a world in which Cecils were extinct.

Paul Ormerod

As published in City AM on Wednesday 5th August 2015

Image: “Cecil” by Daughter#3 is licensed under CC BY 2.0. 

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