The Tragedy is “the Commons,” Part 1

The political Left is comprised of many different movements, many of which are dedicated to a particular issue or cause. For example, feminists clamor for “women’s rights.” Environmentalists seek to “protect” nature from human encroachment. Unions seek to expand their power and influence. While each of these movements has a different focus, they agree on basic premises.

Because of these shared premises, Leftist movements often overlap, with the ideas and positions of one movement being embraced and advocated by another movement. In recent decades, the idea of “the commons”* has gained increasing influence on the Left, and we can see that influence in everything from environmentalism to the Occupy movement.

The idea of the commons has existed throughout recorded history. Indeed, the Romans held that certain resources, such as air and water, are Res communes—“things common to all.” Further, Roman law stipulated that these resources are extra patrimoiium—they could not and should not be privately owned. Instead, these resources should be held “in trust” or owned “in common” by the public, with the state regulating the use of the resource.

This “public trust” doctrine was cited by the United States Supreme Court in 1892, when it ruled that state governments hold title to resources such as rivers and lakes, “a title held in trust for the people of the state, that they may enjoy the navigation of the waters, carry on commerce over them, and have liberty of fishing therein, freed from the obstruction or interference of private parties.”

More recently, a man in Oregon was convicted of illegally retaining and storing rain water on his property. Oregon law holds that all water is public property, and any individual wishing to capture and store water must first obtain permits from the state. This applies even to rain water that falls on one’s property.

The “public trust” doctrine is widely embraced, and stems from a faulty view of property and property rights. Most people can understand property rights in such things as an automobile, computer, or real estate. But property rights in a moving resource, such as air and water, seems impossible. In short, the idea of the commons is plausible. But plausible does not mean legitimate.

While the commons may seem like a plausible and benign idea, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a malignant idea, both morally and politically. Morally, it is motivated by the premise that individuals must sacrifice their personal judgment, accomplishments, and happiness for the alleged well-being of the group. Politically, its goal is the destruction of private property.

In this series, I will examine the ideas that underlie the commons and where those ideas must necessarily lead. I will then show how private property rights—including in air and water—are the only moral and practical solution to the problems that advocates of the commons allegedly seek to solve.

*“The commons” is not a legitimate concept. For purposes of readability, I will not use quotes around the term going forward.


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