The Tragedy is “the Commons,” Part 5

With no exceptions that I have discovered, commoners dismiss the idea of privatizing the commons. For example, Elinor Ostrom notes that in regard to fisheries “the establishment of individual property rights is virtually out of the question” (Govering the Commons, page 13). She cites a report by the Canadian government that states that “the establishment of private-property rights in fishery resources is impractical in the great majority of cases…” (page 176).

(For a discussion of property rights in waterways, see The Objective Standard, “The Practicality of Privatizing Waterways.” For examples of property rights in other “public goods,” such as parks, mail delivery, infrastructure, education, and libraries, see my book Individual Rights and Government Wrongs.

The values that man needs to sustain and enjoy his life are not simply waiting for us to pick them up. Automobiles, televisions, computers, and food must be produced. Nature does not provide us with I-Pods, ceiling fans, or smart phones. These values must be created from the resources provided by nature.

For example, oil is a resource. As it exists in nature, oil is of no value. Until it is brought to the surface and refined, it is useless to human beings. Indeed, oil was known for millennia and was regarded as an unusable and undesirable resource until the middle of the nineteenth century. It takes intellectual and physical effort to discover how to turn a resource such as oil into a value.

Even berries growing in the wild require thought and effort to become a value. An individual must discover which berries are edible and which are poisonous. He must exert the effort to pick the berries. Until someone picks the berries, they serve no human purpose.

A resource that has not been transformed into a human value is unowned and open to use by all. (I hasten to add that you cannot trespass on your neighbor’s property and pick his berries or chop down his trees. The berries, trees, etc. are his property by virtue of his ownership of the land on which they grow.)

It is the act of transforming an unowned resource into a value that gives rise to the concept of property. Morally, the individual who transforms a resource into a value is the rightful owner of that property. As Ayn Rand wrote, “Any material element or resource which, in order to become of use or value to men, requires the application of human knowledge and effort, should be private property—by the right of those who apply the knowledge and effort.” The concept of property implies ownership, that someone has transformed nature or created a value. A resource that remains as nature left it is not property, communal or otherwise. “The commons,” then, is not communal property. It is an unowned resource open to use by all.

Consider the moon as an example. The moon is an unowned resource, not property, and anyone who can colonize the moon or build a mine or otherwise make use of the resource has transformed a part of the moon into a human value. By right, it is his property. And those parts of the moon that he has not made use of remain unowned and open for use by others.

To restrict an individual’s access to an unowned resource is to violate his right to act as he judges best. It is to prevent him from taking the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy his life. For example, if an individual colonizes the moon, he does not own the entire moon, only that portion which he has transformed. Other individuals have a moral right to colonize other parts of the moon, as long as they do not interfere with the first individual’s use of his property. The same applies to any unowned resource.

Rights sanction freedom of action in a social context. Rights recognize and protect our freedom to act as we judge best, so long as we respect the mutual rights of others. This means that we must refrain from using force or fraud. In regard to property, this means the freedom to create, produce, use, trade, and dispose of material values. But a resource in its natural state is not property. Where there is no property, there is no property right. That is, no individual or group can restrict or control use of an unowned resource.

Commoners imply that use creates a property right, that those who have hunted in a particular forest or fished in a particular harbor have a right to continue doing so to the exclusion of others. As an example, commoners decry the enclosure of the prairies, arguing that those who had used the prairie should have been permitted to continue doing so. They make similar arguments regarding the Internet and other intellectual property.

Use alone does not create property, nor does it confer a property right. For example, a hunter who uses a forest to shoot game does nothing to transform nature and thus create a value. He is simply using nature as he found it, and his rightful claim of ownership extends only to the deer that he shoots, not to the land. However, if he plants certain vegetation or digs a pond that will attract game, he has created a value that will serve human life. It is the act of applying human intelligence and effort to a resource that transforms it from an unowned resource as nature has left it into a human value, and thus, property.

If use confers ownership, then the user of any resource would have a claim of ownership. Drivers could claim ownership of the roads, students could claim ownership of the schools, diners could claim ownership of the restaurant. Not only would this create a legal nightmare, it would be an act of extreme injustice to the rightful owners of these properties—those who exerted the thought and effort to create those values.

Originally, the commons meant an unowned resource. But it included the claim that such resources cannot and should not be privately owned. In truth, there is no resource that cannot and should not be privately owned. Let us now examine how property rights can be applied to air and water.

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