Friday, December 28, 2007

Can We Have Property Rights to Natural Processes?

In its operationalized form, Libertarianism relies strongly on the notion of property rights which extend beyond the self. If we want to talk coherently about these rights, we need some understanding of what sorts of things people can own, and how they come to own them. And while the second issue seems more interesting from a philosophical perspective, I think a lot of bad ideas have resulted from a poor handling of the first.

It seems like a lot of Libertarians build their views about property rights on the notion of homesteading. But I’m not sure that we’ve actually answered the fundamental question of what we can homestead. I bring this up because I’ve perceived a lot of knee-jerk hostility from a lot of Libertarians towards environmental concerns which appear to me to be totally justified.

For example, in my research on global warming, I’ve happened upon the prediction that certain climate shifts will make it difficult for some farmers to grow crops in the way that they’re accustomed. And for whatever reason, the reaction I’ve gotten from a bunch of Libertarians has been, “So what? They don’t have the right to the rain, or the temperature, or whatever. If they didn’t create it, or cause it to happen, then they have no claim to it, and cannot legitimately complain if changes in the natural environment bring about outcomes that they don’t like.”

This reaction seems intuitively ridiculous to me. Of course people didn’t create rain, or cause it to happen. Why would they have? Is this implying that people can’t possibly have any right to their natural environment? What justification could there possibly be for such a view?

I think the problem comes from looking at property rights as necessitating exclusive ownership of things. If this property rights were necessarily exclusive, then we would surely want to say that people couldn't have a right to natural phenomena. What right do you have to any rain that I collect and use?

I would argue, though, that Randall Holcombe and Roderick Long were right in saying that common ownership can fit into a property rights framework. In his essay, "Common Property in Anarcho-Capitalism," Holcombe suggests that when people collectively use a resource without mixing their labor with it in any meaningful way, the resource should be considered to be owned in common. He then contends that if one individual or group of individuals enclosed the property for their exclusive use, they would be depriving others of their rightful access.

The analogies to climate change are not perfect, but it does seem that if we all "utilize" local climatic conditions in ways that benefit us, then we have the right to continue to do so. If someone or some group of people were to change the climate in a way that made it impossible for us to continue our climate-dependent activities, couldn't we say that our rights had been violated? I think this is obviously right.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious-- in your research, have you come to the conclusion that climate change, at least at the hands of mankind, is provable? There is quite a lot of evidence to the contrary, and the State has done a great job of funding a lot of smokescreen research.

Danny Shahar said...

I posted a rather long-winded response here:

Anonymous said...

No, actually there isn't really any evidence that global warming is caused by anything buy human activities. What additional proof (in addition to the one provided by scientists) do you want? And why don't you believe thousands of very smart guys who spend years of their lives trying to find out things and all basically agree with each other? Or do you think there is a conspiracy by all scientists in the world?!?!?

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