0053 The Tragedy of the Commons

Property, Part 1
0053 The Tragedy of the Commons MP3
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The Tragedy of the Commons
by Ben Stone

I’m starting this series on property by jumping into the middle of the topic rather than establishing a base and then building on it. My reason for this approach is that since socialism has crept into so many aspects of our lives, it’s often hard to recognize it when we’re looking right at its devastating consequences. This familiarity with evil causes us to accept the notion that some things are the way they are by nature, so we don’t see the cause/effect aspect of the problem. Having failed to identify the problem’s source, we are more easily sold a statist/socialist solution without even realizing it, which of course makes the problem worse. So then, by directly confronting the primary effects of socialism, among which are over usage, shortages, hording, and ultimately rationing, it’s my hope to sharpen the reader’s skill at spotting the lies of socialism whenever they appear.

Four college students, Tom, Bill, Fred, and Larry, decide to move off campus and rent a house. This seems to make sense because it will afford them more individual space and free them from the rules of the dormitory. So a suitable house is found and they quickly move in, not realizing they’re leaping into a social experiment that may render them all enemies, fighting over a bottle of ketchup.

On the very first day, Tom mentions to the others how funny it is to look in the refrigerator and see two milk jugs, three bottles of orange juice and four bottles of ketchup, yet there is no butter, cheese or eggs. Bill suggests a budget be established and basic food supplies be purchased using equal contributions from each of the four, but specialty items that individuals buy for themselves be kept separate. Everyone agrees this is the logical way to avoid conflicts over what belongs to whom and who owes whom for what. Four cabinets are selected and designated and zones in the refrigerator are assigned. They make a list of basic supplies and each student throws $25 into a hat. Tom takes the list and the cash and heads to the store, all the time thinking how nicely they solved their first potential problem.

After some time passes and the newness of the house wear away, Tom begins noticing some differences among the group. For example Bill usually skips breakfast, as he has an early class and can never seem to get up in time. Fred wakes up early and over the course of the morning consumes two or three bowls of what Tom considers “kid’s cereal”. Larry always wakes up mid-morning and has a three-egg omelet, which he covers in ketchup. This strikes Tom as particularly odd since he has never heard of people putting ketchup on eggs. Seeing Larry desecrate his food in this manner turns Tom’s stomach. The very though of the mess is more than Tom can handle before he has his coffee.

Tom is not alone in his observations. Bill, who almost never drinks milk and only occasionally has an egg, is beginning to wonder why he has to constantly chip in for more supplies while consuming the least of the group. However, in all fairness, Bill is the one who made that first list which included milk and eggs, so he doesn’t feel comfortable making a big deal out of it. After all, he tells himself, it probably all evens out in the long run. However, Bill is beginning to become frustrated with Larry due to his habit of leaving his stinky shoes wherever he flops down when he comes back from jogging every afternoon. And Tom is starting to get on Bill’s nerves with his tendency to constantly be cleaning everything over and over.

Larry doesn’t notice any of the things Tom and Bill are beginning to obsess over. He has never had so much fun. The freedom of being away from home and the excitement of living in a collage town keep Larry smiling all the time as he enjoys this wonderful life with his new friends. Fred feels pretty much the same way. Having grown up in a large family, this is the first time he can truly have his own stuff and not have to share with his little brothers and sisters. The freedom to buy a bag of frozen curly fries, tossing them in the oven, then sitting back in his room and watching what he wants to watch on TV while eating every bite without sharing one fry just thrills Fred. And he gets to have his fries the way he likes, very crispy and covered with ketchup and extra salt. Plus he gets the same satisfaction from his Frosty Flakes in the morning. He can eat all he wants and never has to worry about someone else emptying the box before he gets up.

Then one day Tom was running the vacuum cleaner in the living room and had to stop to move Larry’s shoes. Bill took the opportunity to point out that Larry is the only one that leaves his stuff lying around everywhere like that. While Tom agreed the shoes were a problem, he pointed out how Bill leaves his shaving supplies all over the bathroom. Bill had never thought about it like that, but in defense Bill asked why it is that he is the only one who takes the trash out of the bathroom. Clearly something had to be done about all of this. About this time Larry walked in from the kitchen with an empty ketchup bottle and announced that somehow all the ketchup was gone. Bill asked what happened to the four bottles and Tom answered with a scowl, that Larry saturates his eggs in it every morning. Larry was devastated. For the first time he realized Tom’s opinion of him, and it seemed these two were ganging up on him. He tried to defend his use of ketchup by saying that he only had a small amount each time, but to no avail. Bill agreed with Tom that it was time Larry make up for his ketchup consumption! So Larry put on his shoes and headed for the store. From then on Larry made sure he put all the ketchup he wanted on his eggs. After all he wanted to get his money’s worth since he’s being blamed for everything.

After a few days, Larry was still angry about how his friends had ganged up on him. So one evening he decided to treat himself to an omelet and just dare someone to say something! Except when he went to the refrigerator to grab the ketchup there was none! As it turned out, Fred had taken the bottle into his room to enjoy some curly fries and had failed to return it! So Larry accused Fred of hording the ketchup! Bill tried to calm the situation by suggesting a system of ketchup allotments and Tom agreed that it sounded fair. But this was too much for Larry! He pointed out how Tom was the one who started this whole thing about ketchup on the first day and how Bill’s money schemes had lead to these shortages to begin with. All of that along with how Tom is always making noise running the vacuum is starting to get aggravating. (Oddly enough, before the ketchup issue Larry was never bothered by Tom’s cleaning routine.)

Ownership and Responsibility
When you are the sole owner of a thing you are solely responsible for that thing. If you damage it, improve it, or consume it, you only have yourself to answer to for the condition of the thing. But when ownership of a thing is shared vagueness and layers of arbitrary rules fog the responsibility for that thing. The loss of responsibility manifests itself in over usage, shortages, hording, and ultimately rationing. And since shared ownership is contrary to human nature, anger and frustration are the typical emotions that result.

In our example above, we see commodities like ketchup, eggs and milk being consumed disproportionately, while common resources like the living room and the bathroom are being abused or even polluted, at least this is the case in the opinion of some. We also see labor being misallocated and we see the frustration and the anger that, when taken to the level of a nation, erupts in strikes, protests, and marches and in the end, State violence and suppression of individuals. But what we don’t see is anyone upset about curly fry or the Frosty Flake consumption. The difference being that the curly fries and the Frosty Flakes were clearly the property of one person. We also don’t see a shortage of fries and flakes, as the owner is the sole responsible party.

The reality is that almost all conflicts boil down to property rights. When the right of property is correctly addressed almost all other differences become trivial. The more individuals apply the principles of property rights to their lives the less confusion and misunderstanding have a place in the conversation. This goes back to the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The reason this statement has passed the test of time and criticism is because it’s based on a natural respect for the right of property and an understanding that the more defined the dividing line that separates your property from mine the more comfortable we both are with that which we own.

So then, what are the principles of property rights?
Property is that which can be owned. First and foremost, that would include one’s self. And in the same manner, you can own no one but yourself and no one can own you. Age, health, or other physical condition does not alter this foundational truth. Others may be able to use violence or the threat thereof against you, but this doesn’t indicate ownership. Additionally, there is only one of you, therefore you are in limited supply and you can only be in one place at a time. While you are in that place, no one else can occupy that space. Therefore you naturally own the space you occupy. And since you are not divisible, one cannot rightfully share one’s self.
You have the ability to act. Unlike a rock or water, humans can choose to act or not act. Our actions can cause work to be accomplished and the result can be more property. That property will have things in common with that which we have already established as property. It must occupy space and be in limited supply. When our actions produce property, we are the natural owner of that property. When we produce property we have the right to keep, sell, trade, abandon, or give that property as a gift. Also unowned or undiscovered property can become owned property by homesteading which means mixing ones labor with the property and/or occupying that property.
Now if we take this primary example of property and apply it to other things, we can begin to understand what can and what cannot be property and therefore what can and cannot be owned.
Space can be owned, since we own the space we occupy and we can homestead new space. However outer space cannot be owned because it is not in limited supply. So only that space that has defined boundaries can be owned, as this characteristic creates a limited supply. If you could fence in some defined area of outer space and improve it or occupy it, you could own that defined space, but not all of outer space.
The same goes for space that contains land. If its borders can be defined and it is unoccupied, unimproved, or abandoned it can be homesteaded. (Abandoned property has some exceptions to the above rules.)
A resource like wood is in limited supply, occupies space, can be produced by labor. Additionally if I trade or sell wood that I own then I no longer own it.
Wood can be used to make fire, but fire cannot be property. Although it appears to occupy space, if I bring the fire of one torch into the space of the fire of another torch they can occupy the same space at the same time. Also if I bring my torch to an unlit torch I can share fire without diminishing the original fire, therefore it is not in limited supply and cannot be property.
A thought is not property. It doesn’t occupy space and it can be shared in unlimited quantities without diminishing the original thought, therefore a thought cannot be property.

When consistently followed, property rights produce prosperity and improve the human condition. When ignored or violated, consequences will always result.

Ben Stone Ben

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