Gold In Them Thar Seas!

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Another year has passed, and I have enlarged my carbon footprint by attending the 2007 edition of the Annual Conference of the Libertarian Alliance, in association with the Libertarian International, an event held at the Liberty Club in London’s Whitehall.

There was the usual wealth of high-quality lectures and discussions. Dr. Syed Kamal (Conservative Member of the European Parliament) spoke about the developing world and global capitalism. The chief battle on this front, of course, is the fight to convince politicians and members of NGOs that the world’s poor can, indeed, survive without their “help.” (On a similar note, the after-dinner speaker was the excellent Alex Singleton, president of the Globalisation Institute.)

Brian Micklethwait, of the blog Samizdata, and solicitor David Carr discussed the surveillance society, bringing for- ward the almost unbelievable statistic that Britain, while having 1% of the world’s population, hosts 25% of the world’s CCTV cameras.

The closing talk – “Post-Modernity and Liberty” – was given by Marc-Henri Glendenning and the director of the Libertarian Alliance, Dr. Sean Gabb. Maybe it was a necessary dose of realism, but the speakers laid out a depressing analy- sis of the state of British politics, so valueless and devoid of debate has it become.

One lecture seemed especially original – the talk by Leon Louw, executive director of South Africa’s Free Market Association, on “The Disaster of Water Socialism: Why the Sea should be privatised.” At the core of his argument was the idea that the more private ownership, the more wealth, so the sea should not be left out of the private ownership system. At the moment, the oceans are res nullius, in that they are not yet the object of rights by any subject of any country and are, in a way, nationalized – claimed by nations to the extent they can make good their claims.

In considering the relevance of his argument, we must realize that water is three-dimensional, not two-dimensional. Once we do, we can see that the seas are -much more impor- tant than the land. Any mineral wealth that is available on land may be there in greater amounts under the sea, despite the fact that its value may not yet have been tapped.

How can this value be claimed and used? States have done it in various ways. Much of the Netherlands is land “reclaimed” from the sea (although there is no good reason in law why one would need to “fill it in” in order to claim it). Further, nations with coastlines “own” up to about 200 kilo- meters off their shores. So, if states can do it, why shouldn’t private organizations?

The usual caveats are thrown in the way. Some people find it hard to visualize clear distinctions and demarcations running across the seas. Contrary to popular myth, however, visually identifiable borders do not always exist on land. In the vast arid spaces of Australia, for example, there are farms hundreds of thousands of acres in size that have few obvious boundaries.

Moreover, most land that is owned and used isn’t really occupied, any more than the seas are occupied.

Other people may wonder whether transoceanic voyages would be obstructed by private ownership of the seas. Yet in reality the problem is no different from that of traveling over land. To fly, catch a train, or drive across many European nations or American states demands nothing more than voluntary cooperation, based on mutual self-interest. The post- WWII European order shows that there is no surer way of bringing peace than to spread commerce and wealth.

Alas, George W. Bush has been lobbying Congress to adhere to the Law of the Sea Treaty, which is a step toward nationalizing the sea. Indeed, some say that we should homestead the seas – but what have we seen from previous nationalizations of industries and resources? There would be no better way of driving whales to extinction than to relinquish control of the seas to a supernational body.

Indeed, the environmental bodies should – were they not so often socialist in ideology – be the first to agree with the proposal to spread private ownership to the oceans. Anyone concerned with the threat that certain marine species might go extinct should consider the “tragedy of the commons” – the tendency for economic resources to disappear when they are not owned and managed by individuals. (For an example, look to the environmentally irresponsible Common Fisheries policy pursued by the European Union.) While privatization is often seen as the domain of Exxon or Viacom, these are but one type of organization that would enter the market. The adoption of private ownership would result in the creation, en masse, of private conservation efforts.

What exists today is a primitive, seminal example of what could be in place. Some sections of the seas are privately owned, by way of concessions – e.g., for fishing and conservation – around New Zealand and Iceland. The system works, and, as with private ownership of previously delicate species of land animals in Africa, the numbers of animals grow when humans are allowed to own, farm, and preserve their property.

Louw strongly emphasized that it is not the responsibility of legislators and theorists to find all the solutions. Farmers in South Africa, to cite one instance, have found their own ingenious solutions to enhance efficiency and wealth. Why should distant theorists assume that they now have all the answers about the sea? We should be looking for legislation to establish property rights; if that happens, solutions to practical problems will follow in ways we cannot predict

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