THE COMMONS

May 24, 2010

THE COMMONS
WATER
We cannot avoid communal sharing of certain things. I can claim a little patch of ground as my own. If it includes the banks of a river, I may draw water from it and dump trash, garbage, or sewage into it. I may make the water unfit for any use downstream, or somebody upstream may make it unusable for me. We have to work out ways to share that water. That is a work in progress.
AIR
Even more so, we share the air we breathe with the whole world. The smoke from my heating and cooking pollutes the air for others. Even breathing the air adds to its burden of carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming.
This was not a problem when there were less than a million people, hunters and gatherers, in the world; their effects on the earth were just a trivial disturbance of nature. However, the effect of 7 billion people, with high technology, is altogether another matter. We are obviously doing serious damage to Planet Earth, making it an unhealthy environment for all living things. The expression, “The tragedy of the commons” expresses all too well the importance of solving this problem. I don’t have an answer, and I don’t think an answer will be found until the problem becomes really bad, affecting nearly everyone adversely.
THE EARTH
The earth is getting crowded, especially in places with the best conditions for living: access to water for drinking and agriculture, access to rivers, lakes, and seacoasts for easy transport. We can each live on our own piece of land, but some area must be available as a commons to enable us to travel and trade. Streets, roads, and highways, rivers, lakes, and oceans are necessarily commons so that every parcel of privately owned land has access to every other parcel of land.
OPTIONAL COMMONS
In many cases we have the option to treat something either as common property or as personal property. Where we truly have this option, private property is always preferable, from the standpoint of freedom, and also in terms of the incentive to make the most productive use of the property and preserve and increase its value.
I have mentioned how the first English colonies in America failed because of the communal sharing of everything, but succeeded when the common property was parceled into privately owned plots.
In a commons shared by many, there is little incentive to contribute to the common welfare, and every incentive for each individual to exploit the common property for his own benefit, and quickly, before it’s all gone. The obvious solution is to treat every possible economic resource as private property. Libertarians are all in agreement on this, though they disagree as to the list of things that could be private property.
As to the possibility of treating all things as common property, we need only look to history for a dramatic answer. All communist experiments, it seems, are started on the hope that altruism will motivate the whole group to do their best for the common good. These experiments have all failed quickly, unless a tyrant, benevolent or not, took control of all economic activity of the commune. And eventually even these communes fail, because the economy of a large group is too complex for one person to manage. As to freedom, under full communism, each person becomes common property and a slave to the group.
The tragedy of the commons is the only excuse I can find for the existence of government. But government is power, the negation of freedom, and power corrupts. For this reason, and for the love of liberty, we must find a better solution in every possible case. Here are likely examples of privatization of things now treated as commons. I have arranged them by my perception of the ease of privatization.
THE U.S. MAIL
The US Mail has responded fairly well to efforts to make it a self-supporting business. However, probably the only reason it has survived until now is the government decreed monopoly on delivering letters. The government should remove this restraint and sell off what remains of the system to compete in the free market.
SPORTS STADIUMS
Some of these are public (government) property. Others are privately owned but heavily subsidized, particularly in the initial location and construction. I don’t see how anyone can justify any degree of subsidy, from taxpayers’ money, of such projects. (I’m not a sports fan) The usual plea is that they bring business to the local economy. Perhaps, then the local merchants will subsidize them? Not likely! Let them operate as self supporting private enterprise. If they are that important to you, you should be willing to pay whatever it costs to use them. And if you are thinking of the benefits to others, perhaps you would make a donation to keep them going. As to the government owned stadiums, they should be sold off. A buyer might well decide it would be more profitable to demolish the stadium and build housing or a shopping mall on the site. His profit is the proof that he’s providing what the consumers really want most.
MUSEUMS, LIBRARIES, PARKS, ETC
It seems that these amenities provide such great benefits that we can’t conceive of doing without them. If the benefits are that great, then they should be able to be self supporting from admission charges, subscriptions, or contributions.
SCHOOLS
Most people cannot conceive of privatizing our public schools. After all, didn’t we all get a very good education in public schools? What examples of private schooling do we have to compare it with?
Well, there are private schools, mostly doing a very good job, or they wouldn’t be able to compete as they do with a public school system. The parents of the students in these schools not only pay their tuition, but also support the public schools through their taxes. Expensive? Yes, but not nearly as expensive as public schools. The difference is, of course, that the expense of public schools is communized, while private schools are paid by the students or their parents. Empty nesters like me are not forced to support them. As it is, my taxes support public schools, but I also contribute what I can to support the Mises Institute, which teaches Austrian (Free Market) Economics.
And what do we get for the taxes we pay to support public schools? I see youngsters who have never been taught a bit of grammar (remember “Grammar” Schools), they can’t do much math, even with a calculator, know little or nothing of Geography, Science, or spelling. They have been taught a history which glorifies the state and justifies its wars. They graduate from public schools believing that the State is the solution, not the cause, of our problems.
Their education lacks continuity because of constant experimentation in subject matter and teaching methods. They have been taught by members of the most powerful union (and lobbying group) in the country, firm believers in the supremacy of the state. The students graduate prepared to become patriotic cannon fodder and willing taxpayers, though badly equipped to earn a living.
As long as any part of school funds comes from the Federal Government, patriotism will be the most urgent goal of our school system.
WELFARE
There seems to be a pretty general agreement, even among those who live on welfare benefits, that the system is broken. I see the basic reason as this: Government has little or no incentive to make it work. It is seen simply as a means to buy votes and support bureaucrats, and the more people living on welfare, the more votes it gets and the more bureaucratic salaries it can justify.
The purpose of welfare should be a temporary hand up to get people through a bad time: a safety net but not a hammock. Private charity sees it that way, for private charity has to make do with limited funds, whereas Government can tax us without limit.
Many people with charitable instincts feel that to abandon the welfare system is cruelty. But Government welfare is not charity. It is Robin Hood, making a comfortable living robbing rich and poor alike, giving maybe half of the loot back to the poor, and deliberately encouraging their dependency. The welfare state was invented by Otto Von Bismarck in Germany in the 19th century, expressly to make the people dependent on the State. (Actually, he re-invented it. The same scheme was the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire)
If altruism compels you to give to the poor, do so, personally or through your favorite charity. Not by way of government. The government will rake off at least half of what you give for itself, and hold a pistol to my head to make me contribute too. Charity is voluntary and personal. Government welfare uses coercively collected taxes from everyone, and wastes most of it in bureaucratic growth.
PENSIONS
I am a member of the AARP, which has probably the most effective lobbying activity in Congress. It is committed to statist intervention and the massive redistribution of wealth which is the Social Security system.
When I started working in the 1940s, as I remember it, I paid 1.5% of my income into the Social Security system. At that time few people were yet qualified to collect even a partial pension, so small contributions were enough to cover current pensions. It was obvious to me then that this was a pyramid scheme, bound to collapse in time. I couldn’t imagine then that workers would be willing to pay more than 20% of their income to support the lucky few who got into the scheme before it became too expensive to be self supporting.
Social Security has been bankrupt for years now, dependent on counterfeiting to meet the growing outgoing payments. The scheme was originally set up in such a way that it seemed as if workers were paying into a savings fund which they would recover as a pension when they retired. In fact, through the years, the current deductions simply went to pay the current pensioners. As years went by, more and more workers began to collect bigger and bigger pensions, and the number of younger workers to support the pensioners actually began to shrink. The scheme is bankrupt.
The fact is that, if workers had simply saved and invested the same part of each paycheck, they would end up with bigger pensions than Social security would pay. And those savings would have provided capital for industry, increasing productivity and making all of us more prosperous, instead of supporting an ever-growing bureaucracy.
The government is now searching for ways to get out of the pensions business by devising a scheme to convert to self-financed pensions, hopefully a scheme which won’t lose them too many votes. The communal system was an easy source of disguised tax money for politicians to spend in its early days. Now it has failed and they’re trying to sweep it under the carpet. Millions of pensioners (including myself) are now dependent on this scheme. To get the government out of this obligation will cause a lot of people a lot of pain. When it happens, I hope I can find an employer willing to ignore my age and hire me.
It is obviously more efficient and fair for people to provide for their own retirement: to privatize pensions. The transition will be a knotty problem, well beyond the capabilities, motivations, and courage of politicians. Suggestions, anyone?
COMMONS THAT ARE HARDER TO PRIVATIZE
There are many libertarians who firmly believe that government has no legitimate place in the scheme of things. They are anarchists. Despite the image which the word conjures up of a wild-eyed lunatic throwing a bomb, the word “anarchy” simply means “without a government”, and anarchists can explain plausibly how anarchy could be not only workable, but superior to government in providing each function which government claims as its own.
The fact is that much of what government does can be done better by free individuals or voluntary groups, and the anarchists simply propose to extend this to every function of government, including police, courts, jails, National defense, & streets & highways. For some interesting reading on this subject I suggest a small book, “Chaos Theory”, by Robert P. Murphy, available from the Mises Institute.

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