Who Owns the Environment? Part II

I recently posted an item here, on Conservefewell.org, attempting to reconcile rights to and in private property with the concept of the universal destination of all material goods, in effect, for the good of all mankind. I dreamstime_s_33571295noted that the Catechism of the Catholic Church maintains, and medieval Scholastic philosophers (as dramatized in Umberto Eco’s great medieval murder mystery, The Name of the Rose) argued that you could have it both ways.

This discussion extends back to Aristotle and forward to John Locke and up to the present day. It is extremely relevant to another question: Who owns the environment? Are market-based or property-rights-based approaches to environmental protection, that is, the protection of the common goods of the earth-air, water, nature-morally and ethically legitimate? I concluded that, while not always the right solution to every environmental solution, they are legitimate and, at times, even optimal. This posting probes a bit deeper into the philosophical roots of the matter. As will be seen, Margaret Thatcher succinctly recapitulated the proper balance of private and public interests in the environment.

Thinking on how to reconcile private property with the common interest in the goods of the world, again, predates the debate between Eco’s medieval churchmen by over a millennium. Aristotle, in his Politics said, “[O]ne might censure [the Spartans for] what pertains to the disparity in possessions. For it has happened that some of them possess too much property, and others very little; hence the territory has come into the hands of a few” (Lord 1984).

Aristotle was also a philosopher of natural justice and the source for later schools of thought such as natural law (again, see The Name of the Rose) and the virtue philosophers of today. In the Politics he demonstrates a concern for “the manner in which possessions should be instituted for those who are going to govern themselves under the best regime—whether possessions should be held in common or not….In general, to live together and be partners in any human matter is difficult, and particularly things of this sort.”

“For it [the polis] would have what is good in both-by both I mean what comes from having possessions in common and what from having them privately,” says Aristotle. “For they should be common in some sense, yet private generally speaking. Dividing the care [of possessions] will cause them not to raise these accusations against one another, and will actually result in improvement, as each applies himself to his own; and it will be through virtue that ‘the things of friends are common,’ as the proverb has it, with a view to use….It is evident, then, that it is better for possessions to be private, but to make them common in use. That [the citizens] become such [as to use them in common]—this is a task peculiar to the legislator.” Thus, the proper ordering of private property in relation to the use of the earth’s goods requires statesmanship and the exercise of judgment. It is not necessarily something that happens spontaneously or is self-organizing.

Cicero, the towering Roman philosopher and statesman, the first major proponent of natural law and virtue ethics, also sought to delineate the proper roles of common and private property in De Officiis [On Duties]: “The first office of justice is to keep one man from doing harm to another, unless provoked by wrong; and the next is to lead men to use common possessions for the common interest, private property for their own. There is, however, no such thing as private ownership established by nature…” (Miller 1913). Here he cites long occupancy, conquest, due process of law, bargain, purchase and the like which lead to the acquisition of property.

He continues: “But since, as Plato has admirably expressed it, we are not born for ourselves alone, but our country claims a share of our being, and our friends a share, and since, as the Stoics hold, everything that the earth produces is created for man’s use, and as men, too, are born for the sake of men, that they may be able mutually to help one another; in this direction we ought to follow Nature as our guide, to contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness, by giving and receiving, and thus by our skill, our industry, and our talents to cement human society more closely together, man to man.”

Cicero understands that such generosity, which is an imperative of our common humanity, is not boundless. “But, since the resources of individuals are limited and the number of the needy is infinite, this spirit of universal liberality must be regulated according to the test of Ennius—‘No less shines his’—in order that we may continue to have the means of being generous to our friends.” Moreover, “The man in an administrative office, however, must make it his first care that everyone shall have what belongs to him and that private citizens suffer no invasion of their property right by act of the state…For the chief purpose in the establishment of constitutional state and municipal governments was that individual property rights must be secured.”

John Locke was, like Cicero, revered by the Founding Fathers and the generation that agitated for and fought the Revolutionary War. His thinking is more rooted in natural right and state-of-nature theory than that of the ancient and medieval philosophers discussed above. His Two Treatises on Government (1689) contains the core statement of his views on the matter of property.

God, who hath given the World to Men in common, hath also given them
Reason to make use of it to the best advantage of Life, and convenience.
The Earth, and all that is therein, is given to Men for the Support and Com-
fort of their being. And through all the Fruits it naturally produces, and Beasts
it feeds, belong to Mankind in common, as they are produced by the sponta-
neous hand of Nature; and nobody has originally a private Dominion, exclu-
sive of the rest of Mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural
state; yet being given for the use of Men, there must of necessity be a means
to appropriate them some way or other before they can be of any use, or at all
beneficial to any particular Man.


Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and
left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joined to it something that is his
own, and thereby makes it his Property. It being by him removed from the com-
mon state Nature placed it in, it hath by his labour something annexed to it, that
excludes the common right of other Men. For this Labour being the unquestion-
able Property of the Labourer, no Man but he can have a right to what that is
once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for
others” [emphasis added] (Laslett 1988).

Locke reveals that he is, understandably, a man of his times in that he dismisses concerns about over-exploitation of resources more readily than moderns might. “And this considering the plenty of natural Provisions there was a long time in the World, and the few spenders, and to how small a part of that provision the industry of one Man could extend itself, and ingross it to the prejudice of others; especially keeping within the bounds, set by reason of what might serve for his use; there could be then little room for Quarrels or Contentions about Property so establish’d.”

Locke does alter course somewhat from the ancients such as Cicero. He focuses more narrowly on the concept of individual labor as the principle of ownership. Cicero et al. take into account the community, tribe, and law in addition to long occupancy, conquest and the like. Law and community agreement are coordinate with the individual-historically and in principle. Locke puts the individual first with his labor.

Reviewing the writings and teaching of philosophers and theologians through the centuries, and setting aside those still surviving outposts of socialist and communist ideology, the mainstream of the Western Tradition recognizes both that all of humanity has a claim on the resources of this earth and that individuals, families, and corporations for that matter have a natural right to private property and the fruits of their labor. A witty person might conclude that consistency does not appear to be a hobgoblin for great minds and that holding two diametrically opposed ideas is, indeed, a sign of genius.

Reconciling the common and private interests does require sustained rational thought and constructive private or political, i.e., governmental, action. The challenge for proponents of free market environmentalism is to define or evolve property rights in environmental and ecological amenities in such a way as to minimize over-exploitation of resources, internalize externalities, minimize governmental intervention in the private sector, enhance liberty, and provide incentives for improvement and restoration of ecosystems. In the process such solutions can also save money, reduce bureaucracy, and improve the quality of life for all.

The single most compelling argument for maintaining property rights as a bulwark against both encroachments on personal liberty and despoliation of the environment is the dark legacy of the Soviet Union which left in its wake maybe the world’s most polluted landscapes. We await the final verdict on China. In Soviet-era Russia, the state owned everything and, driven by Marxist ideology, overrode any restraints on economic development at the expense of human health and ecology.

It is useful to recall the words of the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, in an October 1988 speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, said, “No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy-with full repairing lease” (Harris 1997). Her legal metaphor for our environmental responsibilities captured, nicely, the balance which Aristotle, Cicero, and the Scholastics expressed earlier in the general context of private property.

“There is something deeper in us, an innate sense of belonging, of sharing life in a world that we have not fully understood,” said Lady Thatcher on another occasion. Mentioning the pictures of barren planets sent back by Voyager 2, she expresses awe at the “solemn reminder that our planet has the unique privilege of life…The more we master our environment, the more we must learn to serve it.” Yet she also maintained that capitalism is “a friend and guardian” of the environment. She believed that “[a]s more people own property, so more people have an incentive to protect it from pollution.”

Discerning and establishing the respective rights, prerogatives, and responsibilities of the common and private spheres demands prudence, an essential virtue, necessary to effectuate appropriate governance and optimize human freedom and prosperity. The aim is to harmonize environmental and ecological values and the rights of property.

Happy New Year.

(I want to thank Matthew T. Mehan, doctoral candidate at the University of Dallas, for his assistance on this posting. Also, Matt, Lynn Scarlett and Brent Haglund, the former now with The Nature Conservancy, the latter with the Sand County Foundation, were generous with their comments and criticisms of a longer paper which I prepared with the support of PERC www.perc.org and from which this and the previous posting were derived. My thanks to PERC, Lynn, Brent, and, again, Matt for their assistance.)