Ownership of Water Resources and Air
Copyright © 2005, David A. Epstein.
All Rights Reserved.

September 5, 2005

One of nature's great achievements, assuming it can be viewed this way, was the creation of vast bodies of water. Think about it. The oceans, the great lakes and seas, cascading waterfalls, flowing rivers; not to mention the frozen bodies of water like glaciers, ice caps, and so forth, are wonderful even on their worst days! They are the lifeline of marine life, provide us with means of transportation between land masses, a medium for leisurely and recreational activities.

With respect to ownership of these resources, there is no question that if placed in the wrong hands, these natural wonders will end up becoming unnatural disasters. Private ownership of water resources could lead to its depletion and degradation. Furthermore, these owners could discriminate against anyone for whatever reason they deemed justified. For example, they could prohibit people belonging to certain races, ethnicities or religions, or charge them exorbitant prices to pass through their waterways. And since these water resources are generally very large, there are usually no alternatives for these people to consider; free market competition doesn't readily apply in this domain.

Nevertheless, I think a reasonable argument can be made in favor of privatizing water resources. It certainly won't happen overnight, or even within our lifetimes; but there are some intriguing possibilities which I think we should investigate.

* Private ownership of bodies of water is a futuristic fantasy. Ownership of water resources is different than ownership of land because water is a flow reality. A body of water would either have to be completely owned by one owner or it would be subdivided among multiple owners. If the latter, then these parcels of water would have to be contained with artificial barriers such that the water of one owner doesn’t intrude upon another’s property. I just can't image our oceans, lakes, or rivers parceled into water lots (gee, that would look lovely!). Unless the parcel-division technology miraculously improves in the foreseeable future, single ownership of large bodies of water appears to be more feasible and reasonable.


But how would that work for international bodies of water? Who would an individual buy an ocean from? The United Nations? God? Yet as problematic as this issue is, it pales in comparison with determining whether it’s justifiable to sell the entire body of water to one owner, or parcel it out to many different owners.


The main possibility is the auctioning off government owned coastal waters, and such ownership is backed by the ratification of international treaties, like the Treaty of the Sea. Sorry, there has been no homesteading of the waters except by the government-backed oil and refinery companies. The other possibility is nationally owned lakes and rivers. I guess these could be auctioned to the highest bidder. Of course the government could dictate whatever criteria it wished to apply: from determining an unknown "fair market value", to deciding who would participate or exclude in the bidding process. In the end, auctioning off water (or government owned land for that matter) would have the same result as bidding for government contracts: the government will sell to whomever it wants, and hence it would be a restricted venue. It will be anything but a free-market transaction.


I would recommend checking out The Millenial Project by Marshall Savage. It's a brilliant "out there" futuristic look of what life might look like in colonized oceans and outer space. I too find some promise of this futuristic endeavor, and I certainly would support private ownership if such "colonization" occurred. But it has no relevance to current realities.


* Another problem with ownership of water bodies: an owner could either own the surface area of the water, or the entire volume. If the former, then the fish could freely swim beneath people's water property. If the latter, then to delineate the property perimeter, the owner would have to build structural barriers completely to the bottom of the body of water; or erect barriers separating underwater communities that existing in vertical lots (i.e. one community above another, separated by a horizontal barrier). Otherwise, any intruding fish or human would not know if they are violating someone else's water space. Well, of course it would be virtually impossible for ships to freely navigate in these bodies of water, bumping into these barriers, not to mention the nautical tollbooths!


* If an owner’s body of water inflicts damage upon someone else’s property, but the damage was caused by an act of nature, is the owner responsible for paying damages? If so, then in the case of Katrina, the owner(s) of the Gulf of Mexico would have had to pay the victims of this disaster. Would the owners have been responsible for building the levees? Would they have had to purchase flood insurance, and would any single policy have had enough coverage to pay the bill?


* We could also speak of ownership of air while we're at it, or extending current land ownership criteria to include the vertical space above it. But how far above the land would such space/air ownership extend? Who would enforce it? And what happens when someone's air space blows into another person's property? What about satellites that violate private air space? Assuming that there could be a justifiable Lockean "mixing one's labor with the space or air", and also assuming that the property owner would build vertical barriers (or project laser beams to indicate property lines!), I suppose the property owner could justifiably shoot down the satellite with a missile. ; )


Actually, this has current realities with respect to pollution, but I never hear of libertarians speaking about how pollution causes property damage (i.e. to both people and their homes). For example, could a property owner seek an injunction against a factory whose pollution intrudes on his property? From a propertarian perspective, absolutely. If the pollution causes material and personal damage (from property devaluation to health problems), then the property owner would have a greater claim and grievance against them. Furthermore, if the factory fails to stop such an intrusion, it can justifiably be shut down. By the way, I wrote a paper on this topic in Tibor Machan's "Business Ethics" class at U.C.S.B. many years ago.