[This is the final part of the four-part guest-post by Eerik Wissenz.]
As the foregoing discussion has demonstrated, the concept of the tragedy of the commons, taken together with its “killer app” in rationalizing privatization of the commons, is riddled with self-contradiction, for in order for the rights of private ownership to be exisercized, there must be a commons in which to exercise them, and in order for the right of private ownership to exist, there must be a commons to safeguard it. And so it all circles around to there having to be a commons, to which private property is but an optional add-on, and the only question that remains is, Who controls the commons? Is it a despot, a financial oligarchy, or “we the people?”
Therefore, instead of dealing with figments of the imagination (privatize the heavens!) and who feels entitled to own what, let's deal in practical reality. The idea of “ownership,” as we saw above, is intrinsically a social construct. The man in the forest who picks up a stick cannot discover, by analyzing its physical properties, who may already own it, or the entire forest surrounding it. A human owner might mark his territory with “No trespassing” signs, while a wolf might mark the perimeter with urine; these are social conventions used to mark territory by (certain) humans and wolves, respectively but not interchangeably. And so private ownership is not a property of things, as we might be led to believe, but rather a property of social systems. The only natural property of ownership is control, and if a society is able to enforce any social construct of property it is because that society ultimately controls the physical objects in question, and thus happens to be its ultimate owner, with respect to this natural definition. So, the only relevant practical question is what should society do with its property (which some might erroneously think to be theirs).
Of course, this depends on a great many things. What is the object in question? Does the idea of private enclosure and limited control (insofar as society enforces it) even make sense? (It makes no sense to claim to “own” space-time, the Earth's mantle, tectonic plates, the atmosphere, genes, components of globally integrated biological systems such as plankton and krill, bullets in flight, etc.) If something is not divided up for private limited control, under what conditions can that thing be accessed by the general public? If it happens to make sense to delegate limited control to private persons, what conditions must they respect to retain that limited control (e.g., you can own bullets, perhaps, but you can't shoot people without a really, really good reason).
When you follow this thought process through to its logical conclusion, you arrive at the concept of a social democracy in control of a regulated economy: people vote on things in the interests of society, and regulations are placed on how things are used and controlled. Neoliberal brainwash to the contrary, this isn't anti-business: people can have businesses in such an economy, and acquire and transform material and information, because they are left to their own devices whenever it is in society's interest to do so. A business that produces shoes is allowed in most societies, and abides by a host of regulations even in a self-declared “free” market system. A business that kills people on behalf of private interests is not allowed in most societies.
Competition may be allowed, and may even lead to great improvements in price and quality of the products being offered. It is something that free-market proponents like to cite as a property of the free market, but competition tends to occur only when the common civil law is taken for granted. Without there being regulations to stop him, a businessman could choose, instead of competing fairly, to shoot or poison his competitor rather than attempt to make improvements. A business could simply burn down the offices and warehouses of its competitors rather than make a better product. And so positive competition that benefits society as a whole is almost always found within some cooperative framework that dissuades people from engaging in negative forms of competition that benefit certain individuals while harming society as a whole.
Now, a US-styled “libertarian” might say that such unfair competitive practices would amount to trespassing against another's property, and are therefore morally repugnant. However, the concept of self-interest entails no such tender-hearted need to accept this essentially moral sentiment and to impose voluntary limits on oneself—ones that contradict the very concept of self-interest. But we happen to have inherited a legal system which allows us to ignore this issue and assume that people are competing “nicely” with each other out of the goodness of their hearts. What this system in fact does is displace the problem (some of the time) from one of exercising physical violence to one of gaining control of the legal system, and of using it to impose one's desire and sense of ownership on others. If everyone merely followed their self interest, then everyone would battle for control, and no-one would engage in any collective action to craft, maintain and uphold laws for the public good (unless it happened to be part of some subtle plan to gain control of the bureaucracy). Though each person may reference some utilitarian notion of private property, all that matters to each person is gaining control of the bureaucracy, and using it to exercise as much control over things and people as possible. That is, the ultimate goal of each is to reduce all others to slavery. Unsurprisingly, most arguments in favour of moving in this direction are analogues to the what-is-good-for-the-slave-is-good-for-the-master fallacy.
Today, the notion of slavery is globally condemned and arguments in its favour are viewed as absurd. Yet centuries ago slavery existed, the right to own slaves was safeguarded by the general power of societies, and plenty of arguments existed for supporting this arrangement. Those born into slave-owning societies, even the slaves themselves, were either genuinely convinced or confused about the matter, and could not imagine that the crazy people protesting the status quo could possibly be right, or could change it even if they were. Such a failure of imagination seems absurd to us now. Yet here, with regard to private property, the issue is essentially the same, except for the property in question. Is not whether a man can own another man's life as their property and dispose with it as they wish regardless of the consequences, as a simple right that society enforces on his behalf. Rather, it is whether a man can own or exercise control over a piece of life as a whole and dispose of it as he wishes, regardless of the consequences, as a simple right that society enforces on his behalf.
Throughout most of the world, society eventually decided that a the life of a man, a women or a child's has intrinsic value, and banned the exercise of what some people felt was their God-given right to claim other humans as private property. The first step was in placing limits on what a slave-owner could do with his slave; he couldn't just kill his slave for no good reason and get away with it. Yet if human life has intrinsic value, so must life in general, for the simple reason that a part of something cannot be more valuable than the whole that contains that part. Human well-being is inextricably linked with the well-being of a myriad other organisms in ways we will never fully understand. Some societies are coming around to the realization that life does indeed have intrinsic value, and that society should stop enforcing the wishes of private individuals if these wishes are to (intentionally or unintentionally) harm life as a whole, and, furthermore, that society should do so in willful disregard of these individuals' feelings of ownership or other quaint sentiments. Other societies—the ones which, unsurprisingly, have striven for and gained the most control over global bureaucratic systems— either remain convinced that this is all nonsense, or are genuinely confused on the matter.
My message to those who are still confused is this. Remember the slaves, and ask yourselves: “knowing what you know now, what would you have done and thought in a society that did not value human life as long as it was owned by someone? Would you have sided with the slave-owners, or would you have fought to change the status quo, even at risk of considerable discomfort to yourself?” (For those few who would have sided with the slave-owners, there is just one final follow-up question: “What kind of asshole do you think you are?”)
Private ownership of people does not exist in any moral realm, and private property of life in general (of which people are a small part) does not exist in any moral realm either. Rather, we must act in the interest of life, striving to regulate access to all that nature provides, because we depend on it, and because we want it to flourish and abide, and our children to flourish and abide with it. In the end, either the entire planet will become a single, regulated commons, or we shall all perish.