If this starts to cause cognitive dissonance in the mind of the loyal neoliberal bureaucrat, then a fallback position can be invoked: private property is a natural want and right. Even if there weren't infinite resources, people would still own things and do what they like with them, even unto their complete destruction, because it's only human to want to do that.
Take the typical example of a man who, walking in the forest, picks up a stick and fashions a walking cane. It's only natural that he would want to keep the fruit of his labour and not want anyone to take his stick away. Except, of course, if the forest happens to be private property, in which case the man is a thief and the owner of the forest is justified in wanting to keep his sticks and arresting or shooting the man for trespassing and theft.
If, on the other hand, we assume that the forest isn't already in private hands (albeit this is an abomination in the neoliberal world view) we have a problem. At the heart of ownership is control: if you don't control something, you can't be said to own it. The only manifestation of control is affecting the object of ownership in the desired way. If you control something but never affect it, how do you manifest your control over it? So property means control and control means doing things with the property. The more things you can do with an object, the more you can be said to control it and thus own it. Control and ownership are thus different manifestations of the same phenomenon.
Control implies action, and the only way objects act (that we can observe) is by affecting other objects. If we grant ownership of the stick to the man who picked it up and whittled it into a walking cane, but haven't granted him any other ownership rights, then, by doing anything at all with his stick, he would be trespassing. The only way he could exercise control over his stick, and thus manifest his ownership of it, is if there were some commons in which he could swing it.
Without access to common air to swing his stick and common ground on which to stand while doing so, the man has not the slightest use for his stick, and his ownership of it is meaningless. This is the first fundamental way in which the concept of private property presupposes the existence of a commons: for private property to begin there must be some commons in which to take and use it.
Now, let's fast-forward to a neoliberal nirvana in which everything is already privately owned. The world has been divided up and various private holdings own all land, air and even the earth's crust and inner core. Gravity is available… for a fee. Even the space-time continuum is itself fully privatized and the gravity-owners rent space-time which their gravity can occupy. Of course, the intellectual domain is fully privatized as well, and using words such as “space-time,” “gravity” and “the” is only possible by paying licensing fees to the intellectual rights-holders (the Definite Article Owner's Association is particularly strict, and every time anyone utters the word “the” a micropayment is debited from their account.) So now the problem of requiring a commons to exercise one's property no longer exists because the entire universe is privately owned: either you own stuff and rent it to those who need it (and in turn rent what you need) or you are dead and no-one cares about your client potential anymore.
A very complex bureaucracy is required to keep track of who owns and uses what and to enforce property rights, as each private holding exercises little physical control of what they imagine their property to be and require the services of society in order to exercise their legal control over it. For, if property is control, as soon as a private holding grows beyond the practical ability of the owners to maintain physical control over it, the power of society as a whole must be brought to bear to maintain control. In other words, some common legal system, plus a law enforcement system that can enforce legal rulings, is required to maintain what private holdings want to do with their property. And that legal system can't be privatized, but has to remain a commons, because, should it ever fall into private hands, what is to keep these private hands from grasping at the property of others? As soon as we imagine everything to be privately owned, we immediately require the commons again to enforce that ownership, because otherwise the manifestations of private ownership instantly degenerate into the rantings of insane men waving about worthless pieces of paper. Without physical or legal control, most private possessions instantly revert to a commons, as the people, naturally being selfish little buggers, take whatever they can unless something is in place to dissuade them.
The third way in which private property depends on the commons is that private property is regulated. All societies place limits to what can be done with private property. No society as yet has accepted a murderer's defense of “they are my bullets and therefore I can shoot them however I like.” The neoliberal will instantly say that shooting where one likes is not justifiable as it impinges upon the private property of others, in this case a person's body.
Now, as we have already established, using a thing implies affecting other things, and those things in turn affect still others things, and when we examine the basic physical systems at play, we are quickly forced to concede all things, in principle, can affect pretty much all other things. So, if we accept the principle that one can “do what one likes with one's property... unless it harms other people's property,” we find that the neoliberal position is simply an arbitrary line drawn in the sands of imagination of where analysis of cause and effect are ordered to stop by some invisible arbiter of right and wrong.
The concept I am getting at is quite well-known. It is called “externalities” (indeed, it is even referenced in the original “tragedy of the commons” article as the negative-commons, which is our common garbage can of the sea, air and land). The neoliberal position is simply that externalities should be allowed to exist when giant corporations feel it is good for them. But it is a one-way street: corporations can dump pollution into our common atmosphere, but I may not externalize my trash on the corporation's land, as that would be trespassing, nor may I externalize my fossil fuel-burning to the corporate headquarters, as that would be arson. If there were some give-and-take, corporations might take a different view, as anyone dissatisfied with their externalities can go and dump their trash on their land and inject smoke into their boardrooms. But the atmosphere a commons, and thus freely accessible, while their land and offices are private property and so should be protected—by society from society. Were the atmosphere privatized, the corporation could rent the ability to dump waste in it from the owners, settling this whole debate.
There is a much deeper cognitive dissonance at play here: society should do nothing to protect what is explicitly still its property, even when this runs counter to society's own interests, while simultaneously doing everything to protect private property… again even when this is against society's interests. This argument is founded on the rather shaky idea that common citizens should feel nothing of the primal sense of ownership towards things they hold in common, whereas they should empathize fully with someone who claims private ownership, and do everything to protect this imagining, even against their own interests. But if the owners of private property were ever asked why they shouldn't in turn act in the interests of the common people propping up their control over their property, they would no doubt argue that this is clearly absurd as one should always act in one's own interest.
We've had enough contradictions for one day. Next week, we will ask what a more reasonable position might be.