Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Who Owns This World?

A while back a politician said this:
"We can't drive our SUVs and, you know, eat as much as we want and keep our homes on, you know, 72 degrees at all times, whether we're living in the desert or we're living in the tundra, and then just expect every other country is going to say OK, you know, you guys go ahead keep on using 25 percent of the world's energy, even though you only account for 3 percent of the population..."
This reminds me of the environmentalists of my youth. Back then the line was that the US had 6 percent of the world's population and we consumed a third of the world's resources. This pattern of rhetoric has an unstated premise that the world should be divided into equal parts and distributed in equal shares to each person in the world today.

This sounds reasonable until you think about it. Who owns this world? If you think this planet is owned by its 6.7 billion inhabitants in equal shares, then how is this ownership reallocated when the population of the world increases? For instance, if I were to kill my fellow-man, my shares increase. Or if I have a dozen kids, my family will have an inordinately larger share.

The people who think this way generally think having a dozen kids is a bad idea. Same goes for killing one's fellow-man.

Property and ownership doesn't work this way in a capitalist society. I happen to own the house I'm typing this from and the land it sits on. None of the world's 6.7 billion people have helped me pay the taxes, improve the property, or maintain it. If someone gets hurt on my property, none of those 6.7 billion people will accept legal liability.

There is only way to consistently understand "using 25 percent of the world's energy, even though you only account for 3 percent of the population" in 2008, and say "The U.S. has 6 percent of the world's population but consumes a third of the world's resources" in the 1970s, is to have a continuous redistribution of wealth with the ebb and flow of demographics.

This notion of property is a form of collectivism. The criteria isn't necessarily Marxist because we're not talking about a Robin Hood redistribution from rich to poor, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," but it is redistribution nonetheless.

This rhetoric has been part and parcel of the environmentalist movement for my entire life. I'm not in favor of polluted air or water, but I believe in private property. When someone owns something they take care of it. When nobody really owns something, they don't.

There's more to this world than consumption. There's production and wealth creation. People work with varying degrees of effectiveness. With capital equipment and technology, one can increase one's productivity by orders of magnitude. One of those 6.7 billion people scratching at dirt with a stick will produce much less grain than a farmer with a tractor and hybrid seeds. Few environmentalists bother to point out that Americans produce a disproportionate amount of the world's wealth.

This collectivist notion of property does not correspond to economic reality. Governments throughout the 20th century demonstrated that they could repeal the laws of economics. However that does not mean politicians can't promise this to attract voters.

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