The Chinese Lead Us, However Imperfectly, to Private Oceans

The Chinese Lead Us, However Imperfectly, to Private Oceans
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The Chinese government is now claiming large swatches of the South China Sea. It is doing so based on two aspects of Western traditional law. One is entirely valid, the other, not at all. We ask, is this a move in the direction of liberty (the private ownership of bodies of water) or not?

What is the legitimate means utilized by this nation? It is homesteading, based on the theories of John Locke. Here, one “mixes his labor” with virgin territory, and thereby becomes its legitimate owner. (We abstract from the objection that this only applies to innocent individuals, not to illicit governments, at least according to a pure version of libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism).

Which virgin terrain? Sandbars that are above sea level at low tide, and below it at high tide. The Chinese pile dirt, rocks and mud upon these bits of terra semi-firma, and convert them into permanent islands, strong enough to support airport runways, and large buildings. Needless to say, they remain above high water levels, permanently. So far, so good. These people have succeeded in creating new lands, of which they are the rightful owners. John Locke is smiling down upon these creators of new wealth based upon his principles, from somewhere on high.

What is the second, invalid premise, on the basis of which the Chinese claim ownership of a part of the Pacific Ocean? It is the time-honored principle that a nation’s sovereignty extends out from its borders, into the sea, as far as it can shoot a cannon ball. Even when this distance was one mile or less, it was difficult to reconcile this practice with libertarian Lockean homesteading theory. After all, artillery shots hardly constitute “mixing labor” with a claim. Fishing, boating, swimming, shipping, are far better justification for ownership. But when cannons can shoot far greater distances, to say nothing of ICBMs, there is less and less Lockean justification for rights over territory.

Nevertheless, the practice of twelve mile claims from the shore was duly established, and the Chinese are happy to go along with this Western practice. There are so many of these newly created islands of theirs that they on this basis they assert title over pretty much the entire South China Sea.

There are two problems with this state of affairs. One, they have not at all abided by Lockean homesteading theory. Thus, they have no valid prerogative, at least not emanating from this source, to this bit of sea.

Further, there are some half dozen or more nations also bordering this oceanic area who do. This is not based upon Chinese island building, but rather on shipping, boating, fishing, etc., which they have all done from time immemorial, including those hailing from the People’s Republic.  According to libertarian theory, all of them, of course including the Chinese, have an ownership right to the disputed ocean territory.

The Chinese, alone, of course, are the legitimate title holders to these new islands. And, they are to be congratulated for this initiative of theirs. They were the only ones to snatch these new lands from the sea -- while leaving plenty of room for the shipping, whaling, of other traditional users. But as far as this part of the ocean itself is concerned, their claim is no better, nor any worse, than that of their numerous neighbors.

On the other hand, the world’s peoples may well owe a great debt to these island builders. For they are perhaps moving us all in the direction of ocean ownership, something hitherto rarely even thought about.

Why is this to be welcomed? For two reasons. First of all, whenever any resources are unowned, whether water or land, mankind suffers from the tragedy of the commons. This accounts for disappearing fish stocks, vast square miles full of plastics and Styrofoam, the fear of whale extinction. There is no question that we will ever run out of cows or chickens, since they are privately owned. Anyone who dumps harmful garbage into the chicken coop or onto the pasture will soon enough come under the baleful eye of the sheriff. But it is an entirely different matter on the oceans.

Under the old non-lamented system of Communism in the USSR, government collectivized farms accounted for 97% of the land, and 75% of the crops. The privately held front and back yards of the peasants comprised 3% of the acreage, but a full 25% of the produce. An even more stark situation now pertains. Water covers 75% of the earth’s surface and produces an estimated 1% of world GDP. Land? The numbers are 25% and 99%, respectively. (This is a bit unfair, since most people live on the land, but, all’s fair in love, war, and promoting liberty!)

Happily, we have achieved the advanced stage of farming on the land. But we are still hunting and gathering on the seas, like the cave-man of yore. If we are to avail ourselves of the bounty of the ocean as we have for land, we do well to privatize the former, as we have done for the latter.

The Chinese are leading us, however imperfectly, in this direction, even though they do not respect the niceties of homesteading.

Where to go from here? First, banish the Chinese state, and all other governments from the process, and turn it over to private businessmen. Second, include not only Chinese entrepreneurs, but also those from these other nations.

Walter E. Block, Ph.D is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University, New Orleans. 

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