Chapter 1 - Stuff and What You Do With the Stuff

The social mechanics inducing political control of property

The Tragedy of the Commons, by Garret Hardin, was published as a pivotal article in the prestigious journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1968. In it, Mr. Hardin argued that increasing global population was converting the entire earth and its supporting ecosystems into a form of "commons," a body of resources that, because they can not be privately owned, end up being destructively over- exploited. He argued that, in the interest of preserving a future for the human race, human procreation itself must be restricted, and access to natural resources heavily regulated. Excerpts are as follows:

"We can make little progress in working toward optimum population size until we explicitly exorcise the spirit of Adam Smith in the field of practical demography... he contributed to a dominant tendency of thought that has ever since interfered with positive action based on rational analysis, namely, the tendency to assume that decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire society... If the assumption is not correct, we need to reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible."

"But the air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means..."

"Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now, but it need not forever be so. As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment. To many, the word coercion implies arbitrary decisions of distant and irresponsible bureaucrats; but this is not a necessary part of its meaning. The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected."

"The problem for the years ahead is to work out an acceptable theory of weighting. Synergistic effects, nonlinear variation, and difficulties in discounting the future make the intellectual problem difficult, but not (in principle) insoluble."

"It seems to me that... those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more. ... We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust -- but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin."

The pathology is evident in this archetypal and hugely popular piece. One might politely call it the "elitist's paradox." Hardin's assumptions are that:

  1. Individuals will not act in the collective interest. They are incapable of altruism.
  2. The public will be forced by its failures to cede their individual freedoms ("rights," Mr. Hardin) to really smart and altruistic people, like him.

The intellectual elite will conduct the "rational analysis" and then design control systems to "coerce" everybody else into altruistic behavior? Where is the "Trust me, Me, ME!" part in that old story? Given the historical record, who "mutually agrees" to being coerced by government? Since when did acquiescence to the police power of the State constitute mutual agreement? Can the State act in objective disinterest when tempted with the power to control the factors of all economic production? Is a State monopoly inherently competent to manage the environment?

Hardin acknowledged private property as, although imperfect, the best system for environmental protection. He wished that success in ownership was determined in part by Darwinian competition in stewardship, but acknowledged that there were no objective criteria upon which to base such a market. The alternative of allowing government to control the factors of production is a process that inevitably leads to bureaucratic tyranny and environmental harm, as he acknowledged elsewhere in the essay citing the degradation of the National Parks.

Like many critics before him, Mr. Hardin was better at recognizing a problem than constructing a prescription. He tacitly defaulted to regulatory control until "an acceptable theory of weighting" could be derived. Unfortunately, the economic distortions and political and bureaucratic fiefdoms of regulatory control preclude development of such an objective system.

How much capital is wasted operating centralized planning systems that should be invested in the land? Is government bureaucracy the only tool to manage the environment? How would an alternative be implemented?

This book proposes answers to those questions, but first we must begin with an analysis of the assumptions that have locked us into our current dilemma.

It is commonly understood that civic management of the economy doesn't work. Meanwhile, the public believes in political protection of the environment, which ends up equivalent to the same thing. The unconscious barriers to realizing the alternatives are a direct result of all that "saying it over and over." It is a faith, born out of practical habit, which is badly placed.

Properties of the Commons

People abuse resources for which they don't have to pay. Public claims on private land-uses transform those assets into socialized commons, because they are acquired at no apparent cost.

Humans are born with a sense of personal space. It is a deeply rooted property, a natural property of being human. Humans compete for individual advantage among ourselves as well as among other species. Were it not for our intelligence and our propensity to socialize, we would not be inherently competitive animals. In order for humans to be competitive as a species, individual competition must operate according to natural law; thus, social contracts must reflect the governing principles of human behavior.

Living beings compete for control of goods that have relative degrees of scarcity. Whether it is space for roots among competing plants, hunting range, or food stored for a winter's meal, control of goods matters to all living beings as the means by which to compete and survive.

Goods of which humans retain control are defined as property. Humans survive by the use of property, whether it is one's body, food, shelter, tools, weapons, or various resources by which to attract a superior mate or rear offspring. Goods cannot be used or exchanged unless possessed as property, whether physically or by social contract. To control the use of property therefore, is functionally equivalent to ownership.

Humans combine constituent goods to form useful composites. Not all goods are uniformly distributed or available for use. Humans exchange control of goods in order to complete composite uses to the competitive advantage of both transactors. Individual respect for tradable rights requires enforcement of a social compact against competing interests.

Mobility or continuity in a resource complicates the definition of ownership. Unlike fixed property, retaining control of mobile or continuous goods (such as air or water) can only be effected via physical containment. Humans combine such factors with other chemicals, with which the biochemical processes of the human body produce tissues and perform work. The only time the air or water is actually controlled is when they were contained within the body.

Are they really contained in the body? Humans can't store the value of air or water any more than they can stop breathing or prevent sweat from evaporating. Humans must constantly exchange air and water with the surroundings to stay alive. How is it, then, that the air or water is "owned" when it is only, in fact, controlled? Perhaps what is owned, is not the air or the water, but the operating series of biochemical processes that use air and water to perform work while they are contained within the body.

We can use this analogy of air and water contained in the body to consider ownership of those mobile and continuous goods contained on property. Just as the processes within the body combine mobile goods with other inputs to produce the body itself, the natural processes within property boundaries, transform inputs into the physical attributes of the property itself. Those processes that transform the state of mobile inputs into products for exchange are defined here as process assets.

Humans combine factor inputs with process assets to produce goods for economic exchange. The sum of process assets and factor inputs, called the factors of production, are either purchased (such as land, raw material, tools, intellectual property, or labor) or merely collected and used, not requiring a price of acquisition (air or rainwater). This book will refer to factor inputs that are collected without payment as zero-priced goods.

Zero-priced goods include:

  1. Goods sufficiently plentiful that a discrete pricing mechanism is too costly to consider.
  2. Goods sufficiently difficult to contain that a pricing mechanism is mechanically impossible.
  3. Goods without identified economic worth or use.
  4. Goods with positive and negative worth so closely balanced that their net market value does not justify a pricing mechanism.

Ownership of zero-priced goods is typically not defined or enforced by contract. Their economic value is considered equivalent to the cost of collection, containment, and preparation for use. That they are intrinsically valuable is not in dispute; a person certainly needs air to breathe, and a commercial fisherman needs an ocean but, in practice, we pay little to nothing for them. Few individuals attempt to own them because the cost of control exceeds the benefits of restricting use by private ownership. Among resource biologists and economists, environmentalists and politicians, these zero-priced goods have come to be known as commons.

Commons are a superset to zero-priced goods because they include resources that have economic value, but their prices are fixed at or near zero by social compact. Public access parks for example, though they are valuable, are used as if they were free because no price for use can be agreed upon among those with an equal claim and are therefore clearly commons.

The term "commons," then, will be reserved for those goods that, although they might have market value, are used as if the price of acquisition is zero.

Under conditions of decreasing supply or increasing demand, zero-priced goods can rise in scarcity to the point where individual claims are subject to competition. People then do work to define ownership as appropriate to their perception of unit value. A claimant will collect, unitize, measure, rent, mark, describe, and exchange property with increasing precision as its economic value increases. If a good does not have discrete physical boundaries, then the limits of ownership have to be defined in other ways, for example by the manner of containment or measurement. Once the boundaries to these claims are determined, ownership appertains to an economic person whether individual, partnership, corporate, or political. Goods then graduate from the status of commons to that of property. To establish the distinctions of ownership among competing persons, then requires definition of containment boundaries by contract.

When the amount of property under control exceeds physical containment limits, precise definition of property boundaries becomes more problematic, especially for a mobile or continuous good. Even physical boundaries on land are not static. River channels move, ridgelines are subject to erosion, roads are relocated, even continents drift. The claim to ownership of "fixed" property has thus often had much to do with the human perception of permanence within specific boundaries. In a very real sense, all goods are mobile. In response to that mobility, humanly delineated boundaries now reflect artificial lines more often than physical landmarks reflecting the competitive need for precision and the cost of measurement or dispute.

This issue of mobility becomes particularly troublesome with continuous goods that move rapidly. Whether they are air, water, oil and gas, schools of fish, or migratory animals, as long as they are not contained it is difficult to define the boundaries of ownership. Some mobile goods move from place to place instantly, such as the emotive benefit derived from light reflected off a form that someone finds pleasing.

The economic value of these seemingly ephemeral goods is real. People know it. They pay to look at reflected light or to listen to vibrating air for entertainment. They notice the loss when a customary use is withdrawn. They get angry when a dam engulfs "their" favorite rafting river. They resist the introduction of a shopping mall onto a childhood playground even if they no longer live in the area. In each of these cases, there is definite sense that one has lost something that one "owns" or upon which one has a claim whether or not they had ever paid for those goods.

These claims are not always fanciful. A person may have purchased property because of the speculative value of the use of mobile goods: the view, the quiet, air quality, or available groundwater. He or she has a definite sense of ownership of those mobile commons, if not defined by contract, then by habitual use. Whether or not these valued commons were in the price of purchase, they are so defended should that use be threatened or withdrawn because they are necessary factor inputs for their customary use of property.

Commons are factor inputs for the production of all economic goods. Their potential uses do not change unless a chemical or physical process alters their attributes. The potential uses of oxygen change when it bonds with hydrogen. The uses of water change when it evaporates, chemically dissociates, or inherits pollutants. The changes wrought by process assets upon factor inputs are the transformation products of those processes.

Author's Note:One rationally despises a term like "zero-priced good" or "transformation product." Unfortunately, the easily subvocalized (or, as my mother would say, "euphonious") terms such as "priceless resource" or "byproduct" are so loaded that they had to be rejected, regardless of the temptation to the impish punster. The necessary evil of such cumbersome verbiage will be restricted to the few theoretical discussions in the book.

The economic costs or benefits associated with transformation products, not accounted in the price of goods when exchanged, are economic externalities of the use of those processes. Claims against negative externalities in mobile commons focus upon those transformation products that limit the use of those goods after they exit property boundaries.

Another Author's Note:The notion of economic externality is an important economic concept in the rationale for environmental regulation. Assume the manufacture of a product produces pollutants that cross the plant boundary suspended in a mobile, zero-priced good, such as air or water. The cost of the pollution is not born by the producer of the good for sale, nor is it reflected in the purchase price to the consumer. The cost of the pollution is external to the buyer/seller transaction because it is borne by those affected by the pollution, who supposedly derive no benefit from production or sale of the product. Environmental regulations coerce the producer to incorporate the cost of pollution control into the product, thus supposedly forcing the consumer to evaluate its "true" price compared to other purchase options.

It is difficult for a single person to make a claim against a consequent loss of the use of commons when he or she can lay no claim of ownership. The complaints contend that those transformation products damage the use intended by those outside the property boundaries. Because the contested use is inside private boundaries, claimants against externalities enlist fellows to coerce surrender of control by the owner. The most powerful fellow available is government because it has a monopoly to enforce social contracts with police power. Unfortunately, any civic agent also has an individual competitive interest in controlling the use of property. This is the single reason that civic agency must never be able to express interest in controlling private property; else it accrues to itself control of all factors of production.

In a democracy, legislation regarding transformation products can effectively limit the use of private property to that of the majority preference. Assignment of that control by political or legal means is therefore to take private property in the interest of a democratic majority. Hence is the argument, that extension of a majority claim on the use of natural process assets transforms a natural resource into a democratized commons. Its use is restricted to the majority preference and little or no compensation is offered for legal restrictions preventing alternative economic uses.

To democratize a commons may seem like a good way to keep people from doing bad things. In the end however, it is a terribly destructive thing to do. It is to convince a democratic majority that taking public control of private property without just compensation is in the public interest.

The coercive means by which a majority exercises collective claims is the power to control social assets outside private boundaries. The owner must rely upon a social contract to use public assets in order to produce salable transformation products. Public roads transport supplies and goods for sale. Recognition of the value the owner's money and bank account is a social resource upon which the owner has a contractual claim. The police power of the state enforces contracts and maintains respect for private property, as is necessary for commerce. Collective action to control access to any such factor is a threat to the property owner's economic survival and the source of the coercive power of a democratic majority; in other words, democracy is in fact a collectivist system.

To democratize a commons is also destructive to the contested asset because the maximum number of people extend their claims at a minimum unit price. Claims then proliferate without limit because their cost is virtually zero. There is then no motive to maintain or improve the condition of the asset, or to invest in controlling the release of undesirable transformation products, because there is no prospect of a return on investment thereby. Private property is thus effectively destroyed because it has no economic use.

The legislative branch of our republic, therefore has Constitutionally limited power to effect direct claims upon the use of property. It is to these mechanics that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addressed uncompensated takings. For without a check on the exercise of democratic power to lay claims against private property, such claims proliferate until private property eventually ceases to exist.

Unfortunately, government has every power to enact laws regarding discharge of transformation products across property lines because the concept of property as ONLY consisting of a social contract for use of bounded processes is poorly understood. Once a civic agent has the power to control transformation products in commons, then that agent has full control of how property can be used.

Once an economic factor has been rendered into a democratized commons, claims against uses producing transformation products can then be effected through the courts. These claims can be brought by anyone and focus exclusively upon controlling negatively valued transformation products without consideration of the total integrated impact of the contested use. (Since when did anybody sue in order to pay for a positive externality?)

As concentrations of transformation products in process outputs approach zero, minute reductions in pollutants can greatly increase the cost of treatment. As the cost of compliance consumes a higher fraction of the sale price of the economic good, the return on the original use approaches zero. Once the return on assets goes negative, investment in improving technology to reduce production of negative externalities becomes negatively valued as well. Few would develop new control technology because few could pay for it. If there is no return on the use of the asset, that use of the property will be abandoned, as it has become a zero-priced good. Negative investment return destroys the market value of the use.

Both claimant and agent are thus motivated to focus upon those transformation products that are most difficult to control, because it is those properties that are most likely to convert the use of the asset to that which they prefer. The fight between landowners, regulators, and activists then degenerates into increasingly trivial arguments regarding specifications, measurements, and enforcement that have increasingly large financial consequences for the owner. Remedial measures thus structurally diverge from an objective assessment of the total impact upon environmental health because that was never the claimants' primary objective.

Rarely does either acquiring interest consider the possible unintended consequences of their actions, among other reasons because they have little experience in actual operations and no accountability for the consequences. The legal process is thus alienated from its purpose to establish justice, just as the regulatory process is directed away from ecological health. There is little civic accountability for maintaining a successful balance among competing interests, indeed, very likely the contrary is true. Problems are sources of civic claims by which to control the entire economy, a motivational structure antithetical to the very purpose of regulation.

As claims proliferate, the legislatures and courts are overwhelmed with cases that are technical and difficult to prove. They rely upon opinions from supposedly disinterested experts regarding the impacts of transformation products. Neither legislators or courts have the power to enforce a judgement; that power lies exclusively with the executive branch of government. The demand for expediency seduces legislatures and the courts to default upon their Constitutional responsibility, to the only civic agency with relevant expertise and police power. Control of use and, thus ownership of that use, is effectively transferred to the executive branch of government.

When taking land out of production profits the financial sponsors of a claim, it is cheaper to control the target use than to compensate the owner or buy the property. All it takes to manipulate a resource market by democratic means is to buy out the competition by manipulating majority perceptions about the risk of ecological harm associated with that target use. The few who can profit by taking competing resources out of production then have reason to sponsor the investment in political or legal action. They focus the first case against a weak target or obvious problem (which is why most such takings appear as local actions).

Established precedent then extends the applicability of cited legislation and lowers the cost successive claims. Property owners gradually lose their ability to finance the cost of compliance or legal resistance. Absent a profitable use, the market value of the target use approaches zero. After repeated exercise of external controls, purchase of the residual asset value concludes any remaining claim by an owner.

When a rival owner produces a competing or substitute good, the financial advantages of such tacit property acquisitions can be enormous. For example, if a developer funded public concerns about the negatively valued transformation products of farming to render the use of farmland non-economic and ripe for development, the land becomes less expensive to purchase.

This politically-sponsored dissolution of the Separation of Powers Principle, combines all three branches of government into one, that can derive power and funding by manufacturing claims on the use of property. The more externalities are regulated, the more power accrues to the agency to control the use of the producing asset to turn its use to corrupt purpose. When agency control is sufficient to alienate the interest of the agent from the democratic majority, the asset has then degenerated into a socialized commons.

The claims by which a commons is socialized are ironically often the same precedents as were used to extend the original democratic claim; i.e., by extending claims against the transformation products of the democratic use of the resource. With the legal precedents in place that were used to take control of the factors of production on individual property, the civic agent now has the legal tools to take control of ALL related private property. Control of the use of land is now in the hands of an agency that is alienated from accountability to the public claim for healthy ecosystem function. The agency instead serves the limited interests of the politically dominant, who use the power of government to gain de facto control of ALL factors of production.

History teaches that this is not a good thing.

A socialized commons is an evil to the environment because the resource is under a controlling agent with no structural motive to prevent or eliminate ecological problems. Quite the contrary, civic management of the environment not only doesn't work, it has every reason not to work. As ecological problems worsen and resulting economic crises deepen, the power acceded to government agencies expands!

Commons are factor inputs to all economic goods. The power to socialize a commons by regulation is the power to transfer control of ALL factors of production to government.

That includes you. Let's take a break with an example.

From Ranch, to Ranchettes

Consider a ranch. What the rancher owns are the rights to use its assets within defined boundaries. The rancher selects means to employ them as factor inputs for process producing goods for exchange: in this case, beef and logs. Natural process assets (fungi, native grasses, mineral soils, a creek, and soil bacteria) are combined with purchased factor inputs (fertilizer, seed, trees, electricity, and diesel), to convert these inputs into forage and trees. The rancher combines labor, intellectual property, capital investments (breeding stock, fencing, or a dam), and zero-priced goods (sunlight, carbon dioxide, rain, oxygen, and nitrogen) to produce a range of economic transformation products (burgers on the hoof or logs on a truck). Those same processes also induce non-economic transformation products: a pastoral view of the ranch, riparian nitrates, rainwater runoff, carbon dioxide, flies, oxygen, and various unpleasant gases.

Most transformation products of ranching do not produce economic returns but do affect the use of commons by others. The rancher earns nothing for the view or brush control in the forest, and pays no penalty for horse flies or methane. These are economic externalities of ranching.

Suppose that the rancher sells some land to pay taxes. A developer buys it and converts the use to residential housing. The new residents might have paid a higher purchase price for their homes because of proximity to the ranch. They enjoy the light reflected off the ranch as a view. They consider access to the ranch for entertainment an entitlement of their purchase. They don't particularly complain about the quiet of the countryside or the other positive externalities of the ranch, nor consider that its economic viability maintains open space. They like to go hiking there.

The residents consider some transformation products of ranching deleterious to their residential use of commons. They extend claims only against what they consider negative externalities in order to enlist a civic agent to award control of the producing asset to them. They complain about the taste of the water in the creek and its suitability for swimming or fishing. They ask that the rancher stop burning brush so that they can have clean air. Fires scare them, and the rancher can't afford the risk posed to houses in a forest.

A civic agent inevitably recognizes that to enforce control of the ranch is equivalent to acquiring ownership. It's a nice job: getting paid to work outside in the forest, without having to buy the land. The focus of action on the part of both civic agent and claimants then becomes controlling the transformation products of ranching because they derive their preferred use thereby.

Control is exercised by regulation of those processes that acquiring interests believe to be the source of the negative transformation products: cows. They draft rules to be enforced by the civic agent who funds the technical experts that justify the rules. Acquiring interests have no accountability for accuracy or profitability in ranching. They have no motive to weigh the total impact of cows because the uncompensated benefits of cows have nothing to do with the interests of their grantors. The rancher loses the ability to compete with industrial feed-lots or perhaps foreign suppliers that have no need to meet the regulations. Cows become increasingly unprofitable. Meanwhile, property taxes keep rising because of the demand for the proximate housing.

Suppose our rancher has a stand of timber. The rancher announces a plan to harvest the forest. The residents claim that the rancher's harvest produces transformation products that degrade the economic value of their residential use of those commons that leave the rancher's land. The air could carry dust and the noise from chainsaws and helicopters. The light reflected off the property might carry a potential loss of "view-shed." There is seldom a dollar value to such claims; the residents just want the rancher to stop cutting trees.

The residents broaden and advertise the threat of harm to enlist democratic support from more numerous urban fellows. They demand protection of "priceless" forest resources, claiming that the harvest threatens urban uses of commons. The runoff after the harvest might carry sediment into a reservoir. Logging trucks may damage roads. A democratic majority can then demand that a civic agent exert coercive force over the rancher's use of socialized assets, such as an access road or permit. If they lack political or legal power, the residents might enlist an activist organization with sufficient resources and legal expertise to "force" a civic agent by lawsuit into asserting control over the rancher's property. Those who had financial interests in the use of the property would have every reason to make a tax-deductible donation to such an activist group, for instance, a developer.

A civic agent has the power to execute coercion through jurisdiction over public roads, operating licenses, or permits upon which the rancher relies for the conduct of timber operations. The civic agent can block access to the harvest, or place specifications on the transformation products of the harvest such that the control measures are expensive enough to render harvesting the forest unprofitable. An example of the latter would be a "zero discharge" specification for silt from timber harvesting. Although erosion is a necessary natural process, the smaller the amount of dirt allowed in the creek, the more expensive it becomes to verify compliance, until eventually the timber itself has degenerated into a commons.

The residents never once had to contest the property right of the rancher to cut the trees, but instead removed the profit in selling them. The trees are now worthless as timber, and their residual value is reduced to a specific set of uses: scenery, entertainment, and residential capital gain all accruing to the surrounding residents. The residents have thus converted the use of process assets that grow trees within the rancher's property lines from outside the property boundaries. Its only products are democratized commons, because its uses are constrained to the majority preference.

The rancher now has no economic motive to invest in the forest. It costs too much for too little return. The cows no longer browse the brush, he can't burn, and the fuels accumulate. With no trees to harvest, there is no reason to reduce the fuels mechanically. Meanwhile, taxes have kept rising because of the houses, traffic is making it very costly to make and take deliveries, and suppliers are going broke and leaving town. The cost of compliance is such that lumber from overseas is now more competitive. The rancher tries to cash out whatever is left of the land value to a developer who has sufficient clout to overcome the objections of the local residents. The sale is probably at a considerable discount to the total resource and residential value. Everybody loses, except the developer.

If the residents have sufficient political power, they can get the state to buy the property as a public park. The use still accrues to the democratic majority and benefits the property value of local residents. Since the urban population derives no direct benefit, they resist paying for the maintenance. The forest falls into a deeper state of neglect, recreational overuse, lack of maintenance, pest infestations, and eventual catastrophic fire that might take the residents with it. The civic managers then move to protect the forest from the public, thus accruing its use to themselves. Everybody else loses, especially a combusted forest, stripped of topsoil, overrun with weeds, and eroding fast.

As long as there is a problem with the forest or a nearby creek, the agent now has the power to control residential use by the same mechanics used to take it from the rancher. The agency declares fire protection too hazardous, or cites sediment from development to be a threat to the same creek and forest that the residents had democratically acquired from the rancher. Agency action will focus upon regulating negative transformation products of the residents citing the interests of the urban majority, mandating similarly expensive compliance measures and restrictions. There will be no accounting of the degradation due to civic management, indeed, the forest is now held hostage by the agent who can demand funding to protect it by any means, regardless how inefficient. An asset in distressed condition generates additional funding to solve the problems.

To socialize a commons thus transforms a productive ranch into an economic and environmental liability. Productive land that once provided food and fiber is now a socialized commons serving the interests of a managing agent with police power. That power can then be directed to control an increasingly dependent urban majority.

And Back Again

Hopefully the reason for all this arcane terminology is now a little clearer. The employment of a civic agent to regulate transformation products in commons establishes legal mechanics that can be used to control the democratic majority. This example clarifies how the use of political and legal coercion to manage the tragedy of the commons paves the road from a constitutional republic, to democracy, to socialism.

Collective claims upon private assets can be exercised against uses of only those processes that induce transformation products adverse to collective uses of commons. The person who purchased the land loses asset value with each newly defined claim. Claims can be effected simply by manipulating popular opinion, by reinterpreting even natural transformation products as negative externalities. One need only base claims upon subjective accusation of harm evidenced by normal dynamic changes in ecosystem attributes.

As the cost of acquisition drops to the cost of publicizing opinion, the size of acquisition required to provide the same perception of emotive benefit rises accordingly. The claims become ever larger. The greed for acquisitions is insatiable because they are acquired at minimal cost. As claims proliferate, asset value continues to decline in anticipation of additional claims. The land ends up being treated as if it is worthless because none of its assets can provide a predictable return upon investment.

The ambiguity, scope, and number of claims eventually meet declining availability of property to take. The claims eventually overlap. The process has no means to weigh competing claims but political. The battles become vicious because public participation in each particular interest has been acquired by attributing a survival motive. Political struggles over resources with survival value have historically led to... Do we have to be reminded?

People get frustrated when they don't get what they want, especially when they believe that their combined individual desires justify a collective claim upon the use of private property.

To enforce such a claim by political compulsion is to own without title or payment. It is a tragic outfall of history that those who popularized the exercise of a collective claim on the use of private property were motivated to acquire personal control by means of political dominance. To acquire dominance then requires no more investment than to persuade a critical mass of the population according to the fashion of the moment.

These fashions can grow without limit and can be combined into functional majorities. Once democratic acquisition of the use of property is codified under the power of government, commons are forever subject to political control. Economic goods that originate from the land become desired for the collective perception of individual benefit, because the cost is but a whim.

The asset, the environment, has been thus devalued to little more than that.

First, people want to control a view, then they want it as a place to hike, then add the water in the creek to protect the fish, a wetland for migratory birds, a whole watershed to control all erosion, or to add a buffer zone to reduce encounters with overpopulated bears. Then they want it to be closed to all public entry so that they don't feel guilty, then they want it connected to a corridor to transmit genetic variability, then they want a whole forest region as a carbon sink, then a mountain range as a bio-zone for the expression of spiritual life forces, then...

Given that the ability to gain personal control of commons is based upon the ability to make a political sale, there are several prerequisites:

There are those who have come to regard political claims on private property to be a structural evil: a distorted exercise in “ends” justification for personal gain disguised as altruism. Unfortunately, collectivizing the factors of production has historically destroyed their value and such losses can propagate rapidly. It is thus truly curious that the same people, who warn us that the cause of ecological problems is a lack of individual motive to care for commons, propose solutions that are in structural antipathy to maximizing the value of those assets. Why?

As long as democratic control of property is possible, those individuals capable of investing in the necessary political sale have motive to do so. It comes as no surprise, then, that the ownership systems the politically dominant propose have costs to be “collectivized” among the people and benefits controlled by an agency dedicated to their narrow interests.

Ecological issues are seldom simple. They vary considerably by location and over time. They often involve enormous costs (or benefits) to a few individuals and have public benefits that are difficult to measure. In the heat of political and legal battle, it is therefore unlikely that the decision process will adhere to the scientific method.

Does a sense of crisis lead to shortsighted decisions? Can such crises be smokescreens for the exercise of corrupt intent? If we adopt an ill-conceived plan, could such an exercise irreversibly damage the resource? Does socialization overtax the ability to generate the money to maintain the asset? Does obsession with crises lead to the unconscious realization of self-fulfilling prophecies? Could the repeated application of such mechanics lead to the unwitting vengeance of self-destruction? Is it possible that property rights, as a matter of natural law and as protected by the Fifth Amendment, are really that important?

What ends up forgotten in the political acquisition of “commons” is the need to maximize the economic value of those goods to the land. If the price for the control of resources is but the deflection of democratic whim, the wealth to support, defend, and nurture the land is minimized. You can plot it on a graph (as you will see in Part II). Under such a system, that frightened mob may well get the environmental crisis that they so greatly fear.

First, Do No Harm

An effective tactic to enlist a majority interest is to offer a common survival motive. The practice raises the perceived value of the acquisition and lowers its apparent cost. To avoid accountability for predictive accuracy, the pitch artist need only assert that there is a hidden possibility of harm that can be averted if preemptive measures are immediately adopted.

It is perhaps a consequence of having satisfied our most basic needs as a society that so many people have become absorbed by fear of loss. Environmentalists have taken advantage of this, denoting the foundation of that security, human economic activity, to be innately harmful. The public at large has been beaten senseless with this unfortunate premise, interpreting nearly every act for its risk potential without regard to possible benefits. We are ironically negating what we actually have to lose, or what we might inadvertently take with us.

People who derive an income by such a democratic process are tempted to inflate the enabling threat. It's easy to do. One can construe virtually anything as having harmful potential, and nearly any mitigating restriction as a necessary precaution. It is a means capable of controlling any property. As long as Fifth Amendment protections can be avoided, democratic acquisitions use potential harm as a valued currency for economic transactions.

A system that so artificially distorts its priorities is not likely to render an objective resolution among competing risks, particularly when there is so powerful an ulterior motive. The more such competing claims proliferate, the more strident are the expressions of concern, the greater becomes the subjectivity of justifications for speculative measures with an increasing likelihood of grossly destructive errors.

One such error is manifested in the Precautionary Principle. This policy starts as a reasonable suggestion: Any proposed action must be proven beneficial before it is adopted. It is analogous to the presumption of innocence in a criminal trial, that winds up as a destructive paradox: One would have to risk harm through taking action to prove the benefit of proposed practices, not allowed under the policy. It presupposes that preventing action in a dynamic system has no adverse consequences, an assumption to which the Precautionary Principle itself has not been subjected. It is a premise that is incapable of objectively weighting relative risks.

To analyze the balance of risks under the variety of circumstances as exist, will take an enormous number of experimental trials. Private capital can provide the necessary financial resources, only if it can regenerate itself. Donated and confiscated public funds cannot do the job. It is just too big.

If we should destroy the wealth-generating basis found in resource lands, we will lack the tools, money, and knowledge to do the work. Without the objective efficiency of market-based capital allocation processes, the distribution of resources will not efficiently differentiate according to need.

A management system that derives power by constraint automatically biases the system toward allowing no human intervention of any kind. If one prevents action and the crisis never materializes one can then claim success, whether or not the threat was real. Attribution of potential harm is thus the preferred means to consolidate the political majority to democratize a commons, without fear of accountability.

Unfortunately, preservation of anything but pristine and unaltered habitat is fully capable of inflicting its own kind of "harm." Given 30,000 years of adaptation to the presence of humans and the naturalization of so many introduced exotic species, there is hardly any truly 'pristine and unaltered habitat.' Even if it were a unanimous goal that we should return much of the continent to its pre-aboriginal condition, one would have to ask how it could be accomplished in practice. Considering the constantly changing boundary conditions, such as climate change since the last Ice Age, such a project would be a huge amount of work that could have disastrous results. Similarly, the assumption that if nature is "preserved" it will somehow evolve to an optimally productive condition is usually erroneous. Nature has no prospective preferences, even for the survival of life itself.

Every dynamic variation in an ecosystem has benefits for some individuals and adverse consequences for others; it is the nature of differentiated and competitive systems. It is not uncommon for species virtually to disappear, only to return years later after a natural disturbance, such as a fire, flood, volcano, or recovery from over-predation. To claim that any change in the distribution of natural populations justifies radical changes in land use could be appropriately regarded as extreme until science had proven otherwise. Even so, mandated neglect is still the preferred means to prevent or repair subjectively defined and admittedly remote risks of ecological harm regardless of the obvious potential for disastrous consequences.

It is astounding that so many potential risks associated with action are so seldom weighed against the virtual certainty of errors of inaction. This has been especially true in the case of early infestations of exotic pest species. The confining nature of the "prevent harm" ethic leaves its advocates with the constraint that control measures must be minimally intrusive, even if destructively ineffective. Risk-aversion, as virtue, coupled with human action as innately harmful, shield administrators and activists from accountability for cost-effective and positive results. Under the control of those who derive their mandate by environmental problems, the patient's condition will likely worsen; a victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy, no matter how much money is spent in desperate efforts to manage the resulting crises.

The idea that neglect is always benign presupposes that natural systems can fix any problem unassisted and contradicts the very purpose for regulatory policy. How then, do we devise an efficient and objective system that motivates and extends the state-of-the-art of ecosystem management?

This book is not about pristine, undisturbed lands. If such a thing exists, there are so few left in the continental U.S. that are not already protected, that there is no point in writing yet another book about "preserving nature." This book is about motivating people to profit from the study, restoration, and development of healthy, productive ecosystems on the other 95% of the land.

The "prevent harm" ethic constrains law-abiding practitioners who might make things better, and abets the avaricious and unethical. Activists, not recognizing their complicity, use these examples as reasons for yet more laws that regulate only the ethical operator even further, and confiscate yet more land when they go bankrupt. They dismiss such rampant injustice with the flippant belief that their ends justify the means, and deny accountability for less than desired results. Meanwhile, substitute sources of raw material have their own, often greater environmental impacts.

Trying to prevent all harm is impossible. It is a process that is logically-incapable of meeting its inferred goals.

Natural Process: That Environmental Laws May Serve the Laws of Nature, ISBN: 0-9711793-0-1. Copyrights © 1999, 2000, & 2001 by Mark Edward Vande Pol. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be transmitted, archived, or reproduced in any manner or form without written permission, except as directed by the fair use doctrine under United States Copyright Law. The business method described in this book is covered under US Patent 7,401,036. First Edition published 2001 by Wildergarten Press, P.O. Box 98, Redwood Estates, CA 95044-0098. URL: Library of Congress Control Number: 2001092201. Vande Pol, Mark Edward, 1954- Contains: 455pp, 3 Figures, 8 Photographs, 15 Charts, 2 Tables, Bibliography, and Index.