Should Debaters Privatize the Oceans?
Rognvaldur Hannesson’s Privatization of the Oceans is a fascinating story of the development of property rights in ocean fisheries…
Hannesson sets the tone with an interesting comparison between the development of property rights in ocean fisheries and the enclosures
PERC‘s Don Leal reviews Privatization of the Oceans (MIT Press, 2004) and focuses on the key challenge of getting from here to there, of moving from “common-pool” over-exploited ocean fisheries to legal systems where a rule of law governs access to scarce ocean resources.
Even by 2004, success stories from around the world support the effectiveness of assigning catch shares in fisheries (and Ray Hilborn’s 2112 book, Overfishing, adds recent examples of successes and some failures).
Don Leal faults Rognvaldur Hannesson for focusing too much on commercial fisheries and not considering the value of sports fishing and environmental benefits.
One flaw in Hannesson’s treatment of this subject is that he restricts the potential benefits of property rights to commercial use of fish as food (pp. 12, 66, 178). This restriction is a mistake because the development of property rights in fisheries for recreational and environmental purposes also has the potential to generate great benefits.
Part of the push-back against ocean privatization comes from the traditional “hunters” who over centuries have freely roamed the the seas and oceans in search for fish. The Dutch advocated freedom to fish and trade across the world’s seas, and Hugo Grotius’ book Mare Liberum had a subtitle that translates as: “the right which belongs to the Dutch to take part in the East India trade.” (p. 30)
Students can “Look Inside” Privatization of the Oceans on Amazon. Used copies start at around $5 (plus shipping) and Kindle edition for $12.60.
Students will find a lot of fascinating history behind ocean laws and regulations. Hannesson describes the strange history of today’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ):
The origin of the 200-mile limit is somewhat bizarre. It can be traced to the desire by the Chilean whale oil industry for protection against foreign whaling… Legal experts consulted looked for precedents in international law but found little other than a declaration from a meeting of the foreign ministers…in 1939. This meeting had declared a zone of neutrality around the coasts of the Americas…[whose] width varied from 300 to 500 nautical miles. The 200 miles have been alleged to be derived from an inaccurate map published in a Chilean magazine…” (p. 32)
An alternative theory of the origin of the 200 mile limit, notes Hannesson, is that it was based on the Humboldt Current (also called the Peru Current). This claim has been dismissed, but:
this would not be the only example of using ocean currents as a rationale for territorial sea limits at sea; no less an authority than Thomas Jefferson argued for basing the territorial sea limits of the United States on the Gulf Stream (p. 34)
For civilization, property rights matter at sea as on land
The core issue is the role of property rights in the oceans. How can private property institutions that have enabled societies on land to prosper be extended to the oceans? Hannesson quotes a key enemy of private property, noting that many have seen private property as “a manifestation of self-interest and greed…” Hannesson quotes the great and terrible Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Social Contract:
The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” (Source: Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty site, and slightly different at the end from quoted in Privatizing the Oceans.)
And Hannesson cites Voltaire’s response, scribbled in the margin of Rousseau’s book:
What? He who has planted, sown, and enclosed some land has no rights to the fruits of his efforts? Is this unjust man, this thief to be the benefactor of the human race? Behold the philosophy of the beggar who would like the rich to be robbed by the poor! (p. 10)
Hannesson then quotes Voltaire from a letter to Rousseau:
I have received, monsieur, your new book against the human race, and I thank you. No one has employed so much intelligence to turn us men into beasts. One starts wanting to walk on all fours after reading your book. However, in more than sixty years I have lost the habit. (p. 10)
Here is link to “The Smile of Reason,” episode 10 in Kenneth Clark’s BBC miniseries Civilisation on YouTube.
The empirical contest between private property and communally-owned property was settled as the USSR and Eastern Europe collapsed, and communist China converted itself to capitalist China. As Hannesson reports in The Privatization of the Ocean, empirical evidence is also mounting in the similar marine debate between private property in fisheries and communally-owned and managed fisheries.