Held In Trust: Individual Actors and the Gestalt of “Social Ownership”

We live in the Anthropocene world where human activity manipulates or even dictates nature. The question then arises, how much of Earth and its resources do we own? Koli Mitra explores the dialectic between public and private property, the role of governments and nepotism in the shared domain of common goods …

Way back in the early 1990s, when worrying about whether we have a right to treat the Earth however we want was still a bit too avant garde for the “mainstream” middle classes – it was something that mostly ecologists, idealistic college kids, cork-sandal-wearing “granola” types and a few social philosophers bothered with – the cartoonist Gary Larson put in his typically sparkly two cents by way of his popular comic strip, Far Side. It was a single panel comic, showing two fleas on a dog’s back. At the scale of the fleas, the patch of skin on which they stood looked like a bit of wooded land, with the dog’s hair looking like a thicket of tall, slim trees. The larger of the fleas pointed to the expanse of dog skin ahead of him and said to the smaller flea: “Son, someday, all this will be yours.”

The fiction of the earth’s ownership by humans has dominated our civilisation for so long that we speak of any alternative view as if it were a  radical departure from the state of nature. We forget how radical, even absurd, is this idea that we “own” the earth and can divvy it up every which way and allocate the pieces for our own private uses like so many commodities.

I am not arguing that the very notion of “private property” is an entirely bad thing. Nor am I advocating reverting to a “state of nature”.  In the – greatly overrated – state of nature, your body cares to keep you alive and well only through your reproductive years, being eaten by a predator is a daily threat, and the largest and strongest member of your clan gets to beat you up and grab your food – which you spent the whole day catching or gathering – with impunity. So, there is something to be said for striking the right balance between a healthy respect for nature and the willingness to tweak the natural order through human ingenuity. My point about things not being “natural” is that they are not inevitable, unlike gravity or the sunrise.  “Private property” is not inevitable. It is an artifact of human invention; something we made up to structure our material lives. As such, it is not – and it ought not to be – beyond reconsideration by us, in order to periodically assess the character and extent of its usefulness.

In fact, at this moment in history, many aspects of economic orthodoxy badly need to be revisited: whether automation of productive processes and/or specialisation and division of labour have reached a point of diminishing returns; whether all ‘value’ should be continue to be measured by a single fungible scale (money) or whether there should be variable tiers of valuation (depending on whether the measured quantity is some scarce or finite resource essential for the material requirements of life, like food, water, air, land, etc.); whether, in this Anthropocene age of the Earth (in which the planet’s geologic, atmospheric and biologic character is significantly determined by human activity), we are morally obligated (or not) to act as stewards of the planet rather than just another species going about the business of competing for survival, to name just a few.

And yes, we need to rethink the idea of property. Who should be allowed to own what? I have often argued about this with proponents of near-absolute ‘property rights’ (neoliberals, neoconservatives, classical laissez faire capitalists, anarcho-capitalists, and many other flavors of right-leaning economic thinkers).  They are usually annoyed by the argument that maybe some things should be designated as ‘commons’ or ‘public domain’ or perhaps land and other natural resources should be held in common, as Henry George had advocated.

An Objectivist friend of mine once told me sharply, “There is no such thing as ‘commons’. Things don’t exist just because you say they do.”  I had blogged about the conversation at the time. I acknowledged that my friend was “right to assert that ‘commons’ is … nothing more than a proposition [that] …was made up by humans who think it might be a useful way to organise our relationship to the world.” But I was baffled by her differential treatment of constructs that I liked and ones that she liked. After all, there was “also no such thing as ‘private property’ EXCEPT THAT WE SAY THERE IS!” I wrote in my blog. “It’s fine to argue that ‘private property’ is a more useful or desirable construct than ‘commons’ but to pretend that one is a fabrication and the other is something ‘natural’ is absolutely baseless.”

I went on to ask: “Ultimately, what’s more important in property theory?  (a) that we all – really and substantively – have the ability to prosper as best as our talents and efforts will allow us without hindering someone else’s ability to do the same or (b) that we have a philosophically pure fantasy of limitless acquisition, even as in reality wealth becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands?”

There is a much fuller and more complex argument to be had on the topic. But for the moment, I ask the reader to stipulate that the idea of commons is valuable, that some things legitimately belong in the public domain and are to be held in common trust by all of us, who happen to be the dominant life form on this planet.  The ‘things’ in question could be anything – land, air, water, fossil fuels, atmospheric gases, mineral deposits, plants, animals, the other three Kingdoms of biological organisms, the planetary mantel and core, the frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum – in short, anything that exists naturally on the planet that people didn’t make. It could even be something that people did make, like the internet, but the ‘people’ in question were working for the public sector of a country and the thing they made has taken on a life of its own and subsequently has been developed in a very public and collective way. For our current purposes, we needn’t decide exactly what belongs in the public domain, only that some things do. And let’s assume that all 8-plus-billion of us have somehow managed to come to some agreement on the issue. And let’s also leave aside for the moment the problem of agreement about what, in practical terms, the ‘administration of the common trust’ looks like (e.g., do we curb industrial development and protect the biosphere that ‘belongs to all of us’ or do we extract all the fossil fuels that are in our ‘collectively owned’ planet so that we can all drive cars and have iPads?).  For the moment, let’s say we have found ways to figure out the substantive policy goals.

A nagging question I have is: who gets to administer these ‘public goods’? Who represents ‘all of us’? This practical detail could make or break the most sensible and equitable substantive policy that we can come up with.  Those of us who advocate ‘socially responsible’ economics often espouse this idea of ‘commons’ — or ‘social ownership’ of public goods and natural resources. As we debate the issue, however question of the administrative power and access tends to get brushed aside.

Most often, we just assume governments represent the public. But how would that work, exactly?  In the past, just about every self-proclaimed ‘socialist’ regime has grossly abused the public trust and has proven to be dominated by oligarchs and autocrats. In capitalist systems, the industries or resources that are administered by the public sector have not always served the public interest the way they are tasked to do.  In most economic systems, whatever their formally espoused ideology, backroom dealing and privilege trading and power brokering have tended to corrupt the processes that were meant to be looking out for the public interest. For example, in the United States, ‘carbon emissions trading’ was legislated as a policy meant to prevent polluters from externalising the environmental costs of their business. But, by the time the bill made it past committee, the biggest polluters were given large numbers of ‘free credits’ – in essence, exempting them from the massive new costs being imposed on their less powerful and less established competitors, and no incentives to stop polluting. In India, the 2G spectrum licensing scandal of 2010 is another case in point.  The frequencies of the spectrum are used as communication channels. The spectrum is a public resource that – I think rightly – no person or company is allowed to just ‘buy up’ and control, excluding everyone else. The way the government allocates its use is by licensing out the frequencies by periodic auction. Presumably the proceeds of the auction are used for various government programs that (again, presumably) benefit the public. But as it turns out, members of the government had colluded with wealthy business interests to cheat the process.

Most well meaning leftist scholars assume that a democratic framework for choosing representatives (instead of a revolutionary mechanism) will solve the problems (of tyranny and abuse of fiduciary duties), which have historically plagued ‘socialist’ and  ‘communist’ governments. But my two examples above involve the United States and India, two of the strongest democracies in the world. And what happened in those examples are hardly uncommon occurrences in democratic countries. Clearly the threat of losing the next election – assuming one gets caught – is not a strong enough deterrent against manipulating the public trust or misappropriating public resources. Political systems with robust democratic traditions and institutions tend to have more checks and balances than governments installed by violent ‘revolutionary’ movements. And yet, to a disturbing degree, even in democratic systems, individuals, when entrusted with the stewardship of public trust — and the power that goes with it – often abuse that power and betray that trust. In the end the ‘government’ is often just another conglomerate out to exploit the public resources for its own agenda.

In some ways, the government can be –potentially– the most dangerous kind of conglomerate because it presents the greatest risk of centralisation (of resources and power).  Formally representing ‘all of us,’ the people who run government can essentially own and control everything and they can barter or sell all of it to their friends and campaign contributors. And yet, someone has to be a public watchdog – if not administrator – looking after the affairs of ‘all of us.’

So, along with the litany of economic orthodoxies that I think we need to rethink, it is vital that we also overhaul our thinking of what it really means to act collectively, at the very literal, practical level. How do we make private individual actors act in ways that add up to more than their private individual values and truly represent the gestalt of the ‘public’ or ‘social’ interest? How do we protect against the centralisation and homogenisation of the way we live and think while ensuring some equitability in the way we all benefit from the resources that supposedly  ‘belong to all of us’?  How does representation work? How should it work?  What checks and balances should operate on those entrusted with ‘public’ goods? Should non-commercial private cooperatives have more of a role in taking care of the commons?

Mundane, ministerial details like these could turn out to be just as important, in the final analysis, as any grand vision.

Passionate rationalist. Bleeding-heart moderate. Geek. Afflicted with a "language fetish". Koli practiced law on Wall Street until her lifelong love affair with writing demanded its rightful place as her primary occupation.

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