Monday, April 25, 2011

Natural Law Requires Respect of PUBLIC Property Rights, too.

Human beings have a collective moral right to assert public property claims. We have a collective moral duty to do so, too. Public property rights are human rights. Human rights are an example of natural law. As a kind of natural law, human rights (including property rights) must be respected.

Public property rights include the collective right of the people to share in the benefits of commons resources. Public property rights include a collective right to decide overall limits to humans' impact on the environment. This right implies a corresponding collective moral duty to create systems of governance that assure that natural wealth is shared equitably and that limit pollution and rates of taking of natural resources so that actual impacts are consistent with the will of the people at large. No society can hold together in the long run in the absence of a respect for basic rights. Economic justice, the stability of our society and the future health of the planet all depend on us recognizing these rights and carrying out these responsibilities.

Natural phenomena emerge in the cosmos according to natural law. Moral precepts can be seen as natural laws of social interaction, while the emergence of civilization can be seen as a particular kind of natural phenomenon. But civilization as we've made it thus far exhibits some serious flaws related to our near-total neglect of a basic moral precept. There is near-universal agreement that human beings have a collective right to define limits to pollution and limits on the rate of taking of natural resources, yet we have thus far failed to carry out our collective duty to establish those limits in reality-- limits that are in accord with the average opinion of the people. Neglect of this principle impairs economic justice and it impedes efforts to build a sustainable society. We have a civilization that is plagued by widespread extreme poverty and we are threatening to produce a planetary ecological disaster. We are challenged by circumstances to create a sustainable and more just civilization. This requires a fuller respect of basic moral principles.

Civilizations thrive then collapse because they grow beyond what the natural environment can sustain. Economies boom then bust because they grow beyond what their resource bases can support. The arc of civilization and the boom and bust of the business 'cycle' are the same phenomenon seen at different scales. These sometimes wild swings may appear to be cyclical variations, but they actually reflect chaotic instabilities. A closer adherence to basic principles would mean a dampening of these gyrations to the point that they would no longer be an existential threat to the system.

A policy of charging fees when industries take or degrade natural resources could be used to moderate human economic activity, with the aim of keeping overall environmental impacts within limits that most people find acceptable. (We might assume that people will identify as acceptable that which they believe is sustainable--a society that is democratic regarding limits to environmental impacts is more likely to be sustainable.) We could use a system of random surveys to discern whether more people want to be more strict in our limits on pollution levels and on the rates of taking of resources, or more want to be more lenient, or whether there is a balance between the number of people in one camp vs. the other. A fee is a lever or mechanism that society could use for applying incentives to influence the behavior of those who use natural resources. Fees for particular kinds of environmental impacts would rise or fall, as need be, when actual conditions do not match what most people want to see. Fees would be held steady when reality matches what the largest number of people say is the best balance between the alternative positions of freedom vs. constraint.

Defining appropriate limits to humans' environmental impacts is a primary function of government in an advanced industrial society. The system described here would ensure that the basic human right to collectively decide such limits would be respected in practice. The hope and expectation is that people will choose to keep overall impacts within limits that the larger environment can sustain. To borrow from Andrew Jackson: eternal vigilance is the price citizens must pay to ensure that a human population that has the ability to go beyond what the Earth can support in fact does not go beyond those limits. Vigilance of citizens (or at least a proclivity to want more strict controls) could be encouraged by the very nature of the control system. When natural wealth is shared equally, the inclination of citizens will likely be to support strong (sustainable) limits on environmental impacts. A vote for stricter controls on impacts would translate to higher payments to the people if fee proceeds are distributed in the form of a natural wealth stipend. The interests of individual citizens, then, comes to coincide with the interests of the larger community of life and of future generations of humans. This relationship between individual and community mirrors the relationship between the cell and larger organism.

The sum of all proceeds from environmental impact fees would be a monetary representation of the value that natural resources contribute to the economy and to human society. Citizens would have a natural interest in voting for less environmental impact (higher fees) because that would mean a larger payment in the form of a natural wealth stipend. Sharing of fee proceeds is a way for society to equitably share (this monetary representation of) natural wealth. Equal sharing of these proceeds would buffer the downward slide of a shrinking economy, since the entire human population would continue to receive a modest income from shared natural resource wealth, independent of income from work, investments or family inheritance. A 'floor' on the loss of human confidence that causes or contributes to business contractions would be created. Spending in support of basic human needs would continue. Resources would continue to flow to the sectors of the economy that provide essential goods and services. With a modest income assured, people would continue to spend in ways that would support these most vital sectors. The parts of the economy devoted to meeting basic needs would be insulated from the worst vicissitudes of the business 'cycle'. Swings in the economic climate would be moderated. With demands on renewable biological resources (e. g., forests and fish stocks) kept sufficiently low and with mineral resource availability extended farther into the future through a fee mechanism, civilization becomes a more sustainable phenomenon. With extreme poverty ended and disparity of wealth reduced through equal sharing of fee proceeds, society rests on a stronger foundation of justice, which would further contribute to social stability.

We can imagine an equal payment to all people that would protect every person against extreme material deprivation: A natural resource wealth stipend. It would be drawn from the proceeds of fees charged to those who take or degrade natural resource wealth in pursuit of profit. Those who are at the greatest disadvantage under the present system will be better off with such a policy. Respect for public property rights would significantly improve the material condition of those who are least well off economically. We will no longer have large regions of the world populated by mostly dispossessed people.

Everyone benefits when the economy adapts to the pricing of natural resource wealth. This adaptation is implicit in the transition away from an economy that allows economic externalities to go uncompensated. Externalities are the hidden costs (or benefits) of economic activity. For example, the cost of pollution (born by the human community and the larger community of life) is hidden from investors, corporations and consumers when producers do not pay a fee in proportion to the amount of pollution that they cause. If there is no monetary payment made when pollution is created, then the harm to the environment is not reflected on the financial balance sheet. Economic actors are unable to see costs that are off the balance sheet and therefore hidden from view. They cannot properly take account of these costs. Because environmental impact costs are hidden, all choices about what manufacturing process to adopt, what products to buy, what mode of transport to use, what to eat, etc., are skewed toward more pollution and depletion of resources and away from sustainability.

Putting a price on natural resource wealth moves us toward an economy that embodies the concept of public property rights in its structure and accounting. Industrial processes and business models will be redesigned to improve resource efficiency. Individuals will change habits toward more sustainable practices. People will choose more environmentally-friendly lifestyles--even if they are not trying to do so because they are inclined to be concerned about environmental issues. This means improved conditions for everyone: More ecological health and more personal health. (Environmental impact pricing would favor whole foods, locally-produced foods and plant-based diets.) A sustainable society built on a broader moral foundation is good for all.

Taking ownership of our environment is even good for us in ways that may not be immediately obvious. For example, if we were to decide that advertising billboards are an adverse environmental impact due to their contribution to unwanted visual blight, then fees could be charged to those who post such ads, to assure that the prevalence of billboards on the landscape is kept within acceptable limits. Maybe signage in earth tones would be considered less offensive. (What would a random survey reveal?) There could be a graduated fee structure.

Now imagine that every kind of television or radio broadcast is a sort of billboard in the public space (the public airwaves). If we want to manage the use of the airwaves in a way that is consistent with the will of the people, we may decide to charge a fee for certain uses of the broadcast spectrum that promote private or commercial interests rather than the public interest. With the proceeds of this fee, we could pay a stipend to broadcasters and/or producers who offer programming that a random survey indicates would make a valuable contribution to the public interest or public good, in the view of most people. This bending or shaping of our use of the broadcast spectrum toward the public interest might change the character of broadcast television and radio in profound ways. We could glimpse how these changes would affect our culture if we start asking the questions. Given a multitude of choices for how to use the broadcast spectrum, how might we best promote the public interest? Make spectrum space available for programs according to what random surveys indicate would promote the public interest. This would almost certainly produce a mix of programs that would serve the public good more effectively than what we have today.

We can make the world more what we want it to be. By changing our relationship with our political and economic systems--by changing the way we participate in them--toward a fuller respect of basic principles, we transform our society and ourselves. With a change in the rules toward greater respect of basic moral principles, we build a global civilization that is both sustainable and more just.

A Biological Model for Politics and Economics

Biodiversity as a public good


Anonymous said...

I ran across your link on NPR and took the time to read it. Very Interesting stuff. I am impressed and have added this to favorites to keep up with your vision. I encourage you to continue your philosophy and share it with the world!

John Champagne said...

Thank you for your comment. I just re-read this essay. I agree. It's worth sharing.

janice said...

Thank you for your insight!