Home > Primacy of Society, Utopia > Water as a Human Right Means Water in Shortage

Water as a Human Right Means Water in Shortage

The United Nations declared water to be a human right in 2010, and if history is any guide, that means that absolutely nothing else will happen.

Or perhaps a strongly-worded letter will be penned to oceans around the world, telling them to freshen up or else. In any case, this type of declaration is not without precedent but it is absolutely without worth.

In the spirit of this blog, however, it does bring up the question of whether such a declaration is actually counterproductive. My colleagues over at the Acton Institute have considered that very issue, and they have determined that, in order to properly address the basic human need for water within the economic (read: “real life”) context, water must be treated as a commodity and not as a right.

These are similar arguments to private ownership of endangered animals, as well as private management of forest resources. It all comes down to one basic concept: incentives. Where water “belongs to everyone,” it truly belongs to no one. Courts have difficulty justifying the depletion of water resources without a nexus to a real property right, and if everyone owns the water, what is to stop everyone from treating the water resources in whatever exploitative or pollutive ways that they fancy at any given moment?

Similarly, while ownership of animals on the endangered species list is most often forbidden by various governments, it is not universally proscribed. Not surprisingly, where an owner has an incentive to protect his valuable animal – and his ultimate reasoning as to its value hardly matters – the endangered animals are better protected. Where animals are “left wild,” poaching runs rampant, and it is not out of the question that many high-profile species may soon be so rendered extinct, at least in the wild.

Finally, forest resources are better protected under private ownership, and ironically, forests have in many instances become far more widespread with the proliferation of logging operations. Where the logging company recognizes that its resources are finite, it will be a good steward. On the other hand, there are countless problems with inadequate clearing of national forests leading to catastrophic fires and the threatening of adjacent property and people. Much of this is preventable, but without an incentive, why would we expect proper forest management?

Samuel Gregg addresses the issue:

Why then do people tend to favor private over communal ownership? One reason is that they are aware, as Aristotle and Aquinas witnessed long ago, that when things are owned in common, the responsibility and accountability for their use disappears, precisely because few are willing to assume responsibility for things that they do not own. Our everyday experience reminds us of the tragedy of the commons. The early advocates of socialism were well aware of these objections. Their response was to hold that all that was needed was a change of mind and heart on the part of people as well as profound structural change…

We saw how well that “change of mind and heart” worked out in the Soviet Union.  Some structural change that was.

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