Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Owining Silver Veins

Recently I had a heated discussion with two close relatives touching on third world poverty. It was suggested that the wealth in the third world is being taken to the first world and enriching people there rather than in the poor countries (forgetting, of course, that incomes of the world's poorest quintile have been rising faster than those of the richest). As an example, it was pointed out that in Bolivia a new, massive vein of silver had been discovered, but the silver belongs to an American company, so they would be profitting from it, not the Bolivians. My relatives in question supported the proposition, instead, that Eva Morales, the president of Bolivia, nationalise the mine, so that its profits can be put to public use. I, on the other hand, felt that natural resources should belong to whoever first finds them and uses them, by mixing their labour with, or working them, regardless of what country the individual or organisation that finds them comes from, or what country they are found in.

I could discern two positions from my relatives' arguments. The first was that mineral, as was pointed out to me explicitly, in fact, mineral deposites belong to the person under who's property they are found, and this was "quite legal, proper and fair." The second position was that those displaced by the silver mine should be compensated. I supose the first position may follow from the second, or be a motive for supporting it.

It is, of course, legal practice that people own the mineral rights under their property. I forget the name of the legal doctrine, but the theory is that people's property extends in a gradually diminishing cone (to make space for other property) to the Earth's core. Of course, the same theory is that their property extends in a gradually incresing cone outwards and upwards from the earth. The result, of course, is that, if this theory of property should be the one we adopt, it would be incredibly hard to arrange flightplans without committing trespass: Every flyover would be a tort. Presumably this consequence would be ridiculous.

The idea that people displaced by the mine should be compensated may motivate sentiments to cling to this odd legal doctrine, but it employs a fallacy: Sure, I shouldn't damage your house, or your farm, or whatever, on the surface, but it doesn't follow that you should therefore own whatever is under your property, or over it. If property rights, at least in part, to protect our uses of things, then so long as my mining under your property doesn't damage your property, then what claim do you have against me? Or, in other words, if it is the case that people are being forced off their land so this US corporation can mine silver, then this should not occur, and is a gross injustice... but it doesn't follow from that that the silver should be nationalised, or given to people who own property over it, or that it should not belong to an American company able to mine it without damaging the property of those over it or without forcibly depriving them of it.

In any case, neither of these arguments seems to justify nationalisation. Nationalisation would be making the silver the property of the entire nation. Of course, that would really mean that the people who got to decide over it, and decide who benefits from it the most, would be the ruling class and their lackeys. Unless all votes by the entire country regarding it and income earned from it were passed by unanimous vote, it wouldn't really be the entire nation enjoying it, but only some of the nation. Morales and his co-workers would be the only ones with power to decide what is done with it, and they would benefit those with the most political pull, because that is how government works.

Regardless of this, though, lets just think of nationalisation in the abstract - it belongs to the nation. Why? Why is "the nation's" claim any better than anybody elses. Remember, the arguments were that a) it is established legal practice that mineral rights belong to those under who's property they are, and that b) people will be displaced by the mine, losing their homes, etc. But both of these arguments, if they have any weight at all, which I have disputed, suggest that the silver should belong to those who have property in the top soil over it, not to the entire nation. Why should the fact that demolishing my house to make way for a silver mine makes me homeless imply that everybody else in the country, and nobody else, has as much right to that silver, and the income it generates, as I do? Or why should the fact that the silver is under my land, and established law extends property conically to the earth's core, mean that it belongs to everybody else in the country, and nobody else, as much as it belongs to me? Neither of these positions justify's the silver being seized by the state.

I suppose it could be suggested that, if the established legal practice is that property extends conically to the centre of the earth, and the silver was found under Bolivia, then the silver belongs to Bolivia, and so everybody in it. But, then, "Bolivia" is an arbitrary designation in itself. Why does the border of Bolivia stop where it does rather than extend, say, fifty mile further out, or fifty miles further in? A person is a Bolivian simply due to being accidentally born one side of a line that could have been drawn anywhere and has probably only been drawn where it is because that has been the point where strength of arms, the might of war, has only been sufficient to maintain it. The silver is as much under South America as it is under Bolivia, or as much under America as it is South America, etc, etc. It is certainly far more under the property of the people displaced from the mine that it is under a part of Bolivia possibly hundreds of miles away.

The sentiment seems to be that Bolivians are being made worse off by somebody other than their state owning this silver. Ignoring the possibility that land was seized to make way for the mine, which is not what I am defending anyway, Bolivians may well not be made worse off. The reason? They didn't even know the silver was there, and were not making use of it. Somebody else profitting from something I knew nothing of and wasn't trying to use does not worsen me. They may not be bettering themselves, that is true, but that is not the same as being worsened. Of course, it will be said, "fine, then it should be nationalised, not because the US company is making Bolivians worse off, but because, by nationalising it, Bolivians will be made better off." Sure. But are the Bolivians the worst off people in the world? Maybe not. In which case, maybe the Bolivian silver should be nationalised by, say, Etheopia? Why better the position of Bolivians rather than some other group?

In the end, it is deeply odd to say that some Bolivian who did nothing to get the silver, nothing to, in effect, create it (since, at least for all intents and purposes, until its discovery, it may as well not have existed), nothing to make it useful to people, and who's life is not worsened, though it may not be improved, by somebody else taking the silver has a better claim to it than those who did these and was using the silver first.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Rich - just curious, is the libertyforum site down completely?
- Eir

9:19 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Eir,

I was just thinking of googling you! Yes, I think LF is gone for good. Everybody is here now:

6:51 PM  

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