Winter 2014 (28.4) Essay

On Collective Ownership of the Earth

An appealing and original aspect of Mathias Risse’s book On Global Justice is his argument for humanity’s collective ownership of the earth. This argument focuses attention on states’ claims to govern territory, to control the resources of that territory, and to exclude outsiders. While these boundary claims are distinct from private ownership claims, they too are claims to control scarce goods. As such, they demand evaluation in terms of distributive justice. Risse’s collective ownership approach encourages us to see the international system in terms of property relations, and to evaluate these relations according to a principle of distributive justice that could be justified to all humans as the earth’s collective owners. This is an exciting idea. Yet, as I argue below, more work needs to be done to develop plausible distribution principles on the basis of this approach.

Humanity’s collective collective ownership of the earth is a complex notion. This is because the idea performs at least three different functions in Risse’s argument: first, as an abstract ideal of moral justification; second, as an original natural right; and third, as a continuing legitimacy constraint on property conventions.

At the first level, collective ownership holds that all humans have symmetrical moral status when it comes to justifying principles for the distribution of earth’s original spaces and resources (that is, excluding what has been man-made). The basic thought is that whatever claims to control the earth are made, they must be compatible with the equal moral status of all human beings, since none of us created these resources, and no one specially deserves them. At this level, collective ownership is simply an abstract moral viewpoint for assessing the legitimacy of specific appropriative claims.

But collective ownership also plays two further roles in Risse’s account. In its second role, collective ownership can generate minimal natural property rights in a world without any positive property conventions. Risse argues that, prior to the advent of property conventions, we would each have a natural right—as the earth’s collective owners—to use the planet like a common in order to meet our needs. As Risse formulates it, there is a natural right to “an equal opportunity to satisfy basic needs to the extent that this turns on collectively owned resources” (p. 111).

Risse’s argument for natural property rights is quite limited: others are under a duty not to interfere with our use of the earth only to the extent that such use is necessary to meet basic needs, which he interprets as physical health and mental competence to choose and deliberate. (One might have hoped for more specificity in Risse’s definition here, since it is quite important what this threshold actually amounts to. Our conception of “needs” might be inextricably tied to the level of social and cultural development of the community in which we live, making it hard to define basic needs in naturalistic terms.) Risse holds that we are at liberty to appropriate more than we need, but others have no natural duty to respect more extensive claims. If I fence off more land than is necessary to feed myself and my family, you are at liberty to take it (though I may also permissibly secure it). Beyond the minimal right to use the earth to meet basic needs, resource rights are pure Hobbesian liberties.

It is fine to hold that in the absence of property conventions we could have used the earth like a common to meet basic needs. But what relevance does this argument have for us today? Here Risse posits a third role for common ownership: it operates as a continuing legitimacy constraint on property conventions. Risse allows that property conventions may permissibly be instituted, and they may confer rights over external resources more extensive than the natural right of common use. But if those conventions are to be legitimate, he argues, they must ensure the purpose of the original common right is still met. So current property conventions must either (1) grant co-owners the opportunity to use the earth to satisfy basic needs or (2) grant them an opportunity to satisfy basic needs in other ways.

So collective ownership operates on three levels. It is somewhat confusing, however, to describe all three of these roles in terms of humanity’s “ownership” of the earth. It does make sense to characterize the natural use-right as a (weak) form of ownership, because some actual incidents of property were conferred on humanity under this dispensation—for example, rights to (secure) possession and use. But once positive laws and conventions regulating property evolve, in what sense is the world still owned by humanity? If I own my house and my backyard under New Jersey law, does humanity own it too? Precisely what incidents of ownership might humanity retain?

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