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Banbury Cross

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Post details: Privatized Planet

Privatized Planet

The days of the Wild West were simpler times. You needed land - you looked around, you found some, staked a claim and it was yours. Resources were plentiful and ownership was scarce. These days finding your green meadow by the stream is much harder. Most of the Earth already belongs to some dude most likely living in the penthouse overlooking the Central Park and if you want it, you have to pay top dollar for it.

There was an instance in recent memory which mimicked the condition of the Wild West. I am talking about the privatization of the vast state owned colossus of the former Soviet bloc. I remember one story from the Czech Republic. A man bribed an official responsible for the book-keeping of local state assets and obtained a large chunk of wooded land for essentially a nominal fee. Within a year he sold it to an Austrian sawmill for a nifty profit. In what sense was the land his to sell? Has he ever worked on it?

And how about corrupt African governments that sign over the iron mining rights to multinational corporations for pocket change and a small bakshish on the side. All that while the local people who toil in the in the mines from dusk to dawn get an extra ration of water - if they are lucky. How does the wealth fall into the corporations' lap literally overnight? Well, just for a bout of wheeling and dealing. That seems just a tad too convenient. Don't the natural resources belong to the people who work on the land? How do you get rid of bad stewards who sell out their heirloom?

I think a great example of proper ownership can be found in the animal kingdom. Various species live off the land, they eat its products, they hunt whatever crawls on it, they drink its water, they procreate in its folds. Often they compete with each other, but they don't bite off more than they can chew. I never heard of a tiger who hunted in Malaysia but in addition to its prowling grounds would also buy some land in India just in case. Animals claim as much land they need for life, but not a square inch more. People are different in this regard - even those who have enough to provide for family still want more jewels, more yachts, more lobsters and in doing so take up precious space in which others could develop and exercise their skills. The issue, however, is subtle. On the one hand, this greed enables humankind to progress, but on the other hand it creates unfair playing ground.

Honore de Balzac once said that behind every great fortune there is a great crime. As we have entered the period where conquering new pastures is no longer possible, we have to think about managing the woefully finite resources of the planet to the creative fulfillment of most people, not just the thin top layer of the financial food chain. But we also want to preserve our ability to engage in momentous large scale projects that would require resources and wherewithal beyond the means of an average individual.

The tragedy is that the only reasonable solution to this conundrum - the government - has been proved mighty tricky and inefficient. And enlightened tycoons are as hard to find as enlightened monarchs.


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