How to Solve the Lobstermen vs Whalers Problem: Water Capitalism

Walter Block – February 11, 2023

The lobstermen and the whalers are at each other’s throats in Maine. The former need to use strong ropes to pull up their lobster traps from the ocean floor. The latter claim that this gear they use enmeshes their bread and butter, that is, whales, who are needlessly killed in this manner.

It would be difficult to name other industries, or commercial interests that contended against one another in any such manner. Yes, those producing peas and those producing carrots compete against each other, as do bicycles and fish, shoes and socks. But none of them are suing the others over infringement of their territory. City taxi cabs, Uber, and Lyft are in competition with one another. But at least it is clear from a justice point of view what should occur: the latter should be allowed to compete against the former, no matter how loud and powerful the squeal of the first kids on the block.

No, you would have to go back a century or two ago to find any analogous philosophically intractable situation, to when farmers and ranchers were squabbling with each other over water rights.

What’s going on off the seacoast of Maine? What is going on there is a lack of clear private property rights, just as in this previous, historical case. The law, at present, does not allow anyone to own any aspect of the ocean. That is precisely the problem, and the explanation for the present imbroglio.

Before your false teeth drop right out of your mouths and bite your toes, listen up for at least a little bit. Yes, this solution, ocean privatization, sounds more than just a little preposterous. Even such erstwhile defenders of private property rights as Robert Nozick dismissed this erstwhile free-enterprise option. He sneered at the idea of anyone pouring a can of tomato juice into the sea as a means of owning part of it, a la John Locke’s homesteading principle. Instead, he averred, such a person would merely lose this drink of his.

However, in the absence of ownership, how are we to decide which is economically more important, whales or lobsters? In every other corner of the economy this altercation is settled by bidding for the resource in question. Should this specific amount of steel be used for railroad tracks or high-rise building construction? Should these textiles be incorporated into a rug or clothing? Thousands of such potential debates are settled every day, every hour, every minute, without fuss or fanfare. The competing parties offer bids to the owners of these resources and that is how they are settled without controversy.

But if competitive bidding is to occur, someone must own the resource in question.

There is nothing unique about oceans (nor rivers, lakes, aquifers, when farmers and ranchers were having wars over them). Other liquids are privately owned: orange juice, milk, oil, soft drink colas, wine, beer, booze, mercury. (Blood, too, is a liquid, but not a trouble-free one, since there are numerous regulations, price controls, and other interferences with economic freedom in this sphere of the economy). Yes, water moves around a bit more than land, but there is solid water (icebergs) and moving land (mudslides, volcanoes). If we are to rationalize this part of the economy, we must stop thinking of land as amenable to privatization, and water, not.

Yes, yes, it cannot be denied, things are rather a bit more complicated with rivers, lakes oceans, and aquifers. That only makes it more of a challenge to privatize them; it does not constitute an insuperable barrier. We already have some of the complementary technology available: electrified fences in the water, for example. All we need are laws that allow this. Then more would become available.

The main reason for the failures of the economies of the USSR, [East] Germany and North Korea was lack of private property rights. We are now living under the Sovietization of water resources, with all the attendant tragedies of the commons associated with such failures. Please do not dismiss out of hand bringing in water resources under the system that has functioned so well on the land.

[Editor’s note: Read Water Capitalism: The Case for Privatizing Oceans, Rivers, Lakes, and Aquifers (2015) by Walter Block and Peter Lothian Nelson for more on this issue.] 

Originally published at

Image: Fishing boats moored in a canal in Portland Maine with lobster traps stacked on the dock (iStock)

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