A common purpose: not everything should be privatized

Peter Jackson
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Mark Schrug was exasperated. What makes people turn into animals when they get on a plane?

“Air travellers kiss their loved ones goodbye, and then transform into baggage warriors, stuffing all sorts of oversized bags rudely into overhead bins,” he said. “Why do they do that?”

Schrug, an economist with the University of Wisconsin, was talking to journalists from across Canada at an annual Fraser Institute seminar titled “Economists for Journalists.” (I was fortunate enough to be a participant at this year’s event in Vancouver.)

I wasn’t sure what Schrug was getting at. Why, indeed, has the fight for bin space been allowed to degenerate as it has? Schrug’s fellow presenter, Wisconsin’s Scott Niederjohn, offered no clues.

Then it became clear. The storage free-for-all is a result of there being no rules. Nothing is assigned; no one owns any given space. And baggage size limits are poorly enforced.

In short, said Schrug, “it’s the Wild West up there.”

Schrug sees it as a unique example of what economists call The Tragedy of the Commons. The term describes the decimation, depletion or simple neglect of common resources in the public sphere — whether it be a public park or a common hunting ground.

(I would argue that this is not a universal phenomenon, of course. The immaculate public spaces of Vancouver, where the seminar was held, are a notable exception.)

The solution, in most cases, is ownership — or at least virtual ownership. If passengers had to pay a fee for their carry-on bags (instead of, say, for checked baggage), everyone would be renting the bin space. They’d have a personal claim to it.

This is not strictly privatization. You can have a lease or exclusive right to a common resource without literally owning it. That’s how most natural resource development works, whether it be fish, minerals or lumber.

There is one field, however, in which the application of private ownership threatens to spiral out of control. That is the field of genetics.

In the plant world, patenting is old news. The king of genetically modified organisms (GMO) is Monsanto, which most famously patents GM seeds and then sues anyone who dares plant them without paying. The company has even sent goons out into farm country to spy on and intimidate farmers.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Indiana farmer infringed on Monsanto’s patent when he propagated GM soybeans without buying them.

Thank God reason prevailed this month, however, when the highest court ruled against patenting naturally occurring human DNA. That decision was primarily aimed at Myriad Genetics, which claimed rights to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutated genes that indicate a high risk for breast cancer.  

There is a difference, of course. Monsanto actually meddles with DNA to essentially create a new plant. The human genes are naturally occurring.

This is the prime reason the Supreme Court was unanimous in both cases.

Nonetheless, I find it highly alarming that private interests could infiltrate so deeply into the natural order.

It is a phenomenon that must be watched with great vigilance, if we value our current concepts of human dignity.

It may not be a dystopian scenario yet, but if a company is allowed to claim it owns any aspect of our corporeal being, we may be on a path towards reinventing slavery.


Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor.

Email pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: University of Wisconsin, Fraser Institute, Monsanto U.S. Supreme Court GMO Myriad Genetics

Geographic location: Vancouver, Canada, Wisconsin Wild West Indiana

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Recent comments

  • crista
    June 27, 2013 - 11:52

    Yes. David there are truths to what you are saying???? but do not flatter your self your should be talking to the ones that are responsiable for what you are talking about???? and that put the poor Newfoundlanders in the position they are in and it is always some one like you to help it along instead of voicing your opinion ????you got you and others sitting on one side of the fence watching and listening on the other side of the fence???? just waiting for your chance to rub it in and helping the ones that done this so David can be the hero???? like you and not only you were told before truths and proof!!!! But when you got the ones that are out for them selves and some one telling you what to do behind the scenes????and some one that do not want to do their jobs for the people that elected them it is called corruption so you and the others can look at the dirty hands and the definition and meaning of question mark and you should have no problems knowing what is going on and not only just in Newfoundland????

    • david
      June 27, 2013 - 12:03

      Ah, the question mark key is stick again. It's alive!

  • david
    June 26, 2013 - 14:07

    The thin-skinned Newfoundlander...is that our most ubiquitous, fundamental social trait? Being so defensive and insecure to the point of lashing out, like a cat who feels trapped in a corner? The future of any society is predicated on a willingness to debate issues, a fundamental intellectual curiosity, openness to new thinking, and debate based on facts, evidence, or relevant opinions. Et voila.....(that's french, BTW).

    • Petertwo
      June 26, 2013 - 15:49

      David.."and there's a great article to be written.." - well, since you suggest it why not do it? Anyone can criticise, but it seems you do not have any answers other than slinging mud, which one cannot do without getting one's own hands dirty. Maybe try being constructive instead of destructive, we all know our short comings and we will never get past them as long as you continually try to bog us down with them. Look for the positives and if you cannot find any, then give yourself a rest. In the post 15:37, I think you described yourself there, lashing out.

    • david
      June 27, 2013 - 06:36

      P2: It is your opinion that my comments are "destructiuve"....I don't see any destruction, except perhaps to some people's inflated opinions of themselves and of Newfoundland. This place is far from perfect. despite popular belief. To pretend it is, and to exist on a suspended state of delusion, is not healthy. I honestly think that one of Newfoundland's most crippling characteristics is the inability to express ideas, to think contrary to "the mob". This place needs ideas, needs to be challenged, needs input. But "proud Newfoundlanders" such as have tried to belittle and silence me here won't won't tolerate that, they enjoy shouting people down and hurling insults, and think they know what everyone else wants and needs to hear. This is the "Home of the Bully". It is stifling, it is counter-productive, and it is the real Newfoundland. And although I haven't directly addressed your "challenge" to write an article or column, I trust you can piece together the answer --- and the reason --- from the above.

    • Poor Guy
      June 27, 2013 - 07:49

      The negative newfie... can't get ahead so he wants to drag everyone else down. The poor fool unknowingly provides a list of characteristics that perfectly describes him.

    • david
      June 27, 2013 - 12:01

      PG.....My point, made and illustrated so perfectly, as if the post were a contrived fake. But it's not. It's Newfoundland.

    • Poor Guy
      June 27, 2013 - 12:26

      The point you made, and continue to make, is that all your criticisms are descriptions of you. I don't know what is so miserable about yourself that you must go to such lengths to project your flaws onto others but it is not healthy. You made need a therapist to help you dig down and find why it is that you hate yourself so much.

  • Donna
    June 26, 2013 - 12:19

    Sad little thing; going through life so miserable... Too bad he feels compelled to share it.

  • Eli
    June 26, 2013 - 11:14

    Everybody run for cover, DAVID is out of his cage again.

    • Jeff
      June 26, 2013 - 13:18

      I feel the same way about the elderly, the unemployed, and the disabled. If you're of no economic benefit, we should stop providing for you. Your only worth is in dollars and cents.

  • Just Wondering
    June 26, 2013 - 10:39

    David: "...while they take their union break." When did you have time to write this, David? Certainly not on the job! Did you have a break? Was it a ‘union’ break or just a normal break? Why should you even be entitled to a break? Sounds a little Bolshie to me.

    • david
      June 26, 2013 - 11:30

      If this is your most compelling refute of my post, I must have nailed it pretty well.

  • Anna
    June 26, 2013 - 09:29

    People pay hundreds for a ticket but won't an additional $25 for a piece of luggage. I can't understand why the carriers don't charge for everything instead of frustrating their passengers. It takes forever to board and depart from a plane because of all of this excess luggage. The comments made by David are over the top.

    • david
      June 26, 2013 - 11:38

      After paying $500 for a short flight ticket, getting gouged another $25, for the "luxury" of having your suitcase come along, quite possibly lost or damaged, is simply the straw that broke the camel's back, Anna. If the price of a ticket had been dropped by $50 at the same time that 2 "free" checked bags was discontinued, you'd have a point about being 'cheap'. Being nickel and dimed might suit you, and other pathetic Newfoundlanders who were brainwashed into timid acceptance of the worst airfares and service levels in North America. I'm not you.

  • david
    June 26, 2013 - 07:45

    Peter: The very, very best example of "Tragedy of the Commons" is rural Newfoundland. From poaching wildlife, to throwing old appliances in the woods, to stealing government property, to tossing Pepsi bottles and Tim Horton's cups out the car window, to parking the trailer in the nearest gravel pit and digging a pit toilet nearby, to howling at the moon all night in a public campground. This whole place is an unending Tragedy of the Commons.

  • david
    June 26, 2013 - 07:38

    One other thing....if you think people maximize the amount of luggage they take on a trip just because "they can", then you probably ARE an economist at some university. What utter, dim-witted BS! More importantly, THIS is an anecdote that so "powerfully" illustrates the article's premise for anti-privatization?!? Wow....

    • Davids Concience
      June 26, 2013 - 08:30

      We talked about this before. Your desire to attack anyone with a differing opinion is causing you to read things that are not there, not to mention totally missing the point.

  • david
    June 26, 2013 - 07:31

    ..."Then it became clear. The storage free-for-all is a result of there being no rules...." EPIC FAIL. (but par for the course for socialist "thinkers") . You know why people stuff huge carry-ons on a plane? Because they don't want the unionized luggage goons to break, steal, or lose their luggage, and make them wait 30+ minutes at the luggage carousel while they take their union break. THAT'S why people don't check luggage, pal....and there's a great article to be written using that little, true "anecdote" about the complete insanity of today's unionized labour......if anyone felt like writing it.