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.