The Practicality of Private Waterways

The following article was published in the Spring 2010 issue of The Objective Standard.

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For centuries, few have questioned the idea that waterways—streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans—are or should be “public property.” The doctrine of “public trust,” with roots in both Roman and English common law, holds that these resources should not be privately owned but rather held in trust by government for use by all. The United States Supreme Court cited this doctrine in 1892, ruling that state governments properly hold title to waterways such as lakes and rivers, “a title held in trust for the people of the state that they may enjoy the navigation of the waters, carry on commerce over them, and have liberty of fishing therein freed from the obstruction or interference of private parties.”

This “public ownership,” however, is increasingly thwarting the life-serving nature of waterways as sources of drinking water, fish, and recreation. Predictably, when a resource—whether a park, an alleyway, or a pond—is owned by “everyone,” its users have less incentive to protect or improve its long-term value than they would if it were owned by an individual or a corporation. Users of “public property” tend to use the resource for short-term gain, often causing the deterioration of its long-term value—the well-known “tragedy of the commons.” This phenomenon is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the case of waterways. Read more

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