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Wyatt's Torch: Should there be limits on ownership of natural reso

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My grand plans for a series of posts died from lack of time. My last post was more than 6 months ago. I'm going to take a more bite-size approach now.

So, the topic asks my basic question: Should there be limits on ownership rights related to natural resources, including land, forests, oil, etc.?

To focus the topic, let's think about "Wyatt's torch" from Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Wyatt was an oilman who developed highly effective technology for getting oil from difficult places. He owned land and drilled for oil on it. Time and again, he suffered when the "looter" government made unreasonable demands on him, compromising his property rights. Wyatt decided to "disappear". But before he did, he set fire to his oil wells, creating "Wyatt's torch" which the government was unable to ever put out.

So, the concrete question is: Did Wyatt have a right to torch the oil on his land? Do ownership rights go so far that the owner of natural resources is able to prevent others from using them forever?

Last, a few related issues I don't intend to raise here: First, I am assuming that Wyatt got his property rightfully in the first place. (Perhaps, I will delve into this topic later - how does one rightfully get ownership in land in the first place?) Second, I am assuming that Wyatt has every right to destroy the technology he developed (e.g., all technical documents, all equipment he built, etc.). Third, I don't want to discuss whether Wyatt's actions were legitimate as an "act of war" in the battle between John Galt and the outside world. That is, let's discuss whether people would have a right to destroy natural resources in a Objectively perfect world.

I am eager to hear what you all think!

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Did Wyatt have a right to torch the oil on his land?

As I read (and hear) it, Wyatt did not destroy the oil, he destroyed his property that he used to extract the oil. He left the message: "I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It's yours."

The oil shortage that followed wasn't because Wyatt destroyed the oil, it was because the government "scientists" were unable to understand and recreate the method Wyatt invented for extracting the oil.

"... You see, it is a matter of reconstructing the special method of oil extraction what Wyatt had employed. His equipment is still there, though in a dreadful condition; some of his processes are known, but somehow there is no full record of the complete operation or the basic principle involved, That is what we have to rediscover."

..

"Have you produced any oil?"

"No, but we have succeeded in forcing a flow from one of the wells, to the extent of six and a half gallons."

Edited by Alfred Centauri

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No, I am afraid that it is not only Wyatt's extraction equipment that was set on fire. Only the underlying oil could stay alit for the entire time period of the novel. Wyat did not "leave it as he found it" because the oil was not on fire when he found it. The fact that the government scientists didn't know how to extract the oil is irrelevant because a subsequent inventor might figure it out. In any case, if it makes the thought puzzle easier to address, consider instead a case where an oilman purposely destroys all of the readily-extractible oil on his land.

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In the novel, Wyatt did not destroy the immense reserves of the oil that he had not extracted from the "exhausted" wells, period. Those reserves were left intact, in the ground, just as they were before he began extracting from them. Are you seriously suggesting otherwise?

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The identification of property today is that which we own, which is unfortunate since the classical liberal definition had it integrated with use: Property was also your ability to dispose of something that you owned, as in “you had property in your estate”.

Anyway, property is just that, something you own and have the right to dispose. Whether it is a field, equipment, oil in the ground, extracted oil, refined oil, or the profit from sale is of little issue. All are either a resource or resultant capital from transforming your property in a way you choose for your own purpose. The only difference in this example is the stage someone has used it in a traditionally productive way. What someone does with it, however, is of no consequence but the owner since it is their property. They could leave it in the ground, use different equipment, use the oil for something else, blow it up, or take the money earned and put it on Hard Eights if they wanted.

The essential thing here is that it is property, not what that property is. That is irrelevant. Once you grasp it is property the issue becomes clear.

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Thank you addressing the question, Spiral Architect. I am not familiar with US oil & gas law, so I do not know if it puts any limitations on ownership. All offshore oil is owned by the government and leased to oil companies. As leasee, the legal doctrine of "waste" would prevent the oil companies from destroying the oil. It may or may not be that the concept is extended to privately owned oil reserves. It does not matter because I am asking for commentary about what "should" be the law ... not what it is. My view is that there are some resources that the government, acting on behalf of the general public, should be able to regulate against "waste" even though they are on private land. Oil is a precious resource that we as a society need to carefully manage since it is so crucial to the economy. Forests or mountains may be too important for their scenic value to allow private owners to destroy them. Many other examples are possible. I believe Objectivists would prefer property rights to be absolute, as you have laid out, Spiral Architect. I am asking posters to defend that position.

As for posters comments about Wyatt's Torch such as:

In the novel, Wyatt did not destroy the immense reserves of the oil that he had not extracted from the "exhausted" wells, period. Those reserves were left intact, in the ground, just as they were before he began extracting from them. Are you seriously suggesting otherwise?

I am not "suggesting" Wyatt destroyed "immense reserves". Rather, I am using his more modest destruction of some of the reserves in the ground as an example for purposes of raising the issue. Please do not get hung up on the Wyatt's Torch example itself, but consider the question in the abstract. If you think there should be a "de minimis" exception to a rule against destruction of owned natural resources, that would be valuable to discuss.

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I am not "suggesting" Wyatt destroyed "immense reserves". Rather, I am using his more modest destruction of some of the reserves in the ground as an example for purposes of raising the issue. Please do not get hung up on the Wyatt's Torch example itself, but consider the question in the abstract. If you think there should be a "de minimis" exception to a rule against destruction of owned natural resources, that would be valuable to discuss.

The question in the abstract is not particularly interesting to me but what is concerning to me is the misrepresentation of the actions of characters in the novel. There's too much false information already "out there" and I certainly don't expect it here.

Wyatt invented a process to extract oil from "exhausted" wells. Whatever oil he burned was recovered through that process (how else would it have been available to burn?) and was his to use or to dispose of. So the answer to your question "Did Wyatt have a right to torch the oil [that his process of extraction made available] on his land" is yes, he did.

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Did Wyatt have a right to torch the oil on his land? Do ownership rights go so far that the owner of natural resources is able to prevent others from using them forever?

I would start with a less dramatic example: do you have the right to destroy anything that you didn't personally add to your property? I remember a teacher of mine had this huge tree in her front yard, and the roots were causing major plumbing issues all throughout her house. So one day, she and her husband had it cut it down.. but they had to pay huge fines because that tree was over 14" in diameter (and chopping down a tree that large violated some city ordinance). As another example, if you buy a home in a historic district you have to get permission before making any changes to the home (even if it's something as small as adding a fence or a garage to the property).

So just on a small scale, it's easy to see how debilitating these laws can be. If you buy property, you should be able to do what you want with it, whether it's adding a fence around your old house, or chopping down a nasty tree that's destroying your plumbing. You shouldn't have to get permission to modify your own land from people who haven't contributed anything to it.

My view is that there are some resources that the government, acting on behalf of the general public, should be able to regulate against "waste" even though they are on private land. Oil is a precious resource that we as a society need to carefully manage since it is so crucial to the economy. Forests or mountains may be too important for their scenic value to allow private owners to destroy them.

Who decides what is too precious to be destroyed or modified? Is it the same people who made it illegal for me to chop down a tree on my own property? Lots of laws are created with the 'public interest' in mind. But there is no way to serve the 'general public' without violating the rights of someone, somewhere. In this case, the rights that are being violated are those of property owners.

Here's what Ayn Rand says on the issue:

"There is no such thing as 'the public interest' except as the sum of the interests of individual men. And the basic, common interest of all men—all rational men—is freedom. Freedom is the first requirement of “the public interest”—not what men do when they are free, but that they are free. All their achievements rest on that foundation—and cannot exist without it. The principles of a free, non-coercive social system are the only form of 'the public interest.'" [Source]

Edited by mdegges

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I'm always here to help.

You want me to defend the position that man’s rights are more valuable than objects? Let me take an approach with the current subject as a backdrop.

For whom is the resource valuable? What other things are valuable to that person?

Resources are not so valuable that they trump man’s rights. That is a contradiction in terms as resources may help man’s life but rights are a requirement for man to live in the first place. Or to put it bluntly, I don’t need any one random object to live but I do need the ability to act freely so I can live in the first place.

What is considered a valuable resource varies greatly through history but the constant is man’s need for freedom. Where he is free, he thrives. Where he is not, we end up with catastrophic results. Man’s nature is what demands political rights so he can be free to act and provide for his life. That is a constant. Random objects that prove useful in each era man historically travels through might be valuable due to the times, but they are finite in their use and place in that time line. They do not trump the constant which his need for rights. To say something is more important than man’s rights is to say something is more important than the necessity of man’s universal and ongoing need to act for his survival. Nothing is more important than man’s life and the basic requirements for him to do that.

Certainly not some greasy oil pit or overgrown forest.

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The real contention seems to be not whether or not the object can be deemed to be more valuable than a man's rights, as value is always agent-relative, any thief can claim he values the object more than he values his victim's rights. In fact, that is implied in any act of theft.

The heart of the issue will be found in what actually constitutes ownership, does ownership refer to the right to dispose of that which is owned, and if not, then in what sense does someone really own something? If I cant get rid of something, then do I really own it? If these other individuals who are nonproducers, noncontractors, and nonhomesteaders have a claim to the object, then where did that claim come from? If they do have a claim, then it's clear those individuals are the real owners, and so how do you justify this non Lockean claim? If the producers, contractual exchangers, and homesteaders don't own it, then it seems clear they themselves are owned by those other individuals, or are at least presumed to be. Needless to say, I don't think that works out, as that would be quite impractical to carry out, except as these ruling individuals see fit to permit the producer-homesteader-contractors to live and work and feed off of them parasitically.

Basically, you can't get rid of the right to disposal without getting rid of ownership itself, and the whole Lockean-Spoonerian-Randian homesteading-producing theory and thereby admitting the whole kit and kaboodle of nature-worship, or our wise overlords planning resource use, or whatever else is claiming to be the source of rights.

Edited by 2046

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After the rights issue is mentioned, it should be considered as to whether these goals you seek about not "wasting" resources are really best achieved through market mechanisms or governmental decree. The market will actually be more effective with regard to preventing waste, as owners who are actually secure in the capital value of their property (as Wyatt decidedly was not) will face the incentive to plan the use of their resources over a long period of time, whereas government is populated by temporary interchangeable caretakers who are bound by the next election. They face the incentive to bring about short term planning in the absence of price signals, bringing about uneconomic exhaustion of the resource.

Moreover the free market conveys the "will of society" regarding the use of resources much more effectively through the profit and loss mechanism, in contrast to governmental regulators who can be captured by powerful pressure groups and corporate interests.

Remember that we cannot conflate the fascist society Wyatt lived in with what would prevail under the free market, as his production was constantly interfered with, contracts violated, and he was literally withdrawing from society. In the real world, and in a free market society, the incentive not to destroy some valuable resource is unimaginably high. The act would constitute a massive act of consumption by the owner, and would ruin him forever, if even being illegal, as there would likely be outstanding contracts over the use and development of the resource.

In contrast, governmental planners will always be at best wasteful according to the point of view of consumers, since they lack any means of economic calculation. And who would want to live in a society where the government can unilaterally determine from its own point of view that some owner is "wasting" something and shall be relieved of it?

But what if someone does waste something? Isn't that bad? Well, maybe, but in the end the point of individual rights is that some things (namely acts of force) that are bad ought to be combatted with force, whilst some other things (like wasting something or being a bad person, or racial discrimination, or not taking your vitamins, etc.)are also bad and ought to be combatted, but not necessarily with force. Those who are left-leaning sometime have a hard time seeing the difference and think, if it is bad to do X, then we ought to use force to stop it.

Edited by 2046

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Thank you addressing the question, Spiral Architect. I am not familiar with US oil & gas law, so I do not know if it puts any limitations on ownership. All offshore oil is owned by the government and leased to oil companies. As leasee, the legal doctrine of "waste" would prevent the oil companies from destroying the oil. It may or may not be that the concept is extended to privately owned oil reserves. It does not matter because I am asking for commentary about what "should" be the law ... not what it is. My view is that there are some resources that the government, acting on behalf of the general public, should be able to regulate against "waste" even though they are on private land. Oil is a precious resource that we as a society need to carefully manage since it is so crucial to the economy. Forests or mountains may be too important for their scenic value to allow private owners to destroy them. Many other examples are possible. I believe Objectivists would prefer property rights to be absolute, as you have laid out, Spiral Architect. I am asking posters to defend that position.

Defend it against what? Ayn Rand does offer proof for the principle of individual rights, in her writings. Do you wish to challenge that principle, and her proof? Then we'll have to evaluate your arguments, and potentially defend individual rights against them.

But I don't see any arguments against individual rights, all I see is an unsubstantiated opinion.

So the Objectivist position is so far not in need of defending. If you wish, I can just attack your opinion instead. I can for instance comment that making "natural resources" a special category in which property ought to be limited whenever the government feels it's "for the best", is in fact full blown socialism. Everything in this Universe is both natural and a resource towards some end, so you're arguing for government controls on the ownership of everything. You're also not setting an objective criteria by which the government's controls on private ownership should be limited, so you're in fact arguing for unlimited government control of absolutely everything.

Edited by Nicky

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So, the concrete question is: Did Wyatt have a right to torch the oil on his land?

Wyatt's Torch was unable to be extinguished. Imagine BP in the Gulf creating an unstoppable spill... intentionally. If anyone here can justify the intentional creation of a perpetual environmental disaster as the result of a right to property, I'd love to see it...

Do ownership rights go so far that the owner of natural resources is able to prevent others from using them forever?

Forever is a long time, but in terms of legal inheritance... yes.

I believe John Locke was essentially correct (even without reference to God), that property rights, in terms of finite real estate and natural resources, ethically depend to some measure of conservation. One is entitled to acquire as much land and resources as one can own by efforts to improve it, but one is not entitled to intentionally waste common resources such that others can no longer acquire and use them...

"Sec. 33. Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself: for he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. No body could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst: and the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same." ~ John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chapter 5

http://www.constitut.../jl/2ndtr05.htm

Wyatt was certainly entitled to turn his property into a wasteland as the Owner of his property, however the air above and resources beneath (that extended beyond his property lines) remained common to his neighbors. His action to create a perpetual environmental disaster, that was not delimited to his own property, was an act of aggression against his neighbors and undermined his own right to property by dismissing theirs.

Edited by Devil's Advocate

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I was going to respond but then decided that why should I bother if you are not, I mean you have to work pretty hard to ignore the actual principles the author was dramatizing in the story to consider Wyatt the aggressor. Evidently Francisco was one too when he blew up his mines. Raganar was a criminal that stole from people and sunk their property. Rearden was a louse for cheating on his poor wife. Dagny… Oh man, she slept with three different men, including the fact she was an adulteress and slept with an employee on the job, and she deserted her job without notice. No wonder she ended up with the lowest paid worker in the company.

In other news, context is king of understanding.

Edited by Spiral Architect

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I was going to respond but then decided that why should I bother if you are not, I mean you have to work pretty hard to ignore the actual principles the author was dramatizing in the story to consider Wyatt the aggressor. Evidently Francisco was one too when he blew up his mines. Raganar was a criminal that stole from people and sunk their property. Rearden was a louse for cheating on his poor wife. Dagny… Oh man, she slept with three different men, including the fact she was an adulteress and slept with an employee on the job, and she deserted her job without notice. No wonder she ended up with the lowest paid worker in the company.

In other news, context is king of understanding.

Ok, so I was responding to the OP's "concrete" questions in the context provided: "... let's discuss whether people would have a right to destroy natural resources in a Objectively perfect world." Wyatt's symbolic action didn't appear to be what the OP was focusing on, but perhaps I misread his intent as something other than a literary discussion??

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Wyatt's Torch was unable to be extinguished. Imagine BP in the Gulf creating an unstoppable spill... intentionally. If anyone here can justify the intentional creation of a perpetual environmental disaster as the result of a right to property, I'd love to see it...

BP doesn't own the Gulf of Mexico! :)

Wyatt was certainly entitled to turn his property into a wasteland as the Owner of his property, however the air above and resources beneath (that extended beyond his property lines) remained common to his neighbors. His action to create a perpetual environmental disaster, that was not delimited to his own property, was an act of aggression against his neighbors and undermined his own right to property by dismissing theirs.

I'm glad you brought this up, it's a good point.. and it's the reason why smoking has been banned in so many public areas. People complain that 'the air isn't yours to pollute' and that 'by smoking near me, you'll give me cancer.' I've even heard the argument that private bars/restaurants should be forced to ban smoking from their establishments, because 'the air in these places can't be privately owned.' This argument is also the reason why there's so many environmental laws and restrictions, like fuel efficiency standards, the clean air act, etc. Many of these issues are discussed in essays on the ARI & The Atlas Society websites.

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BP doesn't own the Gulf of Mexico! :)

They bought the right to drill where the blow out occurred unintentionally. But following the OP's lead, what if BP bought the right to drill, got fed up with over-regulation, and intentionally blew out a well too deep to reseal, a la Wyatt's Torch?? In other words, having obtained a legal right to extract oil, does BP remain within their right to extract a resource by intentionally wasting it in a manner intended to pollute (as a political statement, "Regulate this, EPA!") rather than to profit from?

(edit) bad example - this too closely presents what the OP wants to avoid, being an "act of war" against the EPA... Besides there's a better example to be had in that BP could have sealed the well, but chose to siphon off some and the spill the rest until a new valve could be installed. I believe this choice pushed the limits of what an ethical Owner/operator ought to have done, because of the wasted resources that were allowed to escape.

Edited by Devil's Advocate

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Ok, so I was responding to the OP's "concrete" questions in the context provided: "... let's discuss whether people would have a right to destroy natural resources in a Objectively perfect world." Wyatt's symbolic action didn't appear to be what the OP was focusing on, but perhaps I misread his intent as something other than a literary discussion??

If misread the intent then that was my mistake, but really there is no divorcing the issue since that is the purpose of the book. His symbolic action is the purpose of the story. If the author thought that delineating mineral rights or reviewing collateral damage was useful, it would not have been omitted. Since it was it is not essential the point being made. Plus, in the context of the book, the point is that the land and rights were owned by Wyatt and he alone was the target of looting.

In a real life situation it is context driven. If the destruction of your property harms someone else’s property then they have the right to seek damages against you. Mineral rights would be handled in the same way. If you destroy something that is yours however, it is of no consequence since the only person impacted is you.

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There is also the larger point that hangs over the entire book: People are acting in ways that would not be in their best interest in a moral society but they are reduced to such acts due to a society that throttles them. The real crime is not that Wyatt blew up his land, but the fact that the Government and the ethics of the people that supported it drove a good man to do so. The criminals in the story got just what they deserved.

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In other words, having obtained a legal right to extract oil, does BP remain within their right to extract a resource by intentionally wasting it...?

No, because they don't own the Gulf of Mexico- unlike Wyatt, who owned the land and property that he torched.

Edit: Didn't see this before, but SA said it better:

If the destruction of your property harms someone else’s property then they have the right to seek damages against you. Mineral rights would be handled in the same way. If you destroy something that is yours however, it is of no consequence since the only person impacted is you.

As a side question, would bodies of water be privatized in a laissez-faire society?

Edited by mdegges

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In a real life situation it is context driven. If the destruction of your property harms someone else’s property then they have the right to seek damages against you. Mineral rights would be handled in the same way. If you destroy something that is yours however, it is of no consequence since the only person impacted is you.

My concern is that the context being overlooked is ownership of a finite resource, the waste of which is of consequence to your neighbor's ability to acquire future property of their own.

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Oceans are admittedly problematic, especially for something like fishing where the recourse is mobile. You could end up with a tragedy of the commons scenario for that. I don’t have an easy answer off the top of my head and will have to chew on it. I can see that being very complicated however even if you do assume rational trade partners bordering the ocean.

For drilling, however, if you own property then you are within the jurisdiction of a governing body and mineral rights would be delineated through property rights.

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My concern is that the context being overlooked is ownership of a finite resource, the waste of which is of consequence to your neighbor's ability to acquire future property of their own.

Ah, I get your concern. The issue here however is that everything is finite. The fact that resources and finished goods are finite is a cornerstone of economics. It drives people’s “wants and needs” as they say in macroeconomics. It’s the “want” versus the limited available of that “want” that sets supply and demand, and ultimately price.

Being finite is exactly what makes property rights essential to ownership. If something was “infinitely available” you could just get it when ever you wanted it. Being finite is a fact of property, not an exception.

Edit: Clarification

Edited by Spiral Architect

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