Scarcity of resources exists in many forms and is THE problem in economics. If resources were not scarce, there would be no need to economize. The existence of scarcity is true of all resources (time, human energy, natural resources, etc.) It is not intuitive that allowing scarce resources to be owned privately is the solution to this problem. Socialists would like to ignore this reality of scarcity and have all resources owned collectively for the common good. By contrast, we Austrians know that private property solves the economic fact and economic problem of scarcity, as I will now discuss.
A society which spurns private property and throws all resources open to those who wish to take them will quickly learn the terrible lesson of the tragedy of the commons; i.e., that commonly held resources will be plundered to extinction.
If society spurns allowing private ownership of resources, it must find some other means to prevent the tragedy of the commons, and historically the means chosen is the use of force. Throughout history most of mankind has been divided into a hierarchical system of masters and slaves with some graduations between the two extremes, such as priestly or aristocratic classes. The masters (pharaohs, emperors, kings, sultans, warlords, etc.) devised complex rules-based systems for resource distribution that ultimately depended upon pure terror for enforcement.
But this so-called solution to the problem of scarcity–restricting the people’s liberty through the use of force–does not work. The gradual understanding of modern economics eventually ended thousands of years of subsistence existence for the masses in the West. Modern economics explained that without private ownership of resources, a man could not hold an ordinal preference. The term ordinal , of course, means that something is prioritize from highest to lowest. Without ordinal preferences, there is no rational means to economize for the betterment of society. In other words, the masters never really knew what to order the slaves to produce, what technical means to use, what alternative materials to use, the quality desired, or how much to produce. Thus, the Commissars of the Soviet Union ordered the production of inefficiently produced, shoddy goods. The Soviet empire collapsed, despite the fact that Russia is blessed with vast resources and an industrious population .
A second fatal problem with common ownership of all resources is that few such readily available, consumable resources actually exist. There are no resources on the planet that do not require at least a minimum of effort to transform into a consumable product. Even edible berries growing in the wild must be harvested, meaning that someone must transport himself to the berries’ location and pull them from the bush at just the proper time. The cost of doing so is the value one places on forfeiting his leisure. Of course, other natural resources require much more effort to convert to consumable products, passing through uncountable stages of production. For example, timber and minerals must be extracted, harvested, etc. and then molded into something that can be consumed. Consider a hiker lost in the wild. It matters not at all to him that great stands of timber lie within easy reach or that valuable minerals lie under foot. These natural resources require great effort over very long time periods to be converted into something consumable, such as a shelter or gasoline. A lost hiker does not have the knowledge, time, or previously produced means to convert these basic resources into consumable products to ensure his survival. All this is far beyond anyone’s autarkic abilities.
Now let us assume that someone did harvest trees by felling them, transporting them to a lumber mill, milling them, storing them in a ventilated and dry place for many months before kiln-drying them (all processes that are required to turn trees into useable lumber), advertising their availability to contractors, keeping sales records, sending out bills, collecting the bills, etc. only to have a socialist call him a plunderer and confiscate his lumber for free distribution to whomever the masters deemed to be politically advantageous to their continued privileged position. No one would ever harvest another tree. In other words, production of usable lumber would cease despite the fact that trees were readily available.
Now let us consider what would happen if the commissars did order slaves to harvest the trees. Great forests would be denuded in short order, because there would be no social mechanism to prevent what would amount to a tragedy of the commons by order of the state.
Proper harvesting of timber requires that its value be capitalized
Capitalization of timber requires that it be privately owned in order that its worth can take its proper place in the ordinal hierarchy of preferences. The consequences of ignoring this fact of economic science is most evident today in China’s ghost cities, where resources, both natural and human, have been expended for no observable benefit except to advance the careers of politicians who can claim to have met the requirements of the latest Five Year Plan.
The opposite case of resource waste comes from special interest groups who capture the political (police) apparatus of the state and prohibit exploitation of resources by private individuals. In the name of protecting Mother Gaia from being plundered, modern environmentalists have convinced the political class that most progress is unsustainable, dangerous to our health, or any number of other specious claims. Society is prevented from benefiting from their conversion to consumable products. Private ownership insures that resources will never be plundered to extinction, because their value will have been capitalized. The process of determining a resource’s capitalized value is impossible absent free market capitalism with strict defenses of property rights.
Despite both the theoretical and empirical evidence to the contrary, socialists tell us the opposite; i.e., that state ownership of all resources will prevent their plunder and ensure prosperity for all. As Ludwig von Mises explained, socialism is not an alternative economic system of production. It is a system of consumption only, and a system of economic ignorance and economic plunder.