A recent article from The Guardian explores the ambitions of the Luxembourg government in developing commercial space activity in the country. This move was partly enfranchised in the law. As the article says:

in July, the parliament passed its law – the first of its kind in Europe, and the most far-reaching in the world – asserting that if a Luxembourgish company launches a spacecraft that obtains water, silver, gold or any other valuable substance on a celestial body, the extracted materials will be considered the company’s legitimate private property by a legitimate sovereign nation.

The underlying assumption by Luxembourg's government seems to be that of "first come first serve", or that the ownership of something without ownership belongs to that one who get it first (in my view, a reminisce of the Scramble for Africa and subsequent European colonialism).

A diametrically opposite view is that of the commons, whereby a resource that belongs to no one belongs to everyone (within a given context, e.g. a park in country X belongs to citizens in country X; the atmosphere on Earth belongs to all of us). Under this narrative, a unilateral declaration of property rights of commons is a clear violation of everyone's interest.

How has philosophy dealt with the issue of ownership of the commons? In particular, I am interested in authors or schools of thought that have a clear position on either side of the debate.

I have read some books about the commons (e.g. Think like a commoner by David Bollier) but these do not provide a philosophical background on the matter. As an economist, I am aware of the Tragedy of the Commons but debates surrounding this have little interest in philosophy -- efficiency is what matters.

  • I don't know about outer space resource issues, but there are already international treaties about legal liability issues dating all the way back to 1972, unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/… So I'd imagine there's at least some vigorous negotiations regarding outer space resources already in progress. And maybe compare and contrast that to the more immediate situation regarding Arctic resources that have become accessible due to climate change, e.g., cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-arctic-frontier-lesley-stahl-2
    – user19423
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 9:02
  • The corporate charter itself is a grant from the state. The state grants the birth certificate of the "inc.". The charter can be revoked, but this is rare. Maybe it shouldn't be so rare. I would imagine that the state grants the "SA" too.
    – Gordon
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 9:40
  • There should be a hefty tax for every private spaceship launch IMO. Space exploration is a highly inefficient solution to the problem of resource depletion/limits to growth on Earth. Its not for the people on earth, it's for the few who have the money to delude themselves of an escape from a ruined earth, and it should be taxed accordingly.
    – Gordon
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 9:47
  • You would think Marxism would hold out hope for a commons. It does and it does not. It does not since it depends upon, and takes over, the industrial base of capitalism and then itself calls for unlimited growth (ruination). It does hold out hope for its concentration on the Ends of production, and the idea that the ends should be good for all (a commons). Of course Marxism can be adapted to our modern situation. Whatever we end up with will be something "new", as far as anything is really new. We adapt, face reality, or die off.
    – Gordon
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 10:32
  • 1
    The other philosopher I can refer you to would be Kant, and particularly to, "Immanuel Kant", Lucien Goldmann, NLB (1971, London). Also in French, Editions Gallimard, 1967; German, Europa-Verlag, Zurich, 1945.
    – Gordon
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 11:07

3 Answers 3


One of the major relevant discussions in political philosophy is with "original acquisition" or the appropriation of natural resources, which amounts to taking them out of the commons. For idiosyncratic historical reasons, much of this discussion is framed in terms of various versions of libertarianism; see this Stanford Encyclopedia article. Here are some highlights from the discussion in that article, with quotations in italics followed by my commentary:

  • The traditional Lockean argument holds that people who own their labor must also own the fruits of their labor, even if those include previously unowned objects.

    • In line with this argument, merely discovering unowned valuable materials would be insufficient to claim ownership. (There's also an example somewhere in the literature of merely pointing at an unowned object and claiming ownership. That is, I can't claim ownership over Jupiter simply by pointing at Jupiter and saying "that's mine.") In Locke's phrase, ownership of natural resources requires "mixing one's labor" with those resources. This might mean doing the work necessary to extract those resources, for example. But it's harder to see how this account of ownership would work for natural resources that haven't been extracted, such as minerals that are still buried far underground. In other words, I can claim to have "mixed my labor" with gold that I've extracted from asteroid 1234; but it doesn't seem like I can make the same claim for gold that's still buried in the middle of asteroid 1234.
  • A distinction can be made, however, between right-libertarianism and left-libertarianism, depending on the stance taken on how natural resources can be owned.

    • Even if mixing labor is necessary for appropriating from the commons, that doesn't mean it's sufficient. Different versions of libertarianism attach different necessary conditions along with "labor mixing." For example, a version of joint-ownership left-libertarianism allows that agents may use natural resources, but holds that they have no moral power to appropriate natural resources without the collective consent of the members of society (e.g., Grunebaum 1987). The article outlines a number of different variations.
  • A plausible account of liberty rights and powers of appropriation over natural resources must, we claim, be unilateralist in the sense that ... agents initially have the power to appropriate (acquire rights over) natural resources without anyone's consent.

    • In the context of your example, Luxembourg is taking a unilateralist position. Luxembourgish companies don't need to get consent from anyone to claim the resources they find or extract. This eliminates one set of necessity requirements — that is, it's not necessary to get consent from anyone else — but there might still be other necessity requirements.
  • Consider Lockean libertarianism, which allows unilateral use and appropriation but insists on restrictions at both the stage of appropriation—in the form of the Lockean proviso that “enough and as good” be left for others.

    • Many libertarians accept the Lockean proviso, though there are a number of different interpretations. (Again, see the article.) In the context of your example, Nozick's interpretation of the proviso roughly says that there should be "adequate" unclaimed gold or whatever left for people who come later.
  • Equal share left-libertarianism—advocated, for example, by Henry George (1879) and Hillel Steiner (1994)—interprets the Lockean proviso as requiring that one leave an equally valuable share of natural resources for others. Individuals are morally free to use or appropriate natural resources, but those who use or appropriate more than their per capita share owe others compensation for their excess share.

    • This is a much more restrictive interpretation of the Lockean proviso than Nozick. The idea might be something like this: There's a certain amount M of grams of gold in the asteroid belt, a certain number of individual human beings N, and the company represents a certain number of individual human beings C. The company is allowed to unilaterally appropriate up to M/N * C grams of gold. If they appropriate more than this, then they must compensate everyone else for the excess.

The tragedy of the commons arises out of equal and open usage of the commons which results, in brief, territorilisation of said commons to the advantage of a few, and it's spoiliation for the many.

It strikes one that equal and open access which might on the face of it sounds democratic is perhaps not so democratic and one might even say anti-democratic if it, in the balance of probabilities, results in adverse outcomes for the many.

Equal and open access is a policy; policy is what made, not by politicians but by political actors; men and women are political creatures by nature, but merely to have that capacity by nature is not to have that capacity in actuality; for in order to gain a capacity in actuality, one must be able to exercise it, practise it, learn it - but are people able to exercise it meaningful ways?

Hannah Arendt in the latter part of her book Totalitarianism sounded a warning note in what she termed as the rise of the 'social', an extension of private space, into the realm of public affairs and at its expense; perhaps this is one explanation of the modern European ennui with politics; but one ought to add that she sounded a hopeful note in the Human Condition with the concept of natality, for men are born and reborn; and every new actor adds a potentially new possibility, to the advantage of men and women in their plurality, into the realm of human action.


Dan Hicks referred to the Lockean argument for ownership. Ownership and capital are interrelated because on Financial Statements, i.e., two entries indicate ownership. A debit entry indicates the asset and a credit entry indicates the capital, which represents the asset. If the capital is equity the ownership is more certain than when the capital is a loan, because with loans the lender usually has legal rights over the asset. When labor was the source of ownership then usually the relevant capital is equity. When debt is the source of ownership then a lender was relevant.

A problem with regard to the system of ownership is that ideas, which led to the ownership is not regarded, because ideas are common property, due to utilitarian philosophy. Consider how assets are formed. First ideas form. Then capital is raised to develop the ideas, or labor takes place to develop the ideas. Usually capital is raised, then people are employed to do work, whilst developing the ideas. The ownership often has nothing to do with the direct labor of development. Often ownership is determined more by networking, specifically networking in networks, where capital is available. Thus networking in networks, related to the money system (banks) and existing capital.

True ownership also relates to religions because Socrates, i.e., said in Book X of the Republic and in Ion, gods and goddesses, are people with good ideas. His opinion influenced Christianity a lot. Socrates's gods and goddesses however have no rights to ownership of assets, their ideas partly caused, because ideas are common property, according to utilitarian philosophy, which influenced property rights. That implies, the current capitalist property system is not based on reality, because the first step (originating ideas) in the formation of assets, is not acknowledged by the law.

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