Property rights and ethics

We take property rights for granted. Your car, my bank account, her house, keep off our land; the right of ownership is rarely questioned. But it hasn’t always been like this.

Prior to the invention of property rights land was held and farmed in common. Property rights enabled a rapid increase in wealth creation, supported by the economic rationale that individuals will care for their property, preserving valuable assets such as land.

After land was enclosed by British Law, settlers took their notion of property rights to the colonial frontiers, dispossessing indigenous people who had lived sustainably on their land for thousands of years. It is interesting that many indigenous tribes practiced collective ownership or “what is yours is mine”, whereby food, clothing and shelter are consumed by members of the tribe based on need rather than legal title.

Other common property such as the world’s oceans and air space were also partitioned into separate property and traded in the global market. Now the right to pollute the air has become a tradeable property right with the implementation of emissions trading schemes (ETS) all over the world.

Potentially the quantity of emissions allowed could be restricted to an amount which the ecological systems of planet Earth could effectively assimilate. However for political and economic reasons ETS caps are set at ridiculously high levels creating an economic instrument which is completely ineffective in reducing air pollution and our contribution to climate change.

Property rights have also pertained to human beings. The obvious immorality of such actions has driven this still lucrative trade underground where human slaves are forced to work in the sex industry by highly efficient global criminal networks.

Whilst owning a human being is universally illegal, property rights pertaining to the genetic material which combine to create life were legalised by the US Supreme Court in the controversial Chakrabarty case in 1980. This case subsequently allowed the ownership of life in all forms except in the case of a living human being.

This led to the patenting of genetic fragments which combine to make plant, animal and human life. Corporations now have monopoly power over the blueprints of life, with the legal right to restrict access to genetic information critical to medical and biotechnological research.

The economic argument for allowing gene patenting is it encourages corporate investment in research given the intellectual property outcomes of the research are protected and can therefore be commercialised to earn profit. The tragedy is that this complex web of gene patents places a prohibitive hurdle on publically funded medical and genetic research.

For example, a university researcher studying gene combinations looking for a cure to breast cancer would need to pay royalties to multiple patent holders making the cost of the research prohibitive.

The foundation of capitalism is that competition is good for society. Biotechnology companies have been successful for 30 years in convincing the public their monopoly ownership of genetic information is an exception to the rule of the competitive market place.

The argument that restricting access to genetic information critical to research is beneficial to society is ludicrous. Surely competition between both public and private researchers would lead to increased medical knowledge and better health outcomes for society? Furthermore, why don’t private and public researchers co-operate to improve health outcomes for the public?

The monopoly argument is wearing thin and patent infringement liability must be lifted on all genetic research aimed at benefiting the public. Like slavery, some things are not meant to be owned.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

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