On August 5, agents of the Environmental Protection Agency released more than 3 million gallons of pollutants into the Animas River. At the time, I wrote an article about how private property rights in a stateless society offer a better solution to the problem of water pollution than government environmental regulations. A response that I received in a discussion group regarding that article posed a variant of a common criticism of anarcho-capitalist theory, namely that of a wealthy person buying up vast swaths of land and using private property rights over those lands to perform malicious acts, such as encircling people to trap them on their land. In this case, the proposed troublesome scenario is that of one man owning an entire river from source to sea and using his property rights over the river in a way that harms other people. Let us examine this scenario.

We must begin by asking what it means to own a river. We can deduce this from what it means to own something in general. Ownership is a right to exclusive control over a scarce resource. Such ownership is rightfully gained in a state of nature by mixing one’s labor with unowned natural resources. This is because one owns one’s physical body, and therefore is responsible for the actions committed with that body. Once a property right is established, it may be sold or gifted to another person if the property owner so chooses. Given this theoretical framework, the river owner owns the land upon which the river flows, and ownership of the riverbed may be gained by laboring upon it, such as by dredging the river to make it more navigable or by growing aquatic crops in it. However, the water in the river is not labored upon and is not static upon the property. It will eventually either evaporate or flow into another body of water that is outside of the man’s property claim. Wildlife that resides within the river are likewise unowned, but the man may claim them by mixing his labor with them in the form of foraging, fishing, or hunting. Finally, we may expect that the man would own a reasonable clearance above his river, large enough to allow him to peacefully enjoy his river but not large enough to impede commercial air or space travel overhead.

Next, let us consider the various types of rivers. A river may end through evaporation, through infiltration, or through emptying into an ocean, a sea, a lake, or another river. Rivers that infiltrate back into the water table or flow into another body of water have all of the concerns of an evaporating river plus more, so we will concern ourselves only with these types of rivers.

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