Paul Jacob

If possession is nine-tenths of the law, then the red flag (or, uh, the white-blue-and-red flag) means something, if not nine-tenths of something important.

This kind of state action used to lead to wars. What does it lead to, today? An endless set of meetings at the United Nations?

Or the beginning of the bathyscape (exploratory submarine) craze, a boom leading to an industry bubble?

Maybe the whole matter is a bubble in the ocean, since it is probably a long way off before Russia can really profit from this.

But it does suggest that Putin is putting his chips on global warming. If and when the ice melts on the Arctic year around, it would be so much easier to exploit the underwater geological plates.

As this becomes a live issue it will become obvious that the Law of the Sea and other international agreements need more than a bit of improvement. Environmentalists and ecologists have made a lot of noise about the need for no fishing zones in vast tracts of the sea. I have argued that we need (either instead or also) to establish vast tracts of private property in sea. And this is just for plant and animal life.

For mineral rights?

Also private property.

Not to wave a red flag here — or black — but it’s not national territory that is most important. It is the rule of law — and the allowing and encouraging of private enterprise — that is going to matter for the future of humanity. Alongside these things must be strict tort claims for pollution and other harm caused by industrialization in that most literally fluid of potential properties, the sea. (My point is, why not get the rule of law right, right at the beginning of the development of a new property domain?)

The placement of a titanium flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole does not bode well for the development of reasonable property rights. And we can bet that the reactions to the Russian move by Canada, Norway, Denmark, and the U.S. are not going to increase the likelihood of good policy, either.

In any case, the North Pole ain’t what it used to be. And here I thought that such a thing could be said only about the magnetic north pole, which is constantly (and increasingly) shifting.

True north may not shift so much, but policy towards it does.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.