Capitalist Test Case

Suppose I buy up tracts of land around the globe, and set up oxygen extraction machines on this land. Any air that passes over the land, I remove the oxygen and store it. I’m not polluting, I’m merely harvesting resources that are on my land. Let’s say I have enough of these machines, and enough locations, that I can deplete the oxygen content of the earth’s atmosphere. If, as a strict libertarian capitalist, I hold that there are no commons, and that, while I am forbidden from extruding into the atmosphere things that can drift into other people’s property and harm them (i.e. some pollutants), I am fully permitted to suck all the oil out of the ground under my property, or pump out the water for my wells and reservoirs, why can’t I suck up the oxygen like this? Again, I’m asking this of the kind of libertarian who holds that private ownership of water should be a basic right and that, while it might be morally wrong for me to acquire all the water rights in some given area and then refuse to share the water, or choose to sell it only at a rate that few can afford, it should not be illegal for me to do so. Is there any argument against my sucking the oxygen out of the air that passes over my property? We can’t appeal to the fact that the air will then drift elsewhere, because if I hold to the privatization of water rights, it seems I’ll probably allow that I can build dams and reservoirs that limit how much water flows downstream, and so in these cases, too, the remaining, depleted water drifts elsewhere.

It seems, on these accounts, that I’m legally justified in trying to monopolize the oxygen, and then perhaps selling it back to people at a huge mark-up. And yet, this seems intuitively problematic. Is there an argument against it that doesn’t appeal to principles outside of libertarian capitalism?


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