Commentary: The moral aspect of the Sheshinski report

Man has two options to choose from: earning resources or stealing resources.

Offshore Gas Drilling 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Offshore Gas Drilling 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Usually, there are two ways to approach a debated subject. The first would be to tackle it in legal terms; the second, to tackle it on the premise of morality. It’s been over two months since the Sheshinski Committee filed its final report with conclusions to raise government revenues, so now would be a good time to elevate some missed points after the heated debate has calmed down.
Most of the “anti-taxing” groups and individuals have made their pleas not to raise revenues on gas income based on legal claims (unsurprisingly), while the “pro-taxing” groups have used both debating tools in their rhetoric: legal and moral.
I am no law expert, yet I can say fairly assuredly that the notion of a contract being changed retroactively seems like a “dirty” thing to do. However, it also seems that signing a contract with the state immediately puts both sides in an uneven equation.
In other words, signing a contract with the state is not the same as signing a contract by two private entities. This might not be “fair,” yet it is what reality dictates in our modern “practical” political atmosphere.
That the representatives of the energy companies are not threatening to go to court after the final Sheshinski report was released certainly reinforces this point.
So a question arises: If the legal claims to support the gas companies’ interests were so weak, how come those were the only ones illuminated to the public? Where were the moral claims? Sure, the spokespeople talked about the threat of depending on Egyptian gas (which actually sounds very real right now), they talked about losing foreign investors, about the loss of entrepreneur motivation – all very pragmatic and sensible claims. Yet, can they hold up against the moral perception of the public’s natural resources being stolen by rich oligarchs? I don’t think so.
If you go out to the battlefield carrying only a knife, while your opponent carries a gun, well, you don’t have too many chances of winning, do you? Being unable to speak about this economic issue in moral terms means you have lost the battle before you even tried to put up a fight.
The notion of a “public natural resource” has been brought up so many times that the regular Moshe from Rehovot felt immediately as if someone was cheating him from what is rightly his.
John Locke, the English political philosopher of the 17th century, also known as “the Father of Liberalism,” would wholeheartedly disagree.
In his book Two Treatises of Government he explains the moral principles of private property.
In short, God created the universe for all men. Nature and its resources belong collectively to the entire human race.
One must ask then: If an apple on a tree belongs to all human beings, how would one person get the consent of all men to use that apple for his private well-being? Before he even finishes walking to and fro in his close community asking for consent to eat the collective property, the apple, he would starve to death.
Locke’s solution therefore is simple: Nature belongs to all men, yet when man sets his actions into work, the natural resource becomes his own. Plowing the land, chopping a tree or walking to a stream of water to quench man’s thirst: all considered a working effort that earns the right to private property, differentiated from other people’s non-actions.
Thus, the virtue of work turns the collective into private. To claim something as your own you need first to prove you actually created that something. The “pro-taxing” groups claims the gas belongs collectively to Israeli citizens, although I never knew that Israelis have created that gas; in fact, in case they did, I would like to know why on earth did they bury it so deep underwater in the first place! I doubt the collectivists have an answer for that one.
The contract between the government and the gas companies was, in fact, unjust from the start. It was unjust because it assumed, for some odd reason, that the land out at sea “belonged” to the state. It assumed that the state has a “right” to claim revenues over something that was never hers to begin with.
No property can belong collectively to a group of people. Even stock shares are divided into sections, and those sections belong solely to their private owner. There is no such thing as a collective property. There’s no such thing as a “public resource.”
Look around you. The chair you’re sitting on, the desk in front of you, your pencil that you use to write with – everything comes from nature. Why is natural gas held to a different standard then? The only resource available to man is man himself. Man’s mind, spirit and reason are his only assets to prosperity. It is not luck, who you know or whether you happen to live above a gold mine. Any product created in this world was not created by itself with some unnatural powers, but by man’s thoughts and actions.
Well, of course there’s another way of getting hold of resources. You could do it by the use of coercive force, hold a gun to a person’s head and demand that that person gives you what he created with his own talent.
Thus, man has two options to choose from: earning resources or stealing resources. There’s just no other way of doing it. And I think it is fairly clear which option the government has chosen in this case.
Natan Galili is a political science, communications and journalism student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.