Economics, Property Rights and Surfing
By Roger Parker
On Tuesday morning, the forecasted South Pacific swell began to fill in. By the time the waves hit Southern California they were well over head high with a 16 second interval.
I spent the crystal clear morning in the glassy, 56 degree water working the left shoulder of a peak along the cliffs of San Elijo. I am a goofy foot, and like most surfers who stand right foot forward, I prefer to go left, thus leaning into the open face of the wave.
As the third wave of a larger set started to crest, I could see that it was going to break on my other side, so I paddled into position for a steep drop on a backhand right face. Just in front of me and further to the right was another surfer. As I began leaping to my feet it became clear that he was going to take the same wave. I shouted out a quick “hey” but it was too late, he was up just feet away, and the choice was either risk a collision or pull out. I chose the less dangerous course and let him have the wave. But as he paddled back out I gave him a “look” as did several other local surfers that had seen the transgression. He got the point and was more careful from that point on.
You see, he had stolen my wave, or “dropped in” on me. He knew it, I knew it and the crowd new it as well. Surfing has property rights and he was a rights violator.
Surfing involves a scarce resource, in this case, the breaking face of a wave. It naturally leads to conflict and confusion. Large waves are like rolling freight trains of water. Surfers are hurtling down them at rapid speeds constantly changing directions while riding sharply pointed weapons. Having multiple people on the same wave face is a recipe for injury, board damage or death. Crowding is a dangerous problem that requires a solution. The solution, as in economics, is property rights.
On land, property rights often involve the convention of homesteading. The first to possess or work the land or produce the object normally gets ownership rights, which can then be voluntarily exchanged with others. In intellectual property conventional ownership tends to be assigned for a designated time to the creators or originators. These conventions encourage improvement, minimize conflict and help drive prosperity. They allow groups of people to coordinate their actions to solve problems.
If John Locke was to wax his board and paddle out, he would probably assume the same type of first comers possession. “Hey bro, I was here first, find your own spot.” But that isn’t how it works in surfing. You can’t claim an area by by being the first to float there.
There are multiple explanations. The first is simply that demarcating property boundaries in a fluid medium without clear, consistent markers is problematic at best. Second is that the whole point of surfing is movement. You don’t want to stay in one place, so if property was claimed by homesteading, you would constantly lose it as you surfed off on each wave. Third, though the shoreline is huge, the spots that are great for surfing are actually limited. Watch surfers. They bunch up around specific (though constantly changing) points where the bottom contours cause a wave to peak. This allows them to carve right or left on the open, unbroken face of the wave. Fourth, sometimes being just a few feet off can make the difference between catching and missing a wave. Being in almost the right place is not necessarily good enough to catch a wave. Finally, waves not only peak around one place, they also come in sets. Thus even if it was possible to claim a stake on the water, it would be wasteful, as a surfer can usually only catch one wave per set. If we spread out territorially, we would waste our valuable and scarce resource of beautiful cresting waves.
Though it does not make sense to apply conventional property rights in the water, it would be just as impractical to allow absolute freedom or chaos to reign. As we have seen, that too would lead to disaster. In surfing, rights are not based upon territory, but upon proximity to the cresting peak of a wave. If multiple surfers are paddling for the same one, the inside surfer closest to the peak has ownership.
There are caveats to the rule; if someone is deeper (further out) and starts paddling or stands significantly earlier, it is considered bad form to try to get priority out from them. It is also rude to paddle around someone to get priority on an approaching wave that they have been patiently waiting for. Most importantly, if they try to catch the wave and miss it, the next closest person to the peak assumes control. Furthermore, the rightful property “owner” can give it to another surfer, or even invite others to share it with him or her.
The conventions of surfing lead to a system where a dozen or more people can share a single area and maximize wave enjoyment while minimizing accidents and quarrels.
Surfing conventions are a perfect example of a decentralized, bottoms up, voluntary and emergent practice. The whole point is to have clear, consistent conventions, but despite our intuitions to the contrary, they are not top down. They did not originate from a centralized authority, nor is there centralized enforcement. There are no officials or cops on the water. Surfers individually or collectively police themselves. There is a rationality and functionality, but it is an emergent one, not something dictated from first principles or fundamental essences. Dude, it’s just about waves.
Surfing rights are simply patterns and rules that people discovered as good. They are pragmatic solutions to humans cooperating and coordinating their actions in a competitive search for a scarce resource.
We agree to the rules and conventions and we enforce them ourselves. This leads to an alternative form of surfing property rights called localism. Some highly desired peaks are claimed by local surfers and defended territorially against non locals or tourists. Amongst themselves, they follow the basic protocols of surfing, but they add a territorial element on top. In other words the locals will coercively defend “their beach” against encroachment. They can do this by stealing waves, threatening collisions, and other types of violence toward a surfer’s person or possessions in the water or back on land. Surfers know to watch out for the graffiti and other signals of locals, and to avoid these breaks.
What is the point of all this? I think surfing property rights tell us a lot about property rights in general. They are useful conventions. No Continental philosophers have woven elaborate schemes about the Platonic essence of absolute, metaphysical rights in surfing. To do so would be absurd. They are simply pragmatic protocols on how a diverse group of individuals can coordinate their actions to optimize enjoyment and minimize conflict in the water. There is no “natural right” to a wave.
Second, they are decentralized in just about every sense of the word. They emerged bottoms up from the actions of individual surfers in communication with other surfers, later codified by local surfing associations. But it is up to each individual surfer and the fluid emergent crowds to adopt or reject these rules and conventions. Most do most of the time, but there is crime on the open ocean. When violations do occur, it is up to the offended party, and to a lesser extent the crowd, to enforce the rights.
The individual surfer not only freely chooses whether to adopt the conventions, but is also free to paddle out to a different area with a better vibe or crowd. Surfers have entrance and exit rights, and use them to find compatible crowds. We tend to go back to familiar spots and surf with familiar, trusted crowds. Free individuals voluntarily associate with like minded individuals. They form little informal surfing societies. My wife calls them little surfing sewing circles. If, despite our efforts to the contrary, the crowd goes bad, we often paddle off to the next reef.
Another interesting fact is that violence is rare. Enforcement is usually accomplished in a look, sometimes supplemented with a friendly reminder or a rare harsh word. In thirty five years of surfing I’ve never seen actual blows or witnessed intentional injury (though I’ve heard of them). The explanation is probably a combination of two things. First is that surfers find their crowds. I’m more of an old soul surfer and seek out mellow crowds. The other is that “dropping in” is self policing. Stealing a wave from another surfer puts you at risk of injury regardless of whether the violated surfer intends to enforce the right. There is no place in the lineup more dangerous than in front of a rapidly charging surfer.
Could different surfing rules than these evolve? Sure. The rules are pragmatic, but I can imagine somewhat different rules emerging. The point isn’t that they are perfect rules, it is that they are reasonably good rules that surfers tend to consistently follow. We could drive on the left or right side of the road. The important thing is that we all drive on the same side.
Are they fair? Not completely. Good surfers and those with long boards (don’t even bring up the hated case of stand-up paddle surfers) are better at getting to the peak or standing earlier than others, and can and do dominate the wave count. Rawls would have his board shorts all bunched up in a wad. The rules are uniformly applied, but they are definitely not biased toward the enjoyment for the least adept surfers. In other words, they are pretty utilitarian, and they incentivize better surfing, fewer injuries and minimal wave wastage. However, if we paddled out with a veil of uncertainty on how well we surfed compared to the rest of the crowd, these are the type of rules that we would logically agree to.
I’m not sure what surfing property rights tells us about other property rights. Perhaps a little. I suspect a lot.