Kings Midas and Canute are alive and living in the Hamptons. Midas, as you may remember from your studies of ancient Greece, was offered one wish as a result of an act of kindness, and he asked that whatever he touched be turned to gold. His wish was granted (an outcome which current Greek politicians are desperately trying to replicate), and he went merrily around his palace showing off. . . until he tried to kiss his daughter. Canute, who ruled Denmark, Norway and England a millennium ago, sought to teach his fawning courtiers about the limits of human power by ordering his throne brought to the beach, where he commanded the waves to stop. They didn’t.
Canute offered his lesson on the beach of Southampton in Hampshire, England. It is a lesson lost on the modern plutocrats of Southampton, Long Island. A recent article in The New York Times tells the stories of billionaires building huge fortifications to protect their beachfront mansions from the next Hurricane Sandy. It is a modern fable of hubris, as hedge fund managers seek to impose their wills on nature with little understanding about how nature operates and less regard for the impact of their actions on others. The erosion of the public beaches being caused by the heroic battles to save their vacation homes is just collateral damage. Their insistence on the primacy of their private property rights over those of the public square is yet one more example of the tragedy of the commons.