Libertarianism, the Environment, and Kyoto: Part 1

As a libertarian and strong believer of individual rights and free markets, I often get "accosted" by folks saying that I must want the environment just to go to hell. Actually, no. Beyond my personal enjoyment of the outdoors, having "the environment go to hell" would be a disaster for my business, which depends on outdoor recreation.

This confusion about libertarianism and the environment falls in the category of what I call being pro-property-rights-and-markets and being pro-business. Many politicians, particularly traditional conservatives, who say they are the former and are in fact the latter. "Pro-business" politicians often support many things (subsidies, using eminent domain to help developers, building publicly funded stadiums) that bear little resemblance to libertarianism or truly free markets. This confusion also stems from differences in how much people trust individual action and incentives rather than command and control government programs. The Commons is a good site dedicated to market solutions to environmental issues, as is the environment section at Cato Institute. Virginia Postrel frequantly writes on the more general topic, beyond just the environment, of bottom up systems driven by individual choices vs. top down command and control.

In fact, environmental laws are as critical to a nation with strong property rights as is contract law. Why? Imagine a world without any environmental legislation but with strong property rights. What happens when the first molecule of smoke from my iron furnace or from my farm tractor crosses over on to your land. I have violated your property rights, have I not, by sending unwanted substances onto your land, into your water, or into your airspace. To stop me, you might sue me. And so might the next guy downwind, etc. We would end up in an economic gridlock with everyone slapping injunctions on each other. Since economic activity is almost impossible without impacting surrounding property owners, at least in small ways, we need a framework for setting out maximums for this impact - e.g., environmental legislation.

But I do disagree with a lot of environmentalists today. The conflict between free market supporters and environmentalists usually come in four flavors:

1. Disagreement over standards. The discussion above implies that environmental laws create a framework for setting out the maximum impact one property owner can have on others. But what is that maximum? Rational people can disagree, and do. This is a normal part of the political process and won't go away, as different people value different things. I generally don't have any problem with people who disagree with me on these standards, except perhaps for folks that want to argue for "zero" -- these people usually have anti-technology and anti-capitalism goals that go way beyond concern for the environment.

2. Disagreement over methods. Consistent with the framework I presented above, I believe that the government should as much as possible set overall emission standards, and allow individuals to make choices as to how those standards are reached. A good example of this are emissions trading schemes. Statists are uncomfortable with these approaches, and prefer to micro-manage compliance, down to the government making detailed choices about technologies used.

3. Use of One's Own Property. By the reasoning for environmental regulation above, the regulation is to limit the impact of one property owner on others. But the flip side is that property owners should be able to do whatever they damn well please with their own property if it does not affect others. Environmentalists will disagree with this vociferously. I have had literally twenty different people give me the exact same response to this: "If you let people do whatever they want, they would all trash their own land and dump toxic waste all over it". Huh? I swear I get this response constantly and it makes no sense. Why would they do this? We have no regulations that people should keep their house looking nice and shouldn't trash it, but most people keep their house up anyway. Why? Because it is in their own obvious self-interest to do so. If other people don't want you building on a piece of property or want it saved for some specific use (or non-use), then they should buy it. That's why I support the Nature Conservancy -- I personally value having some wide open pristine lands and preserving some habitats, but unlike others, I don't expect other people to pay for my wishes, usually in the form of some luckless landholder who suddenly can't use his property the way he wants. Through the Nature Conservancy, private donors who value having certain lands set aside from development pay to achieve that goal privately. This is similar to environmental groups buying up emisions credits. If all the money spent on whining about and lobbying over the Brazilian rainforest had instead been spent buying tracts of it, it would probably be a big park by now.

4. Priority of Man. This is the up and comer in the world of environmentalism. In its extreme form, proponents argue that animals have the same rights as man (though in practice it seems it is just the cute animals like dolphins and harp seals that get the attention). I don't buy it. While there is no defensible reason to allow cruelty when it can easily be avoided, taking the step to put animals on the same level as man, if followed to its logical extreme, will not bring animals up to our level (how could they?) but will knock man back down to the level of animals (see Rush song here).

In my second post on this topic, I will move on to a more specific topic, with a brief roundup on Global Warming and the Kyoto treaty.

  • http://pacanukeha.blogspot.com Chris Beck

    "3. Use of One's Own Property. By the reasoning for environmental regulation above, the regulation is to limit the impact of one property owner on others. But the flip side is that property owners should be able to do whatever they damn well please with their own property if it does not affect others."

    It certainly seems a fair enough point. I wonder about possible really long-term scenarios. Let us say that I have a process for manufacturing a "widget" that involves toxic by-product. Let us say that this toxic by-product remains toxic for a very long (1000+ years) time. Now if the profit I get from selling widgets is less than the cost of purchasing land it is certainly commercially viable for me to store this stuff and buy more and more land until a land shortage raises the cost of new storage facilities too high so I close down my widget factory and move on to something more profitable (blogging, perhaps). Now I own a large chunk of land that has no future value. Is it in society's best interest to allow owners to reduce the future value of land to zero? One of the major problems with environmental concerns is the large difficulty in measuring cost.

    Let us say that I follow all reasonable current containment standards to store my toxic waste. An act of nature causes a toxic spill causing damage to my neighbours.Would they have the right to sue me or should they rely on any insurance that they may have purchased.

    Just curious.

  • Max

    This is all nice and plain, as long as you are arguing about individual levels. But most environmentally concerned people (I know of) have a different problem, namely the destruction of nature by companies whose self-interest lies with making profit and where conservation (or at least securing) of the environment is not necessary in the process.

    For example, we have the Oil Industry, that needs not take care of its environment, because it can get oil even in a desolate wasteland.

    Another example would be a chemical factory that produces waste and just dumps it into the river.

  • Gregory

    "We have no regulations that people should keep their house looking nice and shouldn't trash it, but most people keep their house up anyway. Why? Because it is in their own obvious self-interest to do so."

    In many urban and suburban areas, there are property maintenance codes that dictate how high your grass can grow, what types of plants are permitted, such as no weeds or poison ivy. The community in which I live even restricts where you can park a trailer, what material a driveway must be constructed with and there is even a ban on putting a "for sale" sign in the window of your car!

    "I have had literally twenty different people give me the exact same response to this: "If you let people do whatever they want, they would all trash their own land and dump toxic waste all over it"."

    Unfortunately, in business, this is often quite true. I worked for an electronics manufacturing facility that routinely buried hazardous waste in massive pits. When one pit neared full, it was covered over and a new one dug. This went on for many years until they were forced by environmental laws and enforcement to stop the dumping and clean up the site.

  • susanna

    Although your science is very sloppy and your attitude deplorable, you'd get more points if you could spell. when you can't even proofread your own blog, how are we supposed to take your sarcasm seriously?