Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What is the Libertarian Solution to Pollution?

Libertarians and conservatives alike often get slammed for a supposed harsh view toward the environment. This mostly comes from the progressives and the environmentalists, but is their claim completely without merit? In the modern cultural millieu, it certainly has a sound basis. After all, who are the people who are always defending the environment at every turn? Without hesitation, most people would say that it is progressives. However, this argument is much more complex than it is usually portrayed, especially when it comes to the issue of environmentalism in libertarianism.

Conservatives are usually portrayed as haters of the environment by the progressive-minded. Although environmentalists are obviously the more staunch defenders of the environment, by the very nature of their name, this does not mean that the portrayal is correct. Conservatives typically look at the issue from the point of view of trying to maximize efficiency. Of course, there are some that think that environmental rules have gone too far, and they probably are not in the minority. However, the biggest qualm that conservatives typically have with regard to environmental laws is their very bloated nature. They claim that it is very difficult for businesses to stay in line with these regulations because of all the bureaucratic red tape involved. They have a case, but this does not mean that they hate the environment. All of the big conservative political pundits say that we need some kind of environmental rules; their problem is with the bureaucracy and that in some cases it goes too far.

However, as compared to libertarians, both progressives and conservatives get it wrong. The real problem that these two sides have with regards to this issue is that they believe that a certain amount of pollution is morally acceptable as long as the benefits outweigh the costs. To a libertarian, this is a repugnant view. What this does, in essence, is ignores the property rights of the individual in order to defend the presumed rights of the collective. I could write a book about why the collective does not exist outside the mind of individuals, but this is not necessary here. The fact is that because pollution is deemed acceptable despite the harm it causes to individuals, there is no way to put a price on pollution.

So what would libertarians do instead? I will defer to Murray Rothbard here and describe his views on the situation. In For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard described how the rights of the individuals are severely restricted when it comes to pollution. Factories and other businesses are allowed to do as they will despite the harm the cause to neighbors. For instance, if I live in a neighborhood right next door to a factory and the pollution from that factory gives the town lung problems, the neighborhood is basically powerless to do anything. As long as the factory is within its bounds of acceptable pollution (arbitrarily decided by the government bureaucracy), then they are free and clear in the eyes of the law. This was not a system that grew organically through time like much of our common law; this was an invention of European governments (mostly British) during the Industrial Revolution. The neighborhood has no way to file a class action lawsuit; the business is basically free and clear. Of course, some would say that the people could simply leave and move somewhere else, but this ignores basic property rights. If I, as an individual, was to go to a house and spray paint graffitti all over it, I would have to pay dearly for it. Clearly, the current situation is detestable to libertarians.

Then what is the right solution? For the libertarian, the best situation is the one that does not involve any government. People living on their property would decide what a company would have to pay for the pollution that is going to be produced beforehand. If a company went beyond this, then they would be taken to court by nearby property owners. So imagine a neighborhood and a business that wants to build a factory right next to it. The business would have to contract with the neighbors in order to set a rate of compensation for the pollution that is caused. The benefits of this would be two-fold. First, property owners would finally get compensated for the real physical harm that is caused by pollution. Second, businesses would have more of an incentive to take the pollution where it would do the least harm. This is because businesses would want to minimize the cost of doing business and so paying the lowest rate possible for pollution is in their best interest. As a result, people would be fairly compensated and we would end up with cleaner cities.

But alas, this seems to be nothing more than a pipedream. Businesses would not want to trade the current situation for the one detailed because they would have to pay more to produce. Because of this, they would lobby hard to keep things the way they are. It is clear that the situation I describe would be much more equitable, but the powers that be have it in their best interest to avoid it. After all, whoever gets to decide how much pollution a company can emit has all the power in the world. Much like the baby who cries when his rattle is taken away, our government is dead set against giving up any of the power that it has gained, legally or illegally.

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