October 22, 1997
Libertarianism and the Environment

My aim in engaging the topic of public resource pollution (air, water) is to examine the subject in the light of libertarianism's opposition to the use of force. I see a smokestack as an act of force, but I am open to deliberation on the matter.

And if we're going to be taking libertarian purity tests, we should probably settle on a definition of libertarian, if possible.

To me, "libertarian" the adjective, means "opposed to the unprovoked use of force or fraud."

In that context, I submit that at some level, public pollution becomes an act of force.

In an ideal libertarian world, pollution and corporate environmentalism could be handled in the free market, with free-thinking, empowered consumers simply driving the nasty companies out of business. But ours has been a very slanted economy, as regards health and pollution. Government has fully co-sponsored the rise of petrofuels over the past 100 years, and has fully cooperated with the related industries to ensure their success, prosperity, and sustainability. Those industries have arguably exerted "force" upon everybody, in collusion with the government.

So, I say if you want a full-on libertarian free market, fine. But I think it would be irresponsible to do so without setting a level playing field, i.e. one that does not allow for the degradation of others' property or life. Air belongs to everybody. It is my air. If you make it worse, you are messing with my air, exerting force on it.

There is an amount of environmental degradation that comes with being alive. We breathe, we make trash, we mine elements to make things. I would agree that there must be an amount of personal "pollution" that simply "comes with the territory," and that an individual (or a company) should be expected to, and permitted, to produce some waste, and use up some resources. That's life.

But it is pretty well agreed that we have exceeded (as individuals, as companies, as a species) a "normal" or "tolerable" level of laying waste to our (at the very least) air and water.

The U.S. is by far the biggest part of that problem, and is doing little to nothing about it.

I want to be clear that I am only trying to flesh out a topic from a libertarian point of view. I think that the environment is an issue which will chase libertarians for a long time unless the public is convinced that libertarianism is "environmentally responsible." I am interested in reconciling "libertarianism" and "environmentally responsible," and, having reconciled them, presenting that stance in a way that the majority will understand, and, preferably, support.

I'm just trying to come to some conclusions. Not professing, but pondering.

Posted by Lance Brown at 08:32 PM