How Liberty Saves the Environment (Part 3: Restitution Is the Pollution Solution)

The last two blog posts explained how libertarians would eliminate sovereign immunity so that victims of the country’s greatest polluter—government—would have recourse. Secondly, libertarians would privatize land and beast to save endangered species, preserve our parks, and protect our forests. In addition, libertarians would couple these powerful reforms with restitution, to prevent pollution before it starts.

Restitution focuses on restoring the victim to the fullest extent possible. Restitution is “punishment” that fits the crime and is the most effective deterrent known.

For example, if I dumped garbage on your lawn, you would expect me to clean it up. Obviously, the expense and hassle of cleaning up your lawn far outweighs any benefit I’d get for dumping garbage on your lawn in the first place. Having to restore what I “polluted” would deter me from doing it.

Environmental restoration is costly and difficult. Restitution therefore becomes an incredibly onerous punishment and the most effective deterrent known. Let’s examine a real-life example of how restitution, coupled with privatization, can protect our waterways.

In Britain, individuals have property rights in the rivers that run through their land. If someone upstream pollutes the water and harms the fish, the downstream owners don’t have to wait for a bureaucratic commission to study the issue. Instead, they immediately sue the polluters to protect their valuable property and claim restitution for damages. As a result, would-be polluters are effectively deterred from damaging the environment.

Waterways that don’t have a private protector fare much worse. When I lived in northern Kentucky, a citizen’s action group contacted me because they were concerned about businesses dumping toxic chemicals into the neighboring Ohio River. Because the government claims stewardship of this waterway, individuals have no ownership rights on which to base a suit. They must wait until bureaucrats decide to take action. If the businesses contribute to the campaign chests of powerful politicians, nothing may ever happen.

Even when the government does decide to move against a corporate polluter, restitution is seldom required. Instead, the business usually pays a fine. Sometimes the fine is small enough that the business finds it cheaper to pollute and pay. Private owners would seldom be willing to let their property polluted for a small sum, because the decrease in property value would be a devastating financial blow.

Our air can be protected from pollution with restitution, private ownership and environmental restoration. For example, in a libertarian society, the roadways would be privately owned. If neighbors complained of pollution, the road company might offer monetary compensation. Most likely, however, the neighbors would want the pollution to stop. Since 80% of emissions’ pollution is caused by 20% of the cars, the road company might deny access or charge much higher user fees to polluting vehicles. Given these alternatives, most of the owners would probably buy a newer car or get their emission system upgraded. Such measures would reduce pollution until the neighbors were no longer bothered by it.

Similarly, if a product polluted the air, victims could sue the product maker, who in turn would pass the costs of restitution onto the consumer. Higher prices would discourage use and decrease pollution.

Instead of using environmental restoration or restitution to alter the usage of potentially damaging products, government today simply bans them. For example, the insecticide DDT eradicated insects that carried malaria, yellow fever, sleeping sickness, typhus, and encephalitis, especially in Third World countries. Pressured by the ban placed on this chemical by the U.S. government, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) abandoned spraying DDT in 1964. Malaria rose from less than two dozen cases per year to over 2 million. The victims had no recourse because governments have sovereign immunity.

Without sovereign immunity, victims of bans or harmful laws could sue for restitution. The threat of such suit would encourage lawmakers to consider the adverse effects of their actions. Today, because of sovereign immunity, our politicians literally get away with murder.

In today’s society, polluters might simply declare bankruptcy and walk away. However, in a libertarian society, a victim could not be forced by government to give up their claims for damages. Polluters who couldn’t pay immediately would most likely have to make monthly payments until their debt and the interest on that debt was paid in full.

No system is perfect, of course.  Restitution can’t bring back victims who are killed by pollution, for example. However, because of its deterrent effects, it protects the environment better than bureaucrats who aren’t held accountable for their actions.

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