The Pollution Solution (Part II)

Question: "How would libertarians keep our air and water clean?"

Last month's column explored two steps that libertarians would take to save the environment. First, libertarians would eliminate sovereign immunity so that victims of the country's greatest polluter-government--would have recourse. Second, libertarians would privatize land and beast to save endangered species, preserve our parks, protect our national forests, and improve our vast cattle ranges. In addition, libertarians would couple these powerful reforms with restitution, to prevent pollution before it starts.

Libertarians reject the initiation of physical force as a means to their ends. Restitution is the remedy when someone harms another, takes their property, or damages it. While punishment is intended to hurt the aggressor, restitution restores the victim to the fullest extent possible. Restitution is "punishment" that fits the crime and therefore provides a more effective deterrent.

For example, if your neighbors dumped garbage on your lawn, you would expect them to clean it up. If they didn't do so when asked, you'd call the local law enforcement. When your neighbor finally did restore your lawn, you'd expect them to compensate you for whatever additional costs were incurred in the enforcement of your claim. Obviously, the expense and hassle of cleaning up your lawn far outweighs the benefits that your neighbors might get from dumping garbage on your lawn in the first place. Thus, if they knew that you were likely to seek restitution, your neighbors would not pollute your property.

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. A citizen's action group recently 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 if local authorities are truly protective of the environment.

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.

Even ocean beds can be protected from pollution when private ownership of fishing rights is coupled with restitution. In some states, homesteading of oyster beds is permitted. Private oyster beds are more prolific and profitable than public ones. The owners have incentive to invest money in caring for the beds and harvesting them sustainably.

In the early part of this century, shrimp fishers along the Gulf of Mexico collectively claimed "homesteading" property rights in the coastal waters. Their association regulated the harvest of shrimp sustainably to maximize long term profit. The U.S. government refused to recognize the property rights of the shrimp fishers and outlawed their organization. Not surprisingly, too many shrimp were taken and the population has dropped.

Our air can be protected from pollution with restitution and private ownership as well. 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 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 creditor 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. If they refused to make such payments, they would most likely end up in a work prison where the additional costs of incarceration would be added to their tab. Rather than lose their freedom and incur additional costs, most polluters would chose to keep up their payments.

In some cases, the damage might exceed whatever the polluters could pay even with a life time of trying to make things right. Restitution can't bring back the dead or easily reclaim a poisoned well. However, by privitizing land and beast, bad political policy won't be able to destroy the 40% of our nation's land and wildlife now controlled by the government. By instituting restitution, polluters will face a formidable deterrent. By eliminating sovereign immunity, our bureaucrats will no longer be able to get away with the murder of millions.

Mary J. Ruwart, Ph.D., is the author of Healing Our World: The Other Piece of the Puzzle, a liberty primer for liberals, Christians, New Agers, and pragmatists. She also wrote Short Answers to the Tough Questions: Sound Bites for the Libertarian Candidate after her Internet column ( of the same name.


1. Elizabeth M. Whelan, Toxic Terror (Ottawa, Ill.: Jameson Books, 1985), pp. 68-74.

2. Jane S. Shaw and Richard L. Stroup, "Gone Fishin'," Reason Magazine August/September 1988, pp. 34-37.

3. Mary J. Ruwart, "The Other Piece of the Puzzle," in Healing Our World: The Other Piece of the Puzzle (Kalamazoo, MI: SunStar Press, 1993), pp.159-169.