Environment Q&A

Excerpts from the 1998 edition of Short Answers to the Tough Questions


In a libertarian society, wouldn’t polluters get away with destroying the environment?

Government polluters get away with murder–literally. When courts found the military liable for illness and death after careless nuclear testing in Utah, the government claimed sovereign immunity and refused to pay damages. In a libertarian society, no one would be immune from the conse-quences of their actions–especially not a government charged with protecting us.

Libertarians believe that people and governments should right their wrongs by restoring, as much as possible, what they’ve damaged. Today, our government makes the taxpayers or new owners shoulder the burden. If polluters don’t pay for the damage they do, why should they stop polluting?

How are we going to keep big business from polluting too much, if not by government regulation?

Restitution is an effective deterrent, especially to polluters, where restoration costs are monumental and polluters could spend the rest of their lives working to compensate their victims.

The process by which this “justice” is administered works best when all property is held privately. In Britain, for example, property owners successfully protect their river segments from uphill pollution by suing for restitution. In the U.S., however, individuals are not allowed to sue polluters of public property, and the bureaucrats would rather not antagonize businesses that can contribute to their campaign chests.

Don’t we need some government oversight to keep our environment from being destroyed?

The environment is already being destroyed–by our government! Our biggest polluter is the U.S. military, not corporate America. In 1988, cleanup of 17 military bases was estimated to cost $100 billion over 50 years. Putting government in charge of protecting the environment is like asking the fox to guard the hen house.

The most polluted countries in the world are those where government has total control of the environment, such as Eastern Europe.

How do libertarians plan to maintain a society where our ecosystem is functional for this generation and those that come after us?

Instead of putting our environment in the hands of bureaucrats, libertarians encourage private ownership. Owners profit most when they harvest their forests sustainably, for example; bureaucrats profit only when they sell out to special interests, such as those wishing to clear-cut our national forests. In libertarian society, polluters must restore the property they’ve damaged. The possibility of working off such onerous restitution effectively deters most polluters.

Not all private owners will care for their property. What do we do with such people?

We needn’t do anything. Only a very few people destroy what they own, and such foolish people won’t own much.

However, when bureaucrats make an error or deliberately sell out to special interests, large tracts of land or water are destroyed.

To protect our environment, we must encourage private, rather than public, control.

I believe every automobile driver unjustly destroys our urban environment, contaminates my air, and contributes to numerous health problems. Automobile manufacturers and drivers are certainly not in any position to make restitution.

In a libertarian society, roads would be privately owned. If neighbors complained of pollution, the road company might offer monetary compensation. If the neighbors found this acceptable, the cost would be passed on to the drivers in the form of higher user fees.

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 owners would probably buy a newer car or get their emission system upgraded. Such measures would be used to decrease pollution until the neighbors were satisfied.

How would libertarians defend the rights of smokers, while protecting non-smokers from secondhand smoke?

In a libertarian society, all property would be privately owned. Each business establishment would set its own smoking policies. Some would undoubtedly ban smoking; some would permit it; some would segregate smokers and nonsmokers. Those who wished to avoid secondhand smoke could do so by patronizing the appropriate establishments. Those who wished to smoke could do likewise.

How would libertarians protect the right of planes to air space, while at the same time, avoiding bothersome noise?

Most new airports are built away from residential areas. Noise becomes a problem only when people choose to build houses in the surrounding area. Those who are bothered by the noise shouldn’t build or buy around an airport.

How would you deal with harmful pollution that is caused by the combined actions of hundreds or even thousands of polluters that could all claim that their small part could do no harm?

If a product polluted the air, victims would sue the product maker, who in turn would pass the costs of restitution onto the consumer. Higher prices would discourage use and decrease pollution. The free market is not a free-for-all; it imposes its own stringent regulation.

Global warming is now widely accepted as a fact within the scientific community. What is not yet sorted out is the extent to which the planet will warm and the impact that it will have. What would libertarians do about this issue?

When our weather reporters can’t get tomorrow’s temperature right, it’s difficult to believe that global warming can be accurately predicted, isn’t it? (This sentence should be told lightly, as a joke, to elicit agreement.)

As you mentioned, we really don’t know what the impact of global warming might be. High temperatures and CO2 stimulate crop and other plant growth,so global warming could actually be good for us. Any action we take has to be based on the facts–and we just don’t have those yet.

In a libertarian society, if a chemical such as CFC caused a problem, victims could sue the manufacturer for damages. The high cost of restitution would be passed on to CFC consumers, driving up the price. People would turn to cheaper alternatives and CFC production would be automatically curtailed.

People could sue before actual harm was done, as long as they could convince a judge or jury that CFC’s actually posed a threat.

How do we deal with global pollution?

Thankfully, most pollution does more local than international damage, thereby discouraging polluters. For example, governments try to prevent Chernobyl-type accidents because their local populace is put at greater risk than the international community. The country that polluted its oceans enough to cause global damage for example, would destroy its own fishing first. The country that polluted the air enough to disturb other nations would asphyxiate its own population in the process. Thus, global pollution is a highly unlikely event. (Asking the questioner for a specific problem would allow a more specific answer to be given.)

What will a libertarian nation do in the unlikely event of pollution from another, non-libertarian country?

Such pollution would most likely be dealt with on an individual or local basis. For example, if Canadians polluted a local river which flowed into the U.S., the U.S. individuals who owned that river would seek restitution from the Canadians.

If the Canadians refused to respond, the U.S. victims might feel better served by simply fixing the problem (e.g., putting up a dam in the U.S. so that all contaminated water was treated before flowing into the river bed). If the thieves just won’t quit, you arm and alarm instead. The same process applies to pollution.

Alternatively, the U.S. victims could send in their own police force to obtain restitution from the polluters. This last, very expensive, option would probably be used on rare occasions.

It’s true that one may sue if one’s body or property is damaged by pollution, but that hardly seems adequate. How could one prove which company’s pollution caused the illness? Even if this were feasible, large corporations have the resources to drag litigation on almost indefinitely. They can often simply outlast their opposition.

Restitution isn’t just a remedy–it’s the most effective deterrent known. Few individuals or businesses will pollute when it might result in a lifetime liability.

Obviously, to collect restitution for any crime, you need to prove your case. You wouldn’t want it any other way–especially if someone accused you!

In a libertarian society, delaying tactics would back-fire, because the losing party could be liable for the winners’ attorneys fees.

People who had been wronged might be afraid to sue because they’d be liable for the other side’s attorney fees if they couldn’t get a guilty verdict.

In a libertarian society, courts are likely to act more like arbitrators, attempting to bring both sides into settlement, rather than giving a “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict. Court costs would therefore be much lower than they are today, and might not be awarded if both sides had legitimate grievances. If reasonable court costs were large enough to deter someone from suing, the damage might not be severe enough to warrant court action.

If electricity were deregulated, prices would decrease but cleaner, renewable fuel would be practically removed from the market. Should there be taxes on carbon emissions or some other form of regulation?

If a power plant uses a fuel that causes pollution, the victims would sue for damages. The power plant would pass this extra cost onto their consumers in the form of higher prices. Thus, polluting fuels would probably cost more than clean ones. Power plants and their customers would be encouraged by their pocketbooks to use non-polluting alternatives.

Given the importance that libertarians place on self ownership and individual liberty, what would they do about such difficult public health cases as “Typhoid Mary” or other carriers of airborne communicable diseases?

In any society, asymptomatic disease carriers will spread infection. A libertarian society, however, has several advantages. First and foremost, a libertarian country would enjoy considerable wealth. Wealthy societies tend to be healthier and thus, are more resistant to infection. Drug companies would develop vaccines or cures more rapidly without FDA interference.

As an interim measure, antibodies isolated from resistant carriers might provide treatment. Because donors could be paid handsomely, people would have incentive to be tested and asymptomatic carriers would be identified. Carriers could then take precautions not to spread the disease further, while profitably donating their blood for treatment.

Carriers who refused to take such precautions could conceivably be prosecuted for pollution. A more likely possibility, however, is that they would be ostracized by the rest of the community. Such social censure has been found to be a powerful deterrent and can create an effective quarantine when all property is private.

During any epidemic, some people would isolate themselves or wear masks when they go out. Today, pregnant women who have not had measles, and elderly with respiratory problems, often take such precautions.

Deadly diseases spread by resistant carriers will always take their toll. Hopefully in a libertarian society, this toll will be minimal.

Do property rights give you the right to abuse land however you see fit?

Property rights actually prevent abuse. Polluting makes the land worth less. Thus, abusive owners are punished by the marketplace and caretakers are rewarded by higher land values.

Because this system works so well, private lands are generally cared for better than public ones. Private grazing ranges, for example, are better maintained than government-operated ones. Just as homeowners keep their houses better than renters, landowners maintain their property better than bureaucratic administrators.

Would libertarians protect the rain forests?

Libertarians would respect the homesteading rights of the native peoples, who generally use the rainforests sustainably.

Any company that wished to harvest the forest would have to buy it first. As owners, companies would have incentive to harvest sustainably. Today, companies simply pay a bribe to local governments who then evacuate the native people. The company clears the forest with little concern for the property’s future worth.

I guess without the government to ban hunting of endangered species, lots of animals would quickly become extinct.

Just the opposite is true! In Kenya, for example, the sale of elephant products was banned. The elephant population decreased from 65,000 in 1979 to 19,000 in 1989. In Zimbabwe, however, where elephants could be owned and elephant products sold, the elephant population increased from 30,000 to 43,000 during the same time period. People who are allowed to own animals and profit from their sale become fierce protectors, warding off poachers and other predators.

Commercializing a useful species takes it off the endangered list. The buffalo is an example of how an endangered animal can be saved.

How would libertarians protect sensitive environmental areas, such as breeding grounds for endangered species?

Instead of lobbying, conservation groups would use their money to buy and protect sensitive environmental areas. As an example, the Audubon Society manages Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary’s marshland property ecologically, while using carefully-placed natural gas wells and cattle grazing to produce income for future purchases.

The Nature Conservancy, National Wild Turkey Federation, Ducks Unlimited, Wings Over Wisconsin, and Trout Unlimited are among the many organizations that purchase and protect sensitive areas better than any bureaucrat could.

What would happen to Yellowstone National Park in a libertarian society?

Yellowstone and other parks would probably be sold to conservation organizations, which are certainly better able to manage them!

Bureaucrats made a mess of Yellowstone by eradicating the wolves in 1915. The fox, lynx, marten, and fisher were also removed. The elk flourished, driving out the mule deer, bighorn sheep, and the pronghorn. Beaver habitat was trampled; water fowl, mink, and otters were threatened by the loss of the beaver ponds. Grizzly habitat was also destroyed by the elk, and the bears became a threat to visitors.

Private conservation groups would do a much better job of managing sensitive environments. For example, the Audubon Society manages Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary’s marshland property ecologically, while using carefully-placed natural gas wells and cattle grazing to generate extra income. Developers can use the Audubon Society’s management as an example for blending function with ecology.

Under a Libertarian government, shouldn’t over-consumption be illegal? “Over-consump-tion” would imply taking more than one’s fair share of the world’s collective resources, there-fore denying another citizen access to THEIR share…. which we must understand would undeniably harm that individual.

A libertarian economy does prevent “over consumption” by society as a whole. When resources are plentiful, prices are low. If resources become scarce, the price automatically goes up. People start conserving to save money and try to find other less expensive substitutes.

Without government subsidies and interference, rising prices lower consumption as soon as depletion starts. Unfortunately, in today’s world, governments use our tax dollars to subsidize over-consumption, such as wasteful irrigation and power use.

Each of us is born onto this planet as a world citizen, and as a civilized society, we shouldn’t be fighting over what is ours or not ours, as this planet belongs equally to every one of us.

We all live on the planet and have a stake in its well-being. History has shown us that the best way to protect everyone’s interest is by respecting private property rights.

For example, most rain forests are populated by native people who use them sustainably. In a libertarian society, these natives would be recognized as the owners of the rain forests and the forests would, in most cases, remain intact. Today’s governments drive the natives from their homes and allow the highest corporate bidder to harvest them ruthlessly. Environmental groups fight this travesty by helping the native people gain recognition for their property rights.

How would you apply restitution to private property owners who may destroy endangered species in order to protect their crops or other material possessions? Who is the injured party? What value do you assign to non-commercial species?

Restitution would not apply in your example, since there is no injured (human) party. However, in a libertarian society, endangered species are unlikely to be destroyed. Instead of lobbying fickle politicians, conservationists would use their money to pay bounties for living specimens of endangered animals for relocation and breeding. Instead of killing the so-called “pests ,” most landowners would happily collect them.

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