Thursday, April 22, 2010

Time for me to piss everyone off

Are libertarians capable of having a discussion on environmentalism with one iota of maturity? In my experience, the answer is “no.” But in light of Earth Day, this post will be an attempt to do so. Don’t bother crossing your fingers for my success.

The traditional libertarian response to challenges on environmental issues has been:

1) Insist that the government is responsible for all pollution. If such a claim is true (and it isn’t), why bother railing against environmentalists? Doing so is a concession that libertarianism has no real mechanism for protecting the environment.

2) Explain that the problem is a lack of property rights and point out the tragedy of the commons. Why, then, do libertarians insist on treating the ecosystem and atmosphere as a gigantic “commons” free for everyone to pollute and exploit, regardless of all the problems (and private property damage) that occur as a result?

3) Deny there is any such thing as environmental problems. Dismiss all of it as mere junk science. Now stop worrying and sell off those national parks! This is apparently the most most popular. But suppose, for the sake of argument, it isn't junk science? No answer. Que chirping crickets.

3) Tell everyone to go out and sue the polluters. Yeah, because it’s so easy to trace the stuff (even if it’s acid rain caused by someone in some other country) and everyone has the time and money to go up against an army of well-funded corporate lawyers. As Aaron Russo--the almost-presidential nominee for the LP in 2004--put it:

I think the Libertarian Party has never had a good policy on the environment. I've never heard a good one, and I've been looking for one for months, and I'm open to find new ideas on how we can handle the environment. On this issue, to tell the truth, there is a bit of confusion in my mind, but the stock answer that I've been hearing on the environment is not good in my view. Sue your neighbor, and sue this one and sue that one, those aren't good answers for me.

I agree with Russo. You can call me a statist or commie if you want. I’ve never heard a libertarian answer to this question that wasn’t some variant of the four listed above.


  1. I can only agree.

    One of the things about the "carbon tax" is that is is clearly a tax scheme where "big polluters" can buy a "pollution tag" most likely at a reduced cost thanks to the dutiful tax slaves.

    Our problem is not just the fraudulent "carbon footprint" but corporate whores on corporate welfare wanting a pass on pollution control as well.

  2. If there was a way of handling externalities without government, there would be countries without government.

    There are already regulations in place which should limit "pollution," but plenty of other environmentally harmful practices are either not addressed or simply ignored because the fine is cheaper than compliance (especially when factoring in the probability of being caught). A company's only goal is to maximize profit, so proper clean up and disposal is never their priority. They must be compelled by an outside force, and a democratically elected government is the best solution for creating this entity, in my estimation.

    I think the problem is the basic idea of libertarianism is flawed. We are a society: interlinked, inseperable and codependent. There is a strong desire for independence in many of us, but the myth of individuality has to be abandoned if we are ever to address the common problems that are not only caused by all of us as a whole, but also can only be solved by us as a whole.

    Even worse, environmentalism is not an American issue; it is a global issue. America cannot clean up the planet alone, even if we're responsible for a large portion of the mess. How could a libertarian, whose basic idea of foreign policy is "none," ever hope to tackle the problem?

    I think the only course of action for a libertarian is the same as that for Republicans: put yoru fingers in your ears and pretend it's not happening. There simply is no solution which does not require the kind of action that libertarians fundamentally oppose.

  3. Upon further contemplation, I think the only hope a libertarian has rests in technology making the problem obsolete. Sadly, I am also at a loss as to how a libertarian would go about encouraging scientific research.

  4. Well, Ginx loved your post, Cork!

    Libertarianism is flawed, individuality is a myth and must be abandoned, government is the only solution.

    I see the truth now! I LOVE BIG BROTHER!

  5. Still a good post by the way. We need to think about these "tough" issues, but that doesn't mean there aren't non-statist answers. And corporations (along with government) are probably responsible for most of it. Corporations, let's not forget, are statist entities and exist only because of the State.

    This also does not seem to be a critique of anarchism, but of capitalist libertarianism (or anarcho-capitalism), and I've moved far away from that kind of libertarianism.

  6. Excellent post, Cork -- I absolutely agree. You're right, this is a complicated issue, and libertarians really need to think through their positions because their current positions suck. And, like you, I'm so sick of libertarians/conservatives trashing the environment, not just in their lives but also with their words. It's so "cool" in some circles to make fun of environmentalists, and I'm just sick of that.

  7. Thanks SE. The irony is that we have capitalist libertarians taking the position that the Earth is one giant socialized "commons" where everyone can simply pollute and dump their shit. They *condemn* that *exact position* when it's a public river or piece of land but become commons-loving socialists when it involves anything else. It doesn't make any friggin' sense!

  8. Glad to see there's some other libs who agree with me Don.

  9. I completely agree with you, Cork. As someone who is really into science, it really bothers me that libertarians (to make a broad generalization) seem to ignore this issue entirely. The fact is, the environment is, well, complicated, and the issue cannot be reduced to such a simplistic world view. I'm not so quick to dismiss the theory that people can actually affect the environment, although I am annoyed by the hysteria that many environmentalists have about the issue. Climate change very well might affect us in the long run, but I doubt the effects will be as immediate as many seem to believe. Also, government really is the worst solution to the problem. Government (specifically, the military) is the world's largest polluter - without their influence, pollution is general would be less of a problem.

    That said, we really do need to change this libertarian mindset that the world is ours to exploit. I don't understand how libertarians can on one hand believe that property rights are of the up-most importance, and then completely disregard that people might not take kindly to some corporate entity polluting the crap out of their property. It's a huge contradiction, and could really hurt the movement as a whole. Most environmentalists are coming from the right place, and this position succeeds in nothing other than alienating them.


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