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.