* Libertarianism and natural resources

Topics: Resources
22 Feb 1995

From: "DG Ervan Darnell"

"Vincent E. Kargatis" wrote:

>This reminds me - can Libertarians protect the environment?

Of course. They can protect it exactly to the extent that it should be
protected. First, consider the ex-USSR, an environmental disaster area
starting from Chernobyl all the way down. It is not a coincidence this
happened in a socialist country. Is not merely that they were too poor to
properly dispose of waste but rather they got exactly what they wanted, viz
the power of the state of ignore individual objections about such capitalist
ideas as property. The government said we dumping nasty shit on you because
it is good for everyone in the big picture and your individual rights don't
matter. The result is that almost everyone loses.

So, turning it around generates the answer here. The problem is that the
environment is being destroyed where property rights are not being
sufficiently protected. Consider the Grand Banks. They are almost fished
to extinction. Everyone grabs everything they can and ignores the future, a
classic tragedy of the commons. The liberals would say this is exactly what
is wrong with capitalism, unbridled greed, and the regulation is needed to
control fishing. That is precisely the wrong answer. It is regulation that
created the problem by presuming to dole out little bits of privilege to
sail a boat. It's a recipe for endless quibbling, chiseling, and bribery.
The jury is in on this approach: it failed. The Grand Banks should have
been (and still should be) sold as property, as a single unit. A single
owner would be interested in maximizing production in the long run and not
just this year. No government "plan" will ever have that effect. Just as
surely as we should sell bandwidth, we should sell the oceans.

Similarly, the over-grazed lands are all government lands. The
over-forested lands are all government lands. The reason is that government
sells leases for lumbering, leases so short that new trees will not grow
back. So, lumber companies don't bother. Then the dumb regulations start
about how many and what kind, blah, blah, blah. Meanwhile, privately owned
timber forests have plenty of new trees growing to take place of the old
ones that are cut, because that makes perfect economic sense. So, you have
stood truth on its head. The question is will the environment survive the
government, not what will libertarianism do for it.

> How can the
>market be expected to, say, keep some old-growth forest untouched?

Well, how much are those forests worth? If they have tourist value, then
leaving them private property would ensure the owner will keep them to get
the money from the gate fee. If they are instead worth more as a countertop
in somebody's bar, well, then they are worth more there. If you simply want
the trees to exist and never care to see them, then you are free to
contribute to a fund that buys such land and simply holds it. Some nature
groups do just that. I think that's great. Send all of the contributions
you want. Furthermore, I would support their right to refuse to sell no
matter what the price offered and no matter what law the government brought
to bear to force them to sell, a perfectly libertarian sentiment.

> Or prevent well-hidden toxic dumping (or whatever)?

Pollution is a very different matter. If you impose costs on someone else
you have stolen something from them. Unless we are arguing about abolishing
the police too (which I am not), this is handled as is any other theft
(investigation, civil courts, criminal penalties where appropriate, etc.).
There are laws making theft, murder, rape, etc. illegal. That's fine. That
there are laws prohibiting pollution which causes negative externalities is
also fine, in principle. Libertarianism says the only legitimate function
of government is the protection of property. That's consistent here because
we are talking about people forced to do something contrary to their
consent, 'accepting' pollution.