Libertarians and the Environment

My Thoughts On: July 12th, 2007

Libertarians take a unique stance when it comes to property rights and the environment. Many advocates of big government claim that the best way to control the effects of big business on the environment is to create bureaucracy to control it from the legislative arm of government, but that might not be the only solution. This issue of Debunking the Myth explores the myriad of misconceptions about land, rent and the Earth itself.

The environment is an important part of politics today, many people choose their entire political ideology based on it's environmental initiatives. Some say that private landowners are to blame for environmental abuse, others say big corporations are, yet more say we not only need to regulate things that harm the environment but we need more federal involvement to bolster agriculture. Most environmental activists agree that property rights conflict with their vision of a perfect environment.

Libertarians are unique for their defense of capitalism as a means for good environmental policy. Some Libertarians will even say that the environment is doomed if our property rights are not respected. But how can rent-collecting landlords be any better than socially elected officials in determining how land is used? Today we see the argument passed around that land owning isn't even consistent with human rights, since it's often viewed that we are all entitled, collectively, to the world. If there are property rights worth fighting for, where do they come from and what are their effects? The 'NAM Staff steps in to help explain some of these stances, and put them into the context of a good environment.

Debunking the Myth - Libertarians and the Environment:

"We must control emissions and accept treaties (like the Kyoto Protocol) that help slow global warming."

Many Environmentalists will predict the utter doom of the planet in the next hundred years, along with total ecological destruction and grand exinction, at the hands of Global Warming. This may or may not be true, since the art of global climateology is inexact. The inexactness of these studies in the past (1960's) had led to theories of Global Cooling and a new ice age, and now in the past 30 or so years of warming, we're predicting the melting of all the polar ice caps and massive global flooding. Researchers who predict these same dramatic climate changes show no history of being able to use their methods to recreate what occurred in the past, making it difficult to weigh their results fairly.

Let's presume for a minute that human emissions of carbon dioxide (despite the fact that human emissions are less than natural emissions of carbon dioxide from the sea, volcanos and forests, humans perhaps contribute as little as 3% of global CO2 in the atmosphere) and that we do indeed, as propagandists presume, control the fate of the Earth's temperature stability. How can we make our environment better?

One of the primary problems of industrialized nations producing CO2 is that there are few energy alternatives. Environmentalists are using this an excuse to pass legislation controls over every form of energy plant... yet, are they serious about exploring energy alternatives? Many environmentalists are proud to claim to shut down hydro-plants through lawsuits and regulation, yet hydro-plants purify the water while creating no additional CO2, or other emission of any kind. At the same time, they are happy to shut down nuclear power plants, despite the fact that the history of nuclear fission has not produced as much radioactive uranium in the environment as a 1 MW coal plant throws into the air every year. As coal plants work throwing the vast majority of CO2 emissions in the air, nuclear power plants - their clean alternative (a 1 MW nuclear plant produces no emissions or waste, besides 5 pounds of nuclear waste which is often very easily properly contained) - are being shut down by environmentalists. Under a free market policy, where government doesn't intervene, coal plants would quickly be replaced by nuclear/hydro power, both of which have demonstrated far less harmful effects on the environment, especially in the area of global warming.

But since it's unlikely that environmentalist critics of hydro/nuclear power will accept that, let's continue on to take a look at renewable energy resources. Renewable energy (most noteably solar and wind energy) both are viable alternatives to the power production of most power plants, and while somewhat more expensive, since they rely on freely available sources of power (wind/sunlight are available everywhere) their upkeep and production is highly available and easy to isolate. This low capital means of creating electricity is useful and a prime place for investment. Why isn't it used more often, then?

When wind plants are put up in fields in the American Midwest, such as Iowa, they make just barely enough money to get by, if not totally fail. Why? Environmentalists sue them for potential damage to EPA-protected local birds, while coal plants get government subsidies in such a great quantity that coal will outbid any energy alternatives. These ill-concieved conflicting government programs prevent new business, like wind power, from proliferating and replacing their dirtier, environmentally-destructive alternatives.

With more money, more Americans could be picky about things like gas consumption with cars, environmental emissions testing. Yet we tax away all that money for government officials who aim at changing things for us - the hard way. The only problem is, these government programs are not producing results. We do not rely on renewable energy resources much more than we did 5 or 10 years ago, and in the places we do, it's not the environmentalists nor the government who is responsible, but private American citizens who found a niche despite the impediments of government intervention and frivolous environmentalist lawsuits.

Government solutions, like the United Nations "Kyoto Protocol", show little sign of any government helping the problem of global warming (if there indeed a "problem"). The costs of such measures and their expected returns are so dispurportionate that it's hard to see if we're helping or just paying for the problem twice. If all the nations presented with the Kyoto Protocol were to sign and follow-through, it would not slow global warming by more than 6.4%. This program would cost us $350 billion a year according to Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist". By the year 2050, halfway into the program, we will have paid so much in taxes for this mega-bureaucracy as is the expected financial impact of the worst scale of Global Warming... which means Kyoto will have us paying for Global Warming (at least) twice, while offering no real "solution" to the problem, since Global Warming will simply be staved by several years.

If Kyoto isn't the solution, what is? The solution might be as simple as recognizing that government solutions are not working. Without the massive tax rackets, regulations and political interests in energy, we would see (as we have seen historically in the case of deregulation) a myriad of new business, most of which would innovate existing production measures (nuclear, hydro) to be safer and out the mega-wasteful coal plants, while renewable resources (wind, solar) would have an easier time collecting enough capital to start up and begin competiting. In the meantime, citizens would have more money, and it's historically known that the more affluent a nation is, the more it's citizens have time to care about environmental issues (this is evident if you look at the United States, which is already much more affluent than most other nations, and then compare our environmentalist movements - which are fairly large - with that of poorer nations, like India, that have virtually none).

"No one truly owns land, because it was always stolen from someone before them, or taken without permission."

At some point in it's history, land existed unclaimed. Somehow people came to work it all and use it to make the many products we see today that enrich our lives. However, Environmentalists often complain that this system of private ownership is illegitimate, that no one owns the land because at some point it was always stolen, or taken without permission.

John Locke was an English philosopher in the late 17th century, who came up with theories of property. He insisted that homesteading was the means to control and claim land - that through use (fencing, farming, improving) one could claim to own it. The land of the United States was not in all instances taken legitimately like this though. Much of it was claimed from native Indian settlers who were run out after shackey and uncertain treaties gave way. Yet who should own this land in dispute? The very few descendants of native Indians, or the common people of America today?

Locke might say that the people who should own the land are those who use it today everyday because the legitimacy in owning it, when there is not a clear basis of dispute, comes through those who work on it's use and improvement. That's because only through use and improvement will anyone ever make legitimate aims out of land.

The people, as a whole, do not use land. Only certain people do. And in this sense people always have "owned" land - they use it for themselves and others everyday. Whether you recognize that as legitimate or not depends on whether you see the use - improvement, farming, growing, preservation, mining, etc. - as legitimate aims. These aims being legitimate, the only way to recognize someone who is using land from those who merely want to take it from them is a firm system of private property rights.

"Rent is wrong, land isn't like other commodities, it's in limited supply and no one made it. So how can anyone have the right to charge for it?"

Land rent is indeed using a limited commodity, and no one made it. However, the only alternative to a world without the kind of private land that is rented out, is a world where some public agency (IE the government) controls who uses the land. However, the public forces of the government historically have been the worst abusers and polluters of the land.

The institution of rent is a voluntary one, you are not required to use any land by anyone if you don't agree to those conditions. If government owned all the land, your taxation to sponsor that ownership would not be so voluntary. Without rent, fewer people would seek others who have more productive uses for their land, because they'd have no incentive or reason to do so. This matter would be left up to bureaucracies, who have no real vested personal interest in seeing this happen. Also, without rent, fewer people would seek land since the land's usefulness would be restricted to only what they could do with it - and why find and develop new land that you have to give up to another agency for them to decide what to do with it?

The biggest flaw isn't so much the lack of incentive as it is the lack of understanding as to why land rights exist. They exist so we can all claim legitimacy to the things we produce from land and secure the land we need to produce these things. Without the ability to rent out your land, you are basically letting others decide how and when you give up your land, and really, you lose any incentive or interest to help get that land developed. As Adam Smith put it, the landlords always have a vested interest in the welfare of society, because it's society's production which controls the rent he can get: the more opulent the society, the more opulent the rent. Government, on the other hand, does not share the same inclination.

"We need to set aside land for agriculture and preserves. What right does anyone have to claim any other use for it?"

Libertarians recognize that the use of land is best decided by those who come to use it - and sometimes land is not best fit for agriculture. Sometimes it is too barren, sometimes it has other more valuable resources to cultivate, and yet more times there is simply too much already turned to the use of agriculture for it to useful for that. The rainforest, for instance, is mostly cut by local governments who want to convert it to farmlands for additional agriculture - despite there being no hunger problem outside crippling taxation-induced poverty. Other uses are indeed important. Without private loggers, we wouldn't have the wood we use to furnish and build our homes. Without land for power plants, we wouldn't have electricity. But what right do these people have in claiming who uses land for what?

If someone privately wanted to buy land and create preserves and create new agricultural resources then they are free to do so in a society that respects land ownership. The use of land will always succeed or fail based on the demand for it's service. Governments, unlike private citizens, would allocate land based on their (too often mis-)percieved notions of "importance", and not on any legitimate known public need or demand. It's simply a matter of recognizing which system works best, which is more ethical and what "rights" exist to support it.

So what right does someone in a free society have to use land they've honestly acquired? Every right. The rights of those who use land they didn't honestly acquire? No right. The major problem here is that despite it's self-proclaimed good intentions, government acquisition of land is never "honest".

"If private interests control the world's food supplies, millions will starve."

Millions do starve today, but it's not the fault of private companies. In fact, private people around the world feed the vast majority of it. It's through many private farms that we get a lot of today's food. Food production in today's world is at an all-time high: there is enough grain alone to give each person a 3,500 calorie-a-day diet, and combined with basic other foods you could give everyone 4.3 pounds of food a day, substantial for a full normal diet and enough to make most people fat (all according to Peter Rosset's book "World Hunger: Twelve Myths"). Large farms don't help because many nations with food surpluses squander their resources and thus, the food never gets to the hungry mouths. Why?

Poverty plays a large factor, because many people as a result of their government's policies cannot get good paying jobs or they must pay too much in taxes or duties to the government to make any financial headway. Excessive food surpluses don't seem to drive down food prices enough to help the chronically poor, in fact, government-run superfarms tend to both decrease national food production and increase food prices, causing people to get their food at a much higher expense. Fixing prices won't help since fixed low prices damage the abilities of food industries to supply the demand, even in cases where they have enough, it's hard to pay to get it out to where it needs to be to buy it. Heavy subsidies to help fund this kind of forced distribution takes away money from consumers, reciprocating the damage.

If this is all indeed true, then the primary cause of world hunger is the poverty induced by government forces that control the world's food supplies, not any real shortage of food or willingness to distribute it. The simplest solution being, deregulate and lift barriers preventing anything that would create more jobs for the starving many. This being true, the heavy population controls, taxes and government regulations of China and the unhinged government meddling in India are in fact damaging their abilities to cope with mass starvation and causing more pain and suffering through hunger. This is reflected in their history of being unable to cope with hunger problems.

"The industrial revolution was the worst period in world history."

With critics espousing the downfall of society through the "satanic" mills built on the backs of the seemingly-enslaved child labourers, many people accept the industrial revolution to be a worsening time in history for the labouring many. Despite claims to the contrary, real wages increased in Britian, France and America: while the money price of wages might've not moved far from the norm, their purchasing power increased noticeably, making most workers in any decade past 1830 better off than any decade before. This is most obvious when you see the improvements of the standard of living during this time period, especially when entering into the early 1900's and moving later into modern times. Death rates fell drastically during the industrial revolution, leading us to today's health standards, which are in every way superior (mortality, general health, readiness for health crisis, and increased availability of medical resources were all showing signs of improvement post-industrial revolution). Food production matched the increased population despite estimates to the otherwise, and food was more available for workers to get since they had a higher purchasing power behind their wages, showing they were all that much better off.

Child labour, while it existed during these periods of time, existed en masse in worse conditions before the industrial revolution - and it wasn't until the industrial revolution increased the standards of production and living that these societies would indeed do away with it. In these ways, the industrial revolution led to an increased demand for worker's rights which eventually led still to the liberation of child labourers. Systems like child labour - which were long accepted exploitative institutions before the industrial revolution - became viewed as "social ills", viewed that way because of the new perspective workers had in the urban industrial environment that they didn't have before in their rural isolationist ones. Eventually society sought to end these ills because of this new attitude, meaning that the child labour often cited by revolution critics might in fact have ended because of the revolution itself.

"How can you say that private property is okay for the environment when nuclear power plants threaten to turn it into radioactive wastelands?"

Nuclear power is one of the most often-neglected sources of clean energy (no gas emissions, no water pollutants, no soil contaminants) there is. It's only output is a very small amount of nuclear waste, which, when properly contained, can do no harm to the environment. There are few other sources of energy (besides renewable resources) that have this kind of containable effect on the environment. Not even hydro-plants, since hydro-plants can permanently disrupt the ecosystem of a river, while nuclear power plants cannot. Safety with nuclear energy is at an all-time high, and not even ramming a Boeing 767 with gas tanks full of fuel into a nuclear plant could release radioactive contaminants into the environment (according to the Nuclear Energy Institute) due to the heavy defenses of modern nuclear plants: 8 feet thick granit walls and several layers of steel reinforcements sometimes up to 6 inches thick layer the outside, and the interior has as a "final defense" of "liquid poison" that terminates the reactor rendering it harmless. These defenses are more than adequate to prevent any radiation leaks even under the most extreme circumstances. The success of nuclear power in developed nations like France should show their environmental stability and viability.

With few major accidents, only two of which being fatal (a Japanese accident and the infamous "Chernobyl"), total fatalaties even in their exaggerated purportions being under 100 people in the whole history of all nuclear energy fission. Compared to deaths in other energy industries (particularly fossil-fuel burning plants), you will notice this is an extremely small amount of overall loss of life and damages. Safety protocol today dictates that it's not too reasonable to see many more deaths from nuclear plant failure or "meltdown", since most plant models today have several "last step" measures to prevent such a thing from happening.

If a "nuclear wasteland" involves a history of one or two major accidents, less than 100 deaths historically, and clean air/clean undisturbed rivers/untouched forests - then the nuclear alternative is better than existing alternatives. Therefore, legislation restricting nuclear power development should be removed immediately, since they has no real basis in legitimacy.

"Loggers are destroying our forests and ecosystems. There should be a law to prevent that."

Loggers do indeed occassionally use slash and burn tactics to cut away forests and leave barren wastlelands to make quick profits. Why? Once again, government interference. Government owns a lot of forested land, and rents that land out to companies who typically do not care for it. Since the companies do not own the land, they have no solid investment in it. The best most productive thing to do with rented land like that is to cut it and leave it with whatever little resources the term of the rental contract requires.

When private loggers own their land though, it's a far different story. They usually invest in reforestation - the reuse of their land. Instead of clearcutting, they typically use partial cutting to chop down parts of their forested areas in a cycle. Leaving a section of the forest natural while the other section is cut, as well as leaving a core old growth means that year-round they can provide camping services/forestry services while at the same time turning out a nice renewing wood supply. Even in the case of a clearcut, with the proper soil and water conservation practices, a company that owns the land might expect to see a long-term gain in a healthier next-generation forest of stronger, straighter trees. The incentive to clearcut wood arises the moment you must rent instead of own. Without ownership, logging companies would have no incentive to invest in their land, since investments like partial cutting and reforestation turn out no long-term results for anyone but the next person to rent the property.

"What do you have against renewable energy, clean water, reduced global warming and pollution-free air?"

If anything, the ideas presented in this article are rather controversially in support for renewable energy, clean water, clean air and a healthy ozone. Government, the nation's worst polluter (according to a report by the Boston Globe), is not a "solution" to any of these problems, evidenced by it's history of failure in environmental policy.

"People shouldn't favor capitalism and big business at the expense of the environment."

Libertarians aren't in favor of big businesses any more than they're in favor of small businesses. Libertarians are only in favor of free markets. While a Libertarian will dispell myths about alternative energy (as we've done here) no Libertarian will tell you that the virtues of nuclear power, hydro power, solar power, wind power or any other kind of power are excuses for federal funding and subsidies. The primary stance of Libertarians and the environment is that the "big multinational corporations" aren't the problems, and neither are the small businesses. The problem with the environment is the government itself. Keeping the government out of energy allows the people to put energy resources and alternatives into the marketplace of values, which always creates a return. If it's a big multinational corporation or a small business or a nonprofit organization that develops this solution for you should be totally indifferent, if you really do care about the environment. The fact of the matter is that the solution IS NOT being developed by government, it's regulations or legislation. That's because government is not the solution.

... Watch who owns the world, for those who claim to keep it safe may be just another part of the New American Myth we live in everyday.