MADISON, Wisc., April 22, 2013 ― A discouraged man looks disparagingly at a dirty lake and cannot help but conclude that capitalism has caused his favorite boyhood fishing spot to become tragically polluted.
The man should look not to capitalism and freedom, however, when he assigns blame. He should look to the state.
One of the most important tenets of the capitalist system — not “capitalism” as it currently functions, but rather true, honest, laissez-faire capitalism as it has heretofore only existed in theory — is unwavering respect for private property rights.
Unfortunately, private property rights are not upheld in the manner they need to be in order to foster economic and social progress. This is easily recognized, as governments frequently undermine property rights for a myriad of reasons in order to control an ever greater swath of societal functions.
Shortcomings in the protection of private property are not limited to the economic and social realms; contrary to popular wisdom, they also have a negative effect on the environment. Unholy alliances between business and government, together with government ownership of water and air, result in the degradation of natural resources.
If water and air were universally privately-owned property and protected fully as such, the problem of pollution would undoubtedly not be what it is. Polluters would be fully liable for their actions; our discouraged man could easily sue the polluter who ruined his lake. Disputes over pollution would be handled efficiently and effectively as torts, and the danger of full liability would alter the way polluters assess both risk and their production methods.
But when lakes, streams, forests, and air are publicly owned via the government — or when they are privately owned but not adequately protected — polluters bear less than the full cost of their actions, creating a moral hazard and ensuing tragedy of the commons. Industrialists (and all individuals, for that matter) operate under perverse incentives: They (we) are able to reap the full benefits of natural resources, while the cost of the negative side effects (pollution) they (we) produce are externalized and socialized.
It is dubious, then, to trust the government qua environmental protector — the same government that unintentionally created the pollution problem — to try to fix it.
As an alternative, Murray Rothbard states the simplest, most ethical, most effective solution to the problem:
“The remedy against air pollution is therefore crystal clear, and it has nothing to do with multibillion-dollar palliative government programs at the expense of the taxpayers which do not even meet the real issue. The remedy is simply for the courts to return to their function of defending person and property rights against invasion, and therefore to enjoin anyone from injecting pollutants into the air.”
The idea of government not enforcing and expanding private property rights when it comes to pollution is as absurd as decreeing that “trucks should be allowed to cross any lawns they wish provided they believe that this would ease their traffic problems.”
It is only because private property rights are not regarded as (and allowed to function as) the pre-eminent element of societal organization that pollution is a problem; the reversal of this inclination and an adherence to the principles of true, honest, laissez-faire capitalism would undeniably halt and eventually reverse our pollution woes.
Moreover, polluting the water and the air, contrary to right-wing dogma, is certainly not necessary for technological and economic progress. Once again, Rothbard: “[If] pollution is allowed to proceed with impunity, there continues to be no economic incentive to develop a technology that will not pollute.” That is not to say, of course, that government should provide artificial incentives such as subsidies.
In addition, the idea that immanent opposition exists between economic health and environmental health is fictitious. Under the right conditions, the interests of the economy and of the environment are, in fact, complementary.
Ultimately, pollution is a problem. Only the naïve, the misinformed, and the malevolent deny this. The question, then, is not whether anything should be done to confront the pollution problem, but rather what course of action we should take — as a society and as individuals.
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