My Problems with Environmentalist-Bashing and Global-Warming Denying Libertarians

Recently, a friend shared this article, by Walter E. Williams with me.  I’ve come to enjoy responding to Lew Rockwell articles, so I figured shared my response to it here. For the sake of argument, I will assume most of Williams’ assertions are correct (though, I encourage anyone who wishes to fact check them, to do so), and just address the main point. I think the crux of his argument is this: ” It is the height of arrogance to think that mankind can make significant parametric changes in the earth or can match nature’s destructive forces.”

I don’t think we have to match nature’s destructive forces, to make the world a less healthy or less hospitable place for our species. It may be true we are not capable of destroying the earth itself, but we can definitely make it worse place for us to live. I think this has been repeatedly demonstrated. Also, I reject the notion that it is arrogant to recognize one’s ability to screw things up. That said, I do not think the author does much to address any specific environmental concerns and I question the validity of his overall argument.  He seems to want to paint all environmental issues with the same broad brush, and dismiss any concern about clean air or water as covert socialism.

I find it thoughtless and knee-jerky for libertarians to dismiss addressing environmental concerns outright as socialist plots, or somehow incompatible with their philosophy.  A lot of environmental concerns actually make perfect sense in light of a typical libertarian understanding of the world.  Most involve some sort of shared resource that gets over used because of a lack of genuine property rights in it.  Furthermore, a lot of environmental destruction, does impact the health and property of third parties who in no way consented to the destructive act.  This is made worse when governments give the firms who do these things shelter from liability, grant these firms special access to resources or subsidize their activities.

Ronald Coase recognized that in a free market, with clearly defined property rights and full liability and minimized transaction costs, pollution would be reduced to some efficient minimum.  This is not to mention, all the pollution and environmental destruction caused by governments through their wars and infrastructure projects.  Some worst environmental destruction ever took place in countries that were officially state communist.

By dismissing the concerns of people they disagree with, libertarians lose a lot of would be allies, overlook many of the more useful and more appealing aspects of a voluntarist political philosophy.   Above all, when supposed libertarians like Williams simply regurgitate Republican talking points, it perpetuates the misunderstanding that libertarians are just a bunch corporate tools making excuses for the excesses of big business (which is one of the biggest obstacles to the movement achieving mainstream appeal).  Simply put, voluntarists of all types need to show more people that we care about the things they care about and have solutions to their problems, rather than being thoughtlessly dismissive.

At this point in the discussion, people have accused me of overlooking the related issue of global warming, and have framed it as an attempt by socialists to take over the economy.  To this I would argue that, nearly all relevant scientists believe human-caused global warming is a real problem that we are facing.  I don’t know the severity of it, or the best thing to do about it, but there needs to be that we better have a better response to this issue, than to dismiss it as a socialist conspiracy.  Rejecting science because you don’t like the political implications is problematic.

Personally, I am kind of fascinated by the idea of injecting, small sulfur Dioxide, particles into the upper atmosphere, to recreate the cooling effects, created by some of the big volcanoes (thereby canceling out the warming trend). I see it as a last resort effort, but one that could be done through largely voluntary means.

Interestingly, global warming strikes me as another example of the type of problem one would expect to arise if a libertarian view of the world was accurate.  After all, the atmosphere is a collectively held resource, with no individual owner, that everyone has an incentive to use as a dumping ground.  It is a classic tragedy of the commons type situation.

Furthermore, if we are to assume for the sake argument, that the global warming due to fossil fuel burning is a serious problem, it seems to me that to a great extent it is one governments have heavily contributed too, and that may some libertarian solutions to it.  I suspect governments have done a lot to encourage fossil fuel usage, by making them artificially cheap and setting up society in ways that requires their use.  As I understand it, companies that extract fossil fuels often get special access to government (aka stolen) lands, that are not open to any kind of legitimate homesteading. If firms had to buy land from or compensate homeowners, for more of the land they extract from, I think it would greatly increase the cost of doing business.  Additionally countries that use large amounts of fossil fuels, have a history of invading less developed resource rich countries to access their supplies (I’m thinking the US in Iraq or Japan and Germany during WWII).  This is not to mention the practice of installing puppet dictatorships, like The Shah of Iran in fossil fuel rich countries or the role of liability caps on keeping the cost of extraction cheap.

What’s more our government has created a highway system and international shipping infrastructure that makes long distance travel and shipping artificially cheap.  This has made companies with business models like Walmart’s, which rely on long distance shipping, artificially more competitive than one’s that take advantage of local resources.  Additionally, zoning, licensing and various regulatory schemes have contributed to large portions of Americans, living long distances from where they work and shop, encouraging more fuel consumption.  The massive sprawling suburbs around many cities, are very much products of the highway system.  I am guessing that many other developed countries have similar issues.  Absent these government practices, the market would arguably provide less pressure to use fossil fuels, more pressure to conserve them, and more pressure to develop the technology needed for functional alternatives.

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