Acton Institute Powerblog

Are libertarians too anti-pollution?

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

pollution“There are no solutions,” says economist Thomas Sowell. “There are only trade-offs.”

Sowell’s claim is especially true when it comes to the issue of pollution. We have no solution that will allow us to eliminate all pollution, so we are forced to make trade-offs, such as exchanging a certain level of pollution for economic growth.

What would happen, though, if we allowed our political presuppositions to determine which side of the tradeoff we must always choose? That’s the question at the heart of a recent debate about whether libertarians are too anti-pollution.

It all started when New York Times columnist and liberal economist Paul Krugman criticized the Libertarian Party platform’s position on environmental policy:

It opposes any kind of regulation; instead, it argues that we can rely on the courts. Is a giant corporation poisoning the air you breathe or the water you drink? Just sue: “Where damages can be proven and quantified in a court of law, restitution to the injured parties must be required.” Ordinary citizens against teams of high-priced corporate lawyers — what could go wrong?

Economist Tyler Cowen, though, says Krugman’s claim is the “opposite of the correct criticism.”

The main problem with classical libertarianism is that it doesn’t allow enough pollution. Under libertarian theory, pollution is a form of violent aggression that should be banned, as Murray Rothbard insisted numerous times. OK, but what about actual practice, once all those special interest groups start having their say? Historically, under the more limited government of the 19th century, it was big business that wanted to move away from unpredictable local and litigation-driven methods of control, and toward a more systematic regulatory approach at the national level.

In response, Ryan McMaken of Mises Wire weighed in, explaining that Cowen is essentially correct in claiming that this is indeed Rothbard’s view: “In a legal regime supported by Rothbard, polluters would likely face far greater legal sanctions than under the current regulatory regime.” As McMaken adds,

In a Rothbardian court-based system, the cost of poisoned air or a collapsed building are borne by those who actually engage in the harmful behavior. These costs can be immense.

Understandably, a firm may prefer a system in which costs are predictably higher, than a system where costs are potentially lower (if lawsuits are avoided), but far less predictable.

But, the fact that some firms would prefer this system is not a justification for imposing this system on everyone.

Many people would prefer regulations on pollution, says McMaken, to the Rothbardian legal option because under Rothbard’s system “a small number of aggrieved parties could shut down a polluting factory when society in general allegedly benefits from the activities of that factory.”

Does such an approach require that individual rights trump our obligations of stewardship?

A decade ago, Acton research fellow Jordan Ballor wrote the best, brief explanation you’ll ever find on the connection between economics and environmental stewardship. As Ballor says, economics can be understood as the theoretical side of stewardship, and stewardship can be understood as the practical side of economics.

Far from being a discipline that explains all of human existence, in the biblical view, as we saw in the case of the shrewd manager, economics is the thoughtful ordering of the material resources of a household or social unit toward the self-identified good end. Thus, if we hold a biblical view of economics and stewardship, we will not be tempted to divorce the two concepts but instead will see them as united.

On a larger scale, then, economics must play an important role in decisions about environmental stewardship. Economics helps us rightly order our stewardship.

One of the ways in which economics helps us rightly order environmental stewardship is by helping us deal with tradeoffs. The regulatory system, for all it’s flaws, provides a way to address such tradeoffs as economic growth and pollution. This system does not determine beforehand how much liability the polluter must bear or whether the people suffering should always be able, if they prove beyond a reasonable doubt, to win a settlement.

The Rothbaridian approach, however, seems to take a deontological approach to the tradeoffs: If an individual plaintiff can prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they’ve been harmed by pollution they should win. The implications not only for our economy but for our way of life could be profound. Indeed, if carried to the logical conclusion, individual environmental activists could shut down nearly every industry that has existed. And if we maintain that the principle should have always applied, we could say that individuals could have shut down all technological process since before the Industrial Revolution.

How to we resolve this tradeoff? Is there a way for polluting industries and rights-bearing individuals to peacefully coexist in a libertarian (or at least Rothbardian libertarian) legal system? And should we support a system where the aggrieved can single-handedly shut down economic growth and technological progress ?

When it comes to pollution, how would Christian libertarians balance stewardship, economics, and individual rights in a way that leads to societal flourishing?

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • It has been a while since I read it, but it seems to me that Rothbard offered a history of pollution reduction via courts before the EPA and it seemed to work well. Environmentalists weren’t able to shut down any business any time because they did not have the unlimited power of the EPA. The plaintiff actually had to prove his case beyond reasonable doubt. That is a much higher standard and more difficult to prove than what happens in EPA court.

    The problem with the EPA is that the state gets the fines from violators instead of the people actually hurt by the pollution. Also, with the EPA suspects are presumed guilty and must prove their innocence and not before a judge and jury but before and EPA panel that is prosecuting the suspected polluter. Worse, large corporations have captured the EPA and use it to write new regulations that run smaller businesses out of the market and concentrate industry in the hands of a few large corporations.

    An egregious example is wetlands regs. If a rancher has a damp spot on his land and an EPA thug sees it, the rancher instantly loses his property and there is nothing he can do. He has to prove to the EPA mafia that it’s not a wet land.

    • Joe Carter

      ***The plaintiff actually had to prove his case beyond reasonable doubt. That is a much higher standard and more difficult to prove than what happens in EPA court.***

      I’m sure in the past (e.g., pre-1930s) it was more difficult to establish “beyond reasonable doubt.” But today we have better research methods and well-funded private environmental organizations could do a lot of damage in the courts.

      • I’m not sure. Some corporate lawyers tell me that when things get technical the jury goes to sleep, wakes up at the end and splits the difference. They probably weren’t much different before the EPA. Today, Phil Hamburger of Columbia Law writes in “Is Administrative Law Unlawful?” that the process is heavily stacked against companies. The normal court process is far from perfect, but probably better than administrative law.