Libertarian Environmentalism

Of the several criticisms of a libertarian society, environmental concerns may seem to be of the most difficult to navigate, both consistently and logically. The scenario in question generally takes the form of: Company X has some amount of toxic waste that is created during their production process. In order to avoid costly methods of safe disposal, the company simply dumps the waste in a nearby river. In today’s society, there are EPA regulations and laws guarding against this, and a case, theoretically, will be made against Company X. But what about in a libertarian society?

It is important to first define what a libertarian society is. For the purpose of this, a libertarian society will be defined as a society where all property is private and no visible government exists. Ireland had a model very similar to this before the English conquest, as they had a free market court system. The model of free market arbitration is also explained in Robert P Murphy’s Chaos Theory.

In the example, Company X dumps the waste into the river. The way in which this situation would be handled follows as such:

Assuming all property is private, it would be economically unsound and unlikely for Company X to buy miles of river properties. It is easy to assume that at least one other person would own property along that river. Therefore, any waste dumped in the river will eventually flow through and affect someone else’s property. Examples of the effects could include but are not limited to: killing of fish, poisoning of drinking water, killing off nearby vegetation, etc. This makes damages, and the resulting case, easy to see and resolve.

Since the case is entirely held between the two parties, Company X and the other property owner, the case is much more likely to be brought to court. With this knowledge, pollution becomes less economical than it does in today’s system, where government consistently ignores environmental damage or is the chief actor in causing the damage. When the ownership of these rivers are socialized, the property suffers a fate known as the tragedy of the commons.

Furthermore, it’s likely that contracts will be written in order to guard against environmental damages. Consider a case, for example, where Company X is buying land to build a new factory. It is then possible that the person selling the land also owns the surrounding land. It would then be in the seller’s best interest to make a contractual agreement with Company X, barring them from causing damages to the land. It is also possible that existing contracts between land owners in the area may bar certain activities from taking place on the land in the first place.

This case only works, logically, where property rights are absolute. Therefore, a Georgist view on property is inadequate to answer this question. The paraphrased Georgist view is that the owning of land is impossible and then the natural conclusion is that people are to pay a single tax on land ownership. Therefore, if the logic holds, any damage to the land itself is not truthfully a damage against the person. This would make it virtually impossible to make a logical and consistent case in a Georgist court system.

This is a model for how environmental cases would be handled in a libertarian society. The benefit of viewing the issue as property damage is that it becomes applicable to a much wider range of issues, such as groundwater contamination and run off of herbicides. These are areas where the government is heavily faltering.  Once the idea that government is the only unit of arbitration is removed, we will quickly see innovation and accountability in this field.