The Libertarian Party and the Environment

The Libertarian Party platform leaves many open questions about environmental protection.

A number of people seem drawn to the Libertarian Party during this election cycle.  As it turns out, the Party believes not only in minimal government but a minimal platform.  Compared to the platforms of the major parties, the Libertarian platform is blessedly brief. (It also seems notably more purist than the Party’s presidential ticket.)  Here’s all of what it says about the environment:

“Competitive free markets and property rights stimulate the technological innovations and behavioral changes required to protect our environment and ecosystems. Private landowners and conservation groups have a vested interest in maintaining natural resources. Governments are unaccountable for damage done to our environment and have a terrible track record when it comes to environmental protection. Protecting the environment requires a clear definition and enforcement of individual rights and responsibilities regarding resources like land, water, air, and wildlife. Where damages can be proven and quantified in a court of law, restitution to the injured parties must be required.”

The last two sentences are the only operational parts.  Unfortunately, the downside of the platform’s brevity is that it leaves many open sentences.

“Protecting the environment requires a clear definition and enforcement of individual rights and responsibilities regarding resources like land, water, air, and wildlife.”  The idea of property rights in land seems clear, but that’s where the clarity ends. What does the platform mean by definition and enforcement of individual responsibilities for land, water, air and wildlife.  Who is responsible and for what?  And what kinds of rights in water, air, and wildlife are contemplated?  Take wildlife, for example.  Is a landowner entitled to kill as many ducks as possible if they’re flying over his property?  If a river runs through the middle of my land, am I entitled to use all the water, to the detriment of downstream landowners.  Or are wildlife and water held in common as property?  And by the same token, is the air a commonly owned resource?  Do carbon emissions violate the rights of others?

Where damages can be proven and quantified in a court of law, restitution to the injured parties must be required. Are damages supposed to be the only remedy for violations of environmental rights?  If so, then as a practical matter most of forms of pollution will be completely unrestrained; efforts to bring damage suits for toxic torts are notoriously difficult. And what about injunctions, as opposed to damages?

The problem posed by environmental problems is that they don’t fit into libertarian’s atomistic view of society, in which independent individuals interact only in discrete acts of cooperation or aggression.  But not everything fits the cooperation/aggression dichotomy. Environmental problems are a paradigm example of the more subtle, complex connections of the modern world.  As such, they do not have an obvious place in libertarian thought, leaving individual libertarians free to take a variety of positions, ranging from nearly complete rejection of environmental protection to a grudging acceptance of environmental regulation as a necessary evil.

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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “The Libertarian Party and the Environment”

  1. The idea that the libertarian conceptions of society are “atomistic” reflects a complete understanding of libertarian conceptions of market ordering. There is nothing about a libertarian conception of property rights that presumes individuated ownership of all resources. This is a caricature that has no basis whatsover. Market orders produce all sorts of complex interrelated relationships that are defined by property rights and contract — complex ordered relationships that are far more nimble and reflective of the complexity we see in the natural world than their regulatory equivalents.

    I address some of these issues (albeit somewhat superficially) in this paper:
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2594905

    As for how libertarian principles might inform environmental policy, here’s one of my efforts.
    http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/delpf/vol23/iss2/3/

    JHA

  2. The problem posed by environmental problems is that they don’t fit into libertarian’s atomistic view of society, in which independent individuals interact only in discrete acts of cooperation or aggression.

    This is a caricature of the libertarian worldview. There is nothing in libertarianism which assumes that all rights are individuated and nothing that excludes the development of more complex and textured institutions to manage and address wide ranges of resources. Firms an dclubs, in all their myriad forms, are fully consistent with the libertarian perspective.

    Further, if one is concerned about “the more subtle, complex connections of the modern world,” it is hard to argue that contemporary regulatory bureaucracies are a more effective means of addressing such interconnections than evolutionary private orders

    I address some of these issues (albeit superficially) in this paper:
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2594905

    The question is not whether a given worldview perfectly aligns with ecological demands. None will. The question is which set of institutions will do the least bad job of producing the range of environmental results we desire. All worldviews — libertarian and otherwise — should be evaluated this way.

    1. I try to avoid caricaturing libertarianism — for example, by reducing it to Ayn Rand-style selfish egotism, or by equating it with market mechanisms (as opposed to other voluntary associations such as churches). But I don’t think that’s inconsistent with the term “atomistic” — after all, atoms form molecular bonds, and molecules can be large and complex. And I don’t think it’s inherently impossible for libertarians to come to grips with problems like climate change, as shown by your work (or from a very different perspective, Richard Epstein’s). Still, I think the path of least resistance for libertarians is exemplified by the libertarian platform (and Rand Paul’s presidential platform earlier), which don’t take environmental issues seriously.

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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