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Libertarians and the Environment, Part 1 of 3: Principles Abandoned
Column by Lawrence M. Ludlow.
Exclusive to STR
The Role of “But” Libertarians and “Hyphenated” Libertarians
There is a particular subset of libertarians that champions anti-environmentalism, zeal for maximum fossil-fuel consumption, disregard for pollution, and worship of population growth for its own sake (and all that comes with it). At best, these libertarians merely fail to acknowledge the downside of their positions. At worst, they revel in them. I do not know how these people came to find such easy lodgment within the libertarian community, and I do not know why their presence goes unremarked in so many libertarian circles – but they have and it does. By re-defining the libertarian message in terms of their own personal prejudices on these matters, they have distorted and undermined its consistency – a disservice that repels otherwise sympathetic allies.
Each of us has encountered quasi-libertarians in one guise or another. Some of them are easily spotted; they say things like “I’m a libertarian, but…” These “but” libertarians, however, are usually run-of-the-mill conservatives or progressives underneath their camouflage. I believe they are merely cross-dressing as libertarians – perhaps because they are embarrassed by the odor of the conventional political herd. They fail to understand that libertarianism is defined by its unwavering advocacy of human liberty (freedom from coercion). It is not a hodge-podge of positions that can be selected – cafeteria-style – from a platter of political hors-d’oeuvres. As a philosophy, libertarianism requires its adherents to take ideas seriously and to value the integrity of holding them consistently. By now, most of us understand that the pivotal concepts of the libertarian and voluntaryist worldview are (1) the non-aggression axiom and (2) the theory of self-ownership. Both of these are outlined in Murray Rothbard’s books – including For a New Liberty and Ethics of Liberty – among other sources. It is the failure to extend these concepts consistently that defines the “but” libertarians.
More deeply entrenched within the libertarian community than “but” libertarians are those who fail to apply libertarian principles to the natural environment and the important subject of environmentalism. Although some of these people readily identify themselves as “hyphenated” libertarians (such as the paleo-libertarians), most of them do not openly acknowledge their deviation from libertarian principles on this key issue. And just to get it out of the way, let me clearly state that big-government “solutions” are not and cannot be the answer to environmental challenges. Furthermore, I am not a Luddite, hoping to repeal the advance of technology. Nonetheless, a bias toward population expansion and reckless handling of the environment is not libertarian. Advocates of these positions regularly abandon the libertarian concepts of (1) pollution as a form of trespass, (2) the need for market-based (i.e., non-political) population “right sizing,” and (3) market-based land use. Instead, they assume that current levels of government-induced population growth, the size of the “human footprint,” and pollution are somehow a product of the free market and should continue without limit. For them, talk of environmentalism, overpopulation, and pollution are tantamount to supporting the dictatorial state. Note the following examples:
· Bloggers at one web site regularly dismiss concerns about the environment and population growth. Here (Lew Rockwell), here (Sean Corrigan), here (Butler Shaffer), and here (David Kramer), are some examples – including this featured paean to gas-guzzlers by Karen De Koster. For these writers, to be concerned about the environment is to be “anti-human.” In their world, there are only two alternatives: the socialist alternative of leftist environmentalists and their own equally socialist paradigm. It is socialist because it shuns the cost-revealing, cost-assigning ways of the free market and pretends that the misallocation of resources and spreading-out of negative externalities that we currently experience in our state-sponsored “tragedy of the commons” is somehow acceptable as an alternative. Even worse, they assume that this misallocation can go on forever with no worrisome consequences.
· At a related web site, this article by Benjamin Marks is typical of the treatment the topic of overpopulation receives. He dismisses the possibility that population pressures can be negative and does not even address the problem of state-sponsored population growth (through tax incentives and transfers, etc.). Another, by George Reisman, explicitly accepts the tragedy of the commons and abandons the concept of holding individual human beings responsible for actions that have an impact on the environment. Why? Because everyone else is doing the same thing. Addressing global warming and ozone depletion, he writes: “The appropriate answer to the environmentalists is that we will not sacrifice a hair of industrial civilization, and that if global warming and ozone depletion really are among its consequences, we will accept them and deal with them—by such reasonable means as employing more and better air conditioners and sun block, not by giving up our air conditioners, refrigerators, and automobiles.” Going even further, William Anderson builds a straw man and then shakes it in front of us with this dire warning: “The verdict is in; environmentalism is not only hazardous to our health, it threatens our very lives.”
· This article by Cort Kirkwood – posted at yet another web site – correctly points out the foolishness of government programs that limit population, but it fails to address the downside of state-sponsored population growth – which is called “social engineering” when socialists are the culprits.
· In his book review of Steven Mosher’s book, Population Control (hosted by yet another web site), George Leef exhibits great angst about falling fertility rates in some countries. Like Steven Mosher, Mr. Leef views population growth as a way to salvage big-government social security programs. To support this goal, which is hardly libertarian, he cites Julian Simon, a growth-at-all-costs advocate. Julian Simon’s argument also was repeated by Louis Carabini in his recent book, Inclined to Liberty.
How to Misunderstand the Problem
Sheldon Richman, a fine writer on many other issues, reveals the typical attitude of anti-environment libertarians in this article:
“Contrary to the anti-natalists, people do not breed like rats. They have always adjusted their reproductive activities to the constraints and incentives that confronted them. (Big families make sense in pre-industrial economies.) Population is no threat to progress. The basic issue is who shall determine how many children people may have, the state or individuals? The moral is the practical. Individual freedom is the answer.”
The devil, however, is in the details: Richman’s blanket statements about overpopulation and human behavior are as erroneous as those of the big-government anti-natalists that triggered his reaction. Note Richman’s use of the words “always adjusted their reproductive activities” and “big families make sense in pre-industrial economies” and “population is no threat to progress.” These phrases assume that people always act rationally, that they are subject only to the capitalist ethos and downward-sloping population curve of industrial society, and that technology will always supply a remedy for population problems. These assumptions are not justified. There are many factors that can disrupt the spontaneous market mechanisms that normally function to “right-size” human populations at levels that are commensurate with the prevailing economic climate and technological developments. Richman does not account for the impact of government-protected cultural factors that affect family size. He also ignores the impact of the modern welfare state – where 90% of children attend tax-subsidized schools, where per-child income-tax deductions act to short-circuit the cost pressures of bearing additional children and shift costs to others, and where food-stamp programs (now credit cards) and a raft of other programs further redistribute costs throughout the population. These factors all short-circuit the spontaneous, rational, voluntary methods of population right-sizing. Furthermore, use of the word always often leads to trouble, and it did so in Richman’s case. Later, we will cite just a few of the many famines that contradict his statement. People do not always adjust their behavior to avert disaster.
Recalling Libertarian Basics
When humans make a habit of acting without forethought, they fail to consider the unintended consequences of their actions. At the beginning of his most famous book, Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt labeled this habit (when applied to economics) the “the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.” For Hazlitt, it consisted of a failure to consider the long-term and widespread consequences of a course of action. Whether it was product shortages caused by price controls, higher prices caused by trade restrictions, or inflation as a result of printing too much money, Hazlitt believed that 90% of harmful economic policies were based on a failure to understand this error. Hazlitt’s lesson applies to environmental questions as much as it does to economic policies, and we are kidding ourselves if we pretend that it doesn’t.
My suggestion is that libertarians – including voluntaryists and agorists – should stick to their knitting. This means that they should seek only voluntary, market-based solutions and remain agnostic about what constitutes acceptable limits (whether large or small) when discussing pollution, population size, or land use. By agnostic, I mean simply that we “don’t know” in the original sense of the Greek roots of this word. Consequently, we cannot pass quantitative judgment about such things as whether the population is too small or too large. After all, it is the position of the Austrian School of economics (in agreement with Friedrich Hayek, author of The Fatal Conceit) that knowledge is incomplete and decentralized in the marketplace. That is why government-sponsored “economic calculation” is impossible. Central planners simply cannot possess enough accurate data and information about its meaning to understand all of the desires, needs, methods, and effects of the billions of market transactions that take place every day. They cannot know, and we can’t either. This market-based agnostic approach also applies to judgments about technologies such as nuclear power (a heavily subsidized, government-backed industry in many ways) and issues such as global warming. Instead, we should focus on the importance of property-rights enforcement, restitution for trespass, and the need to ensure that the full costs of human action (including reproduction) are borne by those who undertake a course of action. And it is the phrase human action that brings us to Ludwig von Mises of the “Austrian School” of economists and author of the tome Human Action among others.
Resurrecting the Ghosts of Mises and Rothbard
I invoke the name of Ludwig von Mises because so many writers – while wearing his mantle – seem to have ignored their eponymous inspiration. It is as if someone had lowered the cone of silence on Mises’ extensive and favorable comments about the work of Thomas Malthus.
Buried in Mises’ magnum opus, Human Action, are extensive remarks about the perils of non-market-driven population growth. Similar statements can be found in the writings of Mises’ most famous student, the irrepressible Murray Rothbard. He wrote passionately about pollution in chapter 13 of For a New Liberty. Sadly, the authors cited in this article often treat these topics with derision – as if no sentient student of Mises could possibly concern himself with the environment, pollution, urban sprawl, or population growth. Instead, they have adopted a pro-development stance that is identical to that of “Red State” Republicans living in Orange County, California. Why? Because they have accepted today’s milieu of tax-subsidized population growth, government-tolerated pollution, marketplace distortions, and subsidized resource consumption as if it were a product of the market and therefore above reproach. In essence, they have embraced the environment created by Big Brother and have re-named it Heaven. Stockholm syndrome, anyone?
Mises on Pollution
Let’s take a closer look at what Mises actually said about pollution and overpopulation in his book, Human Action. In the chapter entitled “The Data of the Market,” Mises briefly traces the story of pollution in the industrial age:
By and large the principle is accepted that everybody is liable to damages which his actions have inflicted upon other people. But there were loopholes left which the legislators were slow to fill. In some cases this tardiness was intentional because the imperfections agreed with the plans of the authorities. When in the past in many countries the owners of factories and railroads were not held liable for the damages which the conduct of their enterprises inflicted on the property and health of neighbors, patrons, employees, and other people through smoke, soot, noise, water pollution, and accidents caused by defective or inappropriate equipment, the idea was that one should not undermine the progress of industrialization and the development of transportation facilities. The same doctrines which prompted and still are prompting many governments to encourage investment in factories and railroads through subsidies, tax exemption, tariffs, and cheap credit were at work in the emergence of a legal state of affairs in which the liability of such enterprises was either formally or practically abated. Later again the opposite tendency began to prevail in many countries and the liability of manufacturers and railroads was increased as against that of other citizens and firms. Here again definite political objectives were operative. Legislators wished to protect the poor, the wage earners, and the peasants against the wealthy entrepreneurs and capitalists. [Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998) p. 651.]
Clearly, Mises regarded pollution as a form of trespass (as did Rothbard). He understood that a failure to enforce property rights during the industrial revolution (for political reasons) introduced high levels of pollution.
Mises on Overpopulation
Moving to the topic of overpopulation, in the chapter entitled “Work and Wages,” Mises issued the following warning:
In the capitalist society there prevails a tendency toward a steady increase in the per capita quota of capital invested. The accumulation of capital soars above the increase in population figures. Consequently the marginal productivity of labor, wage rates, and the wage earners' standard of living tend to rise continually. But this improvement in well-being is not the manifestation of the operation of an inevitable law of human evolution; it is a tendency resulting from the interplay of forces which can freely produce their effects only under capitalism. It is possible and, if we take into account the direction of present-day policies, even not unlikely that capital consumption on the one hand and an increase or an insufficient drop in population figures on the other hand will reverse things. Then it could happen that men will again learn literally what starvation means and that the relation of the quantity of capital goods available and population figures will become so unfavorable as to make part of the workers earn less than a bare subsistence. [Ibid., p.601, emphasis added]
Please note the difference between Mises’ warning and Sheldon Richman’s rosy assessment. When Richman claimed that humans “have always adjusted their reproductive activities to the constraints and incentives that confronted them,” he failed to account for episodes of mass starvation. And it is these episodes that depict precisely what Mr. Malthus tried to point out. As recently as the 19th century, there was the Irish potato famine. It was preceded by countless others, and these have continued in some areas of the globe well into the 20th century. If people have always adjusted their reproductive activities, how does Mr. Richman explain the practice of infant exposure/abandonment and female infanticide in the Middle Ages (which has been documented by study of the polyptych of Saint-Germain-des-Prés)? These are some of the consequences of reproduction without limit.