A fairly common parody of libertarians is that they’re anarchists willing to let people with lots of money call all of the shots. While this is a convenient caricature for the intellectually slothful, it’s far from how libertarians actually view the role of government in general. Nobody wants dirty air, polluted water supplies, and poisoned land, so trying to act as if someone does is dishonest at best. Instead, we simply view it through the lens of property rights, something that can be tangibly enforced. John Stossel and Ron Paul offer views on how exactly the environment is protected under a libertarian model.
Paul’s arguments rely most heavily on adequate enforcement of property rights. Just as you should be able to sue your neighbor for dumping garbage on your lawn, you should be able to sue a company that pours toxic chemicals upstream from you. Pollution, Paul argues, is a form of trespass and should be dealt with accordingly. He argues that environmental regulations all too often create legalized pollution, socialize the costs of pollution across everyone, and provide little or no legal recourse for those harmed. If the true costs of pollution were factored into all activities, be it burning coal for power or operating a pesticide plant, many “cheap” polluting operations would be financially unviable.
Stossel adds a point of nuance to Paul’s arguments, however, by taking the position that some regulation must be required. The best example is that of air pollution from the use of automobiles. We all know that while each individual car cannot produce enough pollution in any given area to prove strict cause-effect liability, and we also know that hundreds of thousands of cars can. How do you go about assessing who has directly harmed who, especially when the plaintiffs and defendants would often consist of the same people? It’s the conundrum of choosing which raindrop to blame for the flood. From a practical standpoint, a strict enforcement of property rights cannot solve this issue. In order to adequately protect these rights, some regulation must be required.
This, of course, brings up two issues: who does the regulating and how much is needed? For the most part, pollution is largely a local issue. In many valley cities (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City come to mind), pollution is a largely localized issue requiring localized solutions. Federalized solutions may not even be the best ones for pollution issues affecting more than one state. Pollution from Philadelphia most assuredly affects Camden, NJ on the other side of the Delaware River, yet the pollution is very specific to a localized region. Trying to set some kind of national standard or come up with solutions that have little, if any, local input are often ineffective because they ignore the unique peculiarities of each situation. The Wasatch Front, for instance, often runs into a problem of geography. With narrow, deep valleys and frequent inversion layers, poor air quality days are almost guaranteed, even when driving is kept to a minimum and burn bans are in effect. And what solves pollution issues here may not help in, say, St. George.
When evaluating if a regulation is needed, a few simple tests must be applied. First, can both individual liability and individual harm be determined? If so, even via a class of affected people, then the issue would be best handled via legal action. Second, is the issue specific to a city, county, or region? If so, it may be best handled by local ordinances or a compact between various local or state governments involved. In almost all cases, the issue will fall under one of these two tests, so it largely eliminates the need for federal law or action. At the same time, it prevents pollution via stricter controls and better compensates those affected while eliminating the socialized cost of pollution. There’s no good reason why we should continue to work under our current regulatory framework.