Sean Edwards

The American Resurrection

How Libertarians Can Be Hypocrites When It Comes to the Environment

Smokestack in factory with yellow sky and clouds

There’s a gaping problem with the current libertarian movement: Environmental protection. Maybe it is a holdover from modern conservatism. But libertarians usually fight legislative environmental protection.

Just like conservatives, they try to argue that climate change/global warming isn’t real.  So, they believe environmental legislation is a scam put forward by liberals.

But not protecting the environment actually goes against the core principles of libertarianism.

Current Environmental Legislation Has
Serious Moral Problems, But

That being said, the way our government currently operates is a problem.

The fact that the EPA can make unilateral regulations without congressional approval is troublesome. The EPA should not be allowed to make “regulations” without our representative vote. Often these “regulations” are, for all intents and purposes, laws.

Just like we shouldn’t allow the Federal Reserve to print money on their own.
The same goes for the FCC, FAA, TSA, and who knows who else. They shouldn’t be allowed to make new “regulations” without congressional approval.

As a citizen, my elected representative should have a say in all those decisions. Because those decisions often personally affect me and my life. This is the basis of the republican form of government.

Thus, we should not allow the EPA to operate as it currently is.

Still, libertarians should be environmentalists.

This Not About Global Warming,
It’s A Right’s Issue

I’m going to side-step the argument about whether climate change is real, and/or if it is man made.

I personally believe it is real, and that humans are contributing to it, if you wanted to know. But that does not affect why libertarians should be environmentalists.

From a rights perspective, protecting the environment should be a government issue.

If my neighbor tries to attack me, hurt me, or kill me, the government needs to protect me.

That is the cornerstone of modern law.

But for some reason, when the assault on my rights take the form of smoke, water contamination, and landfills, we want to look the other way.

In fact, we argue for the freedom to do these things.

“For some reason, when an assault on individual rights comes from smoke, water contamination, and landfills, we want to look the other way.”

Libertarians often fight against emission standards, water conservation laws, etc…

But it is a proven fact that smoke and smog is damaging to our bodies.

Pollution Can Be a Form of Physical Assault

I lived in Fresno, CA for 3 years. They have poor air quality. It’s primarily not their fault. Weather currents bring in much of the pollution from the Bay Area, other industrial centers, and even China. None-the-less, it is bad. In fact, doctors say children born and raised in that area will most likely develop a respiratory disorder.

This is just one example of how our impact on the environment have real effects on people. There are countless others. Water contamination. Soil contamination. Air contamination.

Even if you don’t believe in global warming, you can’t escape the fact that our environmental actions affect those around us.

If China was dropping bombs on California to cause respiratory damage, we would act. We would say that it is a violation of our rights as individuals. And we would support legislation to end China’s actions.

But when power plants, industrial centers, and automobiles do the same thing, we fight any legislation that wants to curb them.

Why? I don’t know.

Other people do not have the right to contaminate my air, water, and soil.

This clearly falls within the libertarian view of government: to protect the rights of individuals.

I understand our fight against government overreach. And as I already stated, we need to change how our government currently handles these issues. But this is a government issue.

And from an economics stand point, we need the government to step in as well.

The Government Has A Role To Play

Power plants, industrial centers, drivers, and homeowners need to feel the monetary impact of their actions.

But in most people’s construct of a free-market, this isn’t the case. In this view of the free market, we should allow power plants to pump as much CO2 into the atmosphere as they want.

Some people believe that the market would correct the matter. And maybe it would, but when? How many people have to die or live with preventable diseases and disorders before that happens?

And you can’t blame power plants and factories alone. Homeowners make those plants pump out huge amounts of CO2 by using ridiculous amounts of wasted energy.

Individuals cause those factories to contaminate water supplies by buying their products.

And those actions affect everyone. Especially those nearby.

This is an individual rights issue. And the government needs to be involved.

What does that look like? I’m not sure. I am leery of giving the government too much power in this area (in its current state).

I am an optimist and believe the best in people by default. But I also realize that people with impure motives use the government to hurt industries and companies they personally don’t like.

We don’t want that.

But at the same time, this is a governmental responsibility.

The government should protect land, water, and air. And to do it, it needs funding.

Not All Taxes Are Bad,
Some Are Good, Proper, and Necessary

So taxing the emissions of power plants and automobiles is a viable solution. If we tax power plants, those costs will be passed down to the consumer. But they should be.

If my rates increase, it means that I’m paying for my impact on the environment. And, thus, those around me.

The same goes for water usage. Many of our aquifers have been pumped beyond their recovery tipping point. Meaning we’re taking more water out than is coming in. And the ground in that area (that used to be full of water) is compacting.

This means that many aquifers will never refill. It is impossible for them to do so, even if we stopped pumping them.

If factories or farms are pumping so much water out of the ground that they restrict my access to water, then they need to be regulated. They shouldn’t be allowed to do that.

Now, their needs to be balance. We can’t go overboard and elevate the environment above the rights of individuals.

This is why these decisions need to be discussed in congress. That way we can (hopefully, in the ideal state of things) keep things balanced.

But that doesn’t change the fact that libertarians should support environmental protection.

Our Core Principles Require Us to Be Environmentalists

We should be the champions of recycling, renewable energy, and fuel efficiency. And just like President Obama said, we should want our companies to supply the world with the energy of the future.

That doesn’t mean that we should redistribute tax dollars to unviable energy companies. Or any companies for that matter. That is wrong. There are other ways to do it.

Yet, in the perfect government, environmental protection would be a high priority. Right along with the police, military, and the justice system…. because it is a rights issue.

If we are truly champions of individual rights, then we should support government action to protect the environment.

About Sean Edwards

Sean Edwards is an author and a communication strategist. He graduated from the Western Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in history. Sean has a passion for discussing philosophy and American politics.

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  • Dan Morris

    Sean,

    You raise many good points and I agree with you on some. For example, pollution is aggression. However, I think your characterization of libertarians is inaccurate.

    Libertarians are first and foremost defenders of property rights (along side life and liberty) because without property rights nothing else really matters. For example, if you want to print a newspaper but the building and printing presses are not yours, well then freedom of speech really doesn’t matter since the means to exercise those rights can be taken away.

    The history of government intervention into environmental issues has caused more harm, not less. Government has protected polluters for over a century and has altered the protection of private property to be secondary to that of “the common good”. The solution is not more government intervention but a full restoration of property rights. The courts have not been kind to the individual’s property rights. See link below for more details.

    Also, since government has “owned” the waterways and air for so long, they essentially have been unowned because we both know common ownership is no ownership. Without any private ownership then who will stand and protect the property? Government officials who answer to donors and political favors? How has that been working for us?

    I invite you to check out Murray Rothbard’s insights on the matter here. I can’t do justice to the subject as well as Rothbard. https://mises.org/library/libertarian-manifesto-pollution#footnote3_sc4skpl

    Thank you for taking the time and having the courage to put your voice out into the conversation. I have always loved the political discussion and will continue to read and comment on both the points of agreement and disagreement.

    In Liberty,
    Dan

    • Sean Edwards

      Hello Dan, thanks for sharing. You raise some very interesting points. I look forward to studying this further.

      • Hi Sean,
        I would like to reiterate the points made by Dan above but will also take the chance to admit that your skepticism is not unfounded. It is true that libertarians often have an all-or-nothing view on limiting the scope of government, many going so far as to say that every single federal policy could be effectively managed by markets. Environmental policy is, indeed, one issue that remains a contentious debate, especially when considering that, yes, many of us come from conservative circles skeptical of climate change’s existence.
        I will point out that libertarian arguments tend to favor a lessening of government authority, however, this does not mean to say that libertarians would support anarchy (note anarchy as a different form from the political philosophy of anarchism, which not all libertarians support). Instead of government protecting from pollution, libertarians argue that rule of law ought to prevail. In that way, we only seek to replace federal oversight with local jurisdiction and knowledge, that includes in Native American communities, as well as in the realm of courts and nonprofits. The best way I can articulate this point is to share a video pout out by the Institute for Humane Studies (http://www.learnliberty.org/videos/how-dirty-laws-trash-the-environment/).
        Like I said, the skepticism is understandable. In fact, libertarians tend to welcome such critical opinions, as they allow us to uphold our intellectual integrity. I hope that these comments have urged you to explore other perspectives or, at the very least, gain some insight into our particular view. Thanks for the article. I shall use this in future discussions on my campus.
        Sincerely,
        Conor