Saturday, 24 September 2005

Cue Card Libertarianism -- Pollution

POLLUTION: The transfer of matter or energy to the person or property of another without his consent. As such, a violation of rights, properly to be proscribed by law.
If a man creates a physical danger or harm to others, which extends beyond the line of his own property, such as unsanitary conditions, or even loud noise, the law can and does hold him responsible.
– Ayn Rand
Contrary to the view of most environmentalists, the best antidote to pollution is the extension of private property rights, not the destruction of them. People care about what they own and will not themselves pollute it or allow someone else to pollute it; property rights set up mirrors which reflect back our own behaviour – we do not readily soil that which is our own; individuals and companies who pollute can more easily be sued when it is clear that someone else’s property has been defiled; government departments which pollute are difficult to sue, and in a mixed economy are often in cahoots with private polluters. We now know that state-run industries in the former communist countries were about the worst polluters of all.

The way to go is not to nationalise land, as the Resource Management Act has done in all but name, but to privatise, or at least define property rights in respect of, land, rivers, sea and air to the maximum extent possible, and thence to rely on the protection of common law, which has a seven-hundred year record of sophistication and success in dealing with issues of pollution and property rights.

Suggested further reading:

  • Property Rights in the Defence of Nature, by Elizabeth Brubaker. This book draws on cases from England, Canada, and the United States, showing how the common law of property has for centuries been a force for environmental protection, while contemporary statutes have allowed polluters to foul private lands and public resources alike.
  • The Common Law: How it Protects the Environment, by Roger E. Meiners and Bruce Yandle. Meiners and Yandle review English and American legal history to show the environmental protections available to individuals. "Those who allowed something noxious to escape their control and invade the property of others could be held accountable for their actions through private litigation," they write. "Eventually, citizens will recognize that the common law, bolstered by local regulation, can protect the environment more effectively and fairly than can statutes and bureaucratic regulations."

This is part of a continuing series explaining the concepts and terms used by libertarians, originally published in The Free Radical in 1993. The 'Introduction' to the series is here.

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