Thursday, 16 October 2014

A ‘Minarchist’ Environmentalism

Guest post by Nick Sorrentino from the blog Against Crony Capitalism


This essay has little (directly) to do with crony capitalism, however I wanted to post it here for our readers’ consideration. People who read Against Crony Capitalism regularly know that we care about the environment. We love the ocean, and hiking, and clear skies on a moonless night. We are saddened by the clear cutting of rain forest, (usually due to a wilful lack of property rights) and by plastic floating in our seas; we care about “sustainability” generally.

However we despise the command and control methods which have traditionally been the weapons of choice for the environmentalist movement. This general disposition toward control has muddied the water on environmental issues. For many outside of the environmentalist movement the perception now is that “environmentalism” is not actually the end. A clean planet is not the end. Instead, the actual end is state domination and regulation of every single aspect of life which is . Indeed that “green” is the new “red.”

I think one can be “green” and pro-market. In fact being “green” and pro-market is not some quaint contrarian position, but the way forward.

It is a radical notion I will concede. 

This essay was originally written for Future 500, a client of mine and a San Francisco environmental organization with legitimate “green cred.” It is a clarification of my position as a libertarian environmentalist (and I don’t shy from the “environmentalist” word). I call it my ‘minarchist’ environmentalism.

Walk in the mist

A ‘Minarchist’ Environmentalism

Many of us have heard the saying that “green” is the new “red.” Meaning that environmentalism is the new perturbation of the collectivist political fashion which ran straight through the 20th Century, previously defined by socialism/communism. If you haven’t heard this saying there is a very good chance that you are not a conservative or a libertarian, because this opinion is widely held.

This belief is unfortunate, though I think it’s fair to say not entirely wrong. There are indeed many within the environmental movement who seem always to list toward statism and command and control. (A way of organizing the world, companies, and communities which in my opinion is antiquated and inefficient.) For some greens there seems to be no end to faith in the state. That somehow “business” is evil, while government (the greatest abuser of the planet there has ever been by a long shot) is somehow a benevolent entity. That business and government are partners is often lost on these people also.

It’s understandable why so many have so much faith in the state. It is widely regarded that without America’s Clean Water Act for instance, the Cuyahoga River would still be burning. And indeed that may actually be correct. [Or not – Ed.] But WHY this may be correct is the vital question. And no, it’s not because of rampant “out of control” capitalism. It’s largely because the river was a commons. It had no real owner. No owner. No responsibility.

This dilemma, the so called tragedy of the commons, is taught in every Econ 101 course. Yet we develop much of our environmental policy in a way which seems ignorant of this basic concept.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Some people reject “labels.” In the realm of politics however I find they can prove useful. I for instance label myself a “libertarian” because it’s good shorthand. It’s kind of like announcing that one is out of the closet. People just have a better understanding of from where one comes.

I use the term “environmentalist” in certain circles less often, but for the same reason.

Put the words libertarian and environmentalist together however and people get swimmy.

Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?

It’s not.

It’s unsustainable

I don’t like central planning. I believe the government that governs the absolute least governs best, as Thomas Jefferson famously said. I believe in the free market and in dynamic pricing. I believe in sound (gold backed) money, perhaps augmented with Bitcoin and its brethren. I am no particular fan of the Environmental Protection Agency. I have absolutely no faith in the US government generally. I think fracking for the most part is a good thing.

And I believe absolutely in sustainability.

I write about the economy every single day at the website I co-founded, Against Crony Capitalism. I love economics. From childhood I have been fascinated. The thing which strikes me is how unsustainable our current economy is – both in economic and in ecological terms.

I won’t go into depth here but I’ll say that the old economic orthodoxy espoused by many (pretty much everyone) on the Left (and regrettably the Right also) is highly destructive to the environment.

We currently exist under a regime of Keynesian economic theory. In a nutshell this school argues that booms can be manipulated by central banks to go on forever. Cheap money will keep the world employed and the economy expanding ad infinitum (they say). It encourages waste in a way that hard money, honest money, gold backed money simply does not.

Gold backed money encourages sane value judgments (by governments, companies, and individuals) and keeps banks from getting too wild. It checks rampant over-production via a natural mechanism: A country spends too much versus its supply of gold? Then interest rates must go up to compensate. In the short term, this restricts growth in that country, but it also encourages saving. The economy then rebalances like any natural system, and life goes on.

However, if money is fiat, backed only by the government and not by gold, silver, etc. (i.e., the system we have now) then the only limit on rampant growth is the degree to which people can be convinced, typically via force, that the money will still spend. It encourages a system of debt servitude for people and countries alike. A dollar backed by gold means one has real savings, even if one has just one simple greenback. A dollar backed by the Federal Reserve only has value because the bankers say it has value.

I’ll leave it there for the time being, but suffice it to say that our current money system, a system widely espoused by many on the Left, encourages waste. It is fundamentally unsustainable. And as I said, I am for sustainability.

Part of sustainability is resiliency, and my belief that resiliency in general is important is also key reason why I am a libertarian environmentalist.


For systems to be resilient they must be spread out. If however everything is centralised, in Washington DC let’s say, then when a “black swan” incident happens everyone goes down with DC.

That’s the system we have now. Everything, financially and politically, is housed in the dual hubs of The District of Columbia and New York City. We have all of our eggs in 2 baskets that are sitting right next to one another. In the effort to control the economy and everything else (nature doesn’t like to be controlled) we have foolishly vested too much power in a small group of people in a frighteningly small geographic area.

Though many of my environmentalist friends believe that wise managers trained in the best schools can leverage the power of the centralised state for environmental good – and that a “capital city” which keeps the rednecks out in the hinterlands is good -- I believe that such centralisation is very unwise.

One size does not fit all. This is probably more true for environmental management than almost anything. And yet so many have no problem with the decrees handed down from on high in DC, a place which is completely separate (in my experience) from reality.

Power corrupts

The environmental movement has become overly enamoured with the man-made hammer of federal regulation.

There is too much trust in authority in too much of the environmental movement.

I saw this first reflected starkly for me when I was in college. As a favour to one of my professors, the head of a widely-known international environmental organization sat in on a seminar. Discussion turned to the plight of the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, which had just been rocked by widespread genocide and war of the most vicious kind. I asked the visitor to our class how the gorillas had fared during this time.

She responded that they had fared quite well during all the human bloodshed. The humans it seemed were too busy killing each other to focus on killing the gorillas. I agreed that this was a kind of silver lining. She lamented the human loss of life and then said that she thought the world and the environment would be so much better off if only we had a “benevolent dictator” in charge.

She smiled. I did not.

Even though I agreed with her in spirit on a whole host of issues -- fishery depletion, fighting the clear cutting of rain forests, the welfare of mountain gorillas -- her faith in power,  the kind that corrupts, told me that she and I were two different species. As a sophomore in college I could see that this esteemed NGO president was naïve.

The “benevolent dictator” was still a dictator, and no stretch of rain forest to me was worth humans living under the yoke of a tyrant, benevolent (to whom?) or not.

And this is where I diverge from many of my friends in the environmental movement. Some of my friends – I know – would choose a preserved rainforest protected by an all-powerful king versus a free society where the rain forest was in potential peril.

This is simply unacceptable to me. I believe that a powerful state is actually more of a danger to the environment than a seemingly messy, complicated, often anti-green, republic style political system.

Abuse of power, abuse of environment

We have seen over and over that where politicians have power they abuse the environment. From the scarred wastes of the former Soviet empire, to China’s “state capitalism” which turns days into night because of soot and ash, to America’s own Hoover dam which has killed one of the worlds great estuaries in only 3 generations, it is big government which has enabled the greatest environmental crimes of the last century.

Add in the irradiation of large swathes of the South Pacific. The draining of the Aral Sea. The subsidisation of ever-more powerful fishing vessels in the American North East and in Alaska. The subsidising from birth until death of every single US nuclear power plant. The wholesale disenfranchisement of Native Peoples throughout the New World (not to mention the government encouraged extermination). Chernobyl. The Japanese nuclear plant disaster. (A public/private partnership.) The list of government facilitated environmental destruction goes on and on.

And yet because the government facilitates national parks (often taken from poor property owners at the point of a gun), and the EPA is supposedly made up of a bunch of smart people “who want to do the right thing,” as an environmentalist  I am supposed to believe that government management of our environment is best? Sorry if I have a hard time agreeing with this.

I believe the best way to do the most environmental good is protection of private property rights, and not command and control from DC or Brussels or Wellington. When they have rights in property protected, those rights act like ‘mirrors,’ reflecting back their behaviour.  Put simply: when people own things they tend to take care of them. When they don’t, they don’t.

Why do rivers catch fire?

Why are our oceans full of waste?

Why are our skies full of pollution?

Why are rainforests in Indonesia and in Brazil clear cut?

Why was the last tree cut down on Rapa Nui?

For one simple reason: Because no one OWNS these resources; because these are all “commons.”

rain forest 2

It’s as simple as 1+1=2. Where there is no ownership, or only collective ownership without rights (which in most regards is basically the same thing), then there is no reward for responsibility – there are no ‘mirrors’ reflecting back behaviour – and that commons will be abused and likely destroyed so long as there is economic value to be squeezed from the commons. Get all your cattle to eat as much grass as possible so you can get them to market good and fat before your neighbour. So what if there’s no more grass or even roots for next year. That’s next year. And anyway, if I don’t binge my cattle, Joe down the road will. Might as well take as much as I can while I can.

Alternatively if a commons is owned in part by participants, with the right to sue, suddenly the commons is cared for because there is an interest in preserving the resource. The rancher, or fisherman, or whomever has an on-going stake in the commons and so the looting mentality that a non-ownership commons encourages is killed.

One of the problems with this concept of environmental preservation is that it affords ownership to certain people, and some other people find this unseemly. For some the very idea of private ownership, of property rights, is abhorrent. That somehow the world is less wild when individuals have rights in parts of it.

Why areas are more wild when they are controlled by the state, or are left to be raped in a commons-style situation, these propositions have never made sense to me. In fact, I’m going to say that it just doesn’t make sense – period.

I don’t think that “green is the new red.” I think green is green, and a hell of a lot of red has been green-washed.  But it is past time for genuine environmentalists to begin considering how private property rights, and a fare less amorous relationship with government, would serve the planet and all the residents of this planet -- flora, fauna, and human alike – a whole lot better.

I am committed to continuing the dialogue with my environmentalist friends even if we do not see eye to eye on many things, at least right now.

Being a good steward of our ourselves and our affairs, our families, our communities, our countries, and our planet is the duty of every individual. I believe this. And I believe it starts and ends fundamentally with the individual.

Nick SorrentinoNick Sorrentino is the co-founder and editor of . A political and communications consultant with clients across the political spectrum, his work has been featured,,, Townhall, The Daily Caller, and many other publications. A graduate of Mary Washington College he lives just outside of Washington DC where he can keep an eye on Leviathan.
This post first appeared at Against Crony Capitalism.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a great essay - I really enjoyed it. Environmentalism has long been a dirty word in some circles, but I have yet to find a genuine libertarian-minded individual who has not cared about our environment.

    The shocking state of NZ's waterways can only be solved by private ownership and property rights.


Comments are moderated to encourage honest conversation, and remove persistent trolls.