The Libertarian Solution to our Environmental Problems

by Daniel C. Burton

The following is based on notes from a presentation I made before the Cal Libertarians in the late Fall 1997 Semester.
As the dawn of the Millennium approaches, we seem to be further than ever from solving our environmental problems. Despite our attempts to limit the damage done, the specter of large-scale environmental destruction still looms over our heads. The massive extinction of species still remains a possibility. Clear-cutting, overhunting, and overfishing threaten our natural habitats. Pollutants released into the air and water threaten our health and livelihood.

Environmental damage clearly poses a danger to us, but it would be impossible to eliminate it completely, short of the extinction of the human race. Nearly every activity of human society encroaches on the natural environment somehow. From agriculture to industrial production to electrical power, everything has its impact.

While some would like to see the end of all technological civilization, most of us care somewhat about the human welfare, and we care about environmental destruction because of the threat it poses to humans. We have taken up a delicate balancing act, trying to better our lives on the one hand, while trying to avoid harming ourselves on the other. Ultimately, what we want is for environmental damage to proceed only if it is of overall benefit to humanity, and the big question is: What set of social institutions comes closest to making this possible?

The traditional answer of the left has been that only government bureaucracies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and National Forest Service can protect the environment sufficiently. However, libertarians offer an alternate solution based on the traditional Anglo-American legal framework of private property rights.

Most liberals would cringe at the thought of private property rights reigning supreme, but most of their fears are based on a few common misconceptions. One is that only the EPA and similar government agencies can protect us from pollution. Another is that only government bureaucracies can manage wilderness areas in ways that maintain their long term value. Finally, they seem to think that private property owners do not have an interest in maintaining the long-term value of their land. As we shall see, all of these assumptions are incorrect.

Let us first consider pollution. To see how the traditional Anglo-American legal system could protect us from pollution, we must first consider what pollution is. Pollution is when someone releases something harmful into the environment. However, "the environment" is really nothing other than the sum of all the property owned by everyone in the world, and the traditional legal system has always provided a remedy for harm to property.

For example, consider what would happen if your neighbor dumped trash on your front lawn. Clearly you would be entitled to some sort of legal remedy for this. You could rightfully sue, and there are two types of remedies you could receive. One would be an injunction to stop your neighbor from dumping trash, and the other would be restitutional payments for the damage already done.

The medium by which pollution harms you may be different, but there is no reason why this damage should be treated any differently. However, while private property rights remain intact for the dumping of trash, the government has claimed centralized authority over other types of pollution.

Imagine how ridiculous it would be if we regulated the dumping of trash this way. If your neighbor went and dumped trash on your property, you would not be able to sue. Instead you would have to report a possible violation to the Federal Garbage Dumping Administration. Then, using a complex set of criteria, they would judge how "avoidable" the dumping was. They might allow the dumping -- or they might impose thousands of dollars of fines -- but you most certainly would not get any of the money. The government would keep all of it.

Private property rights are in fact the mechanism for preventing water pollution in Great Britain and Canada. There, rivers and other bodies of water are owned just as land is. When someone upstream harms the quality of the waters downstream, the owners downstream can sue for damages. Property owners routinely drag offenders to court, and this seems to be working to keep the waters clean. Dividing up the waters in the United States could instantly give us these benefits without the need for government bureaucracies.

Some things like air are a little bit more complicated, but essentially the same thing can be accomplished. Clearly you should not have to get the permission of everyone in the United States to open a chemical plant, but you should not be able to release unlimited amounts of pollutants in the atmosphere either. Here the standard should not be whether a sensitive device can detect some miniscule amount of chemicals but whether the pollution could actually harm someone or their property.

You could think of many other sticky examples that are a lot less clear than this, but it is always possible to sort things out. You must simply remember that property is not merely a form of physical possession, but a set of a legal rights. Then you must ask yourself which sets of rights are most logically bundled together. In the previous example, it was relatively useless for land ownership to include protection against a few molecules of chemicals, but it was quite useful for it to include the right to open chemical plants. On the other hand, it was also more useful for it to include protection against harmful levels of pollution than for it to include the right to produce them.

Some people argue that if we handled pollution this way, the cost of litigation would be too high, but what they forget is the great cost our environmental bureaucracy already imposes on us. A host of lawyers are already employed by both private companies and regulatory agencies, and complying with an increasingly complex set of regulations is already a significant cost of business. Most likely litigation would be resolved much more quickly under an objective system of property rights than under today's host of regulations.

You can see from all this that where property rights are well-defined, pollution can be controlled without government bureaucracies. The main reason that pollution is a problem at all is that certain things are not a form of property -- anyone who wants to use them may. They suffer from what Dr. Garrett Harding described in a 1968 paper as "the tragedy of the commons." The problem is that things that belong to "everyone" are the responsibility of no one. Since no one is guaranteed continued access to a resource, no one has an incentive to maintain it in the long term, and people will tend to exploit it as much as possible in the short term.

Resources that are held privately tend with long term interests in mind. One example of this is shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Before the turn of the century, shrimp fishermen used to claim parts of the ocean under the traditional practice of homesteading. Through voluntary association, they formed an organization to protect the waters and help avoid overfishing. All this changed in the early 1900's when the United States Government took over the waters. Now everyone just tries to catch as many shrimp as they can.

Under a system of private property rights, an efficient bargaining mechanism exists to make sure that resource use is overall beneficial. Before someone can pollute someone else's land, they must first negotiate permission. Before they pollute their own land, they must consider the loss in property value caused by doing so. No such incentives exist for publicly-held resources, and not surprisingly the outcome tends not to be as good.

The Federal Government owns roughly one third of the land in the United States, but it does more damage to the environment on these lands than all private land-holders do combined. This is because when resource use decisions are made politically, special interest groups tend to prevail. Small, concentrated interests who have much to gain have much more of an incentive to become involved in the political process than large, unconcentrated ones who have less at stake individually. The small group can easily put effort into one important issue, but for the large group, it is just one of many issues. The result is that groups like logging companies tend to prevail over ones like wilderness enthusiasts and the general public.

For example, the National Forest Service builds three times as many logging roads as public access trails. It has even been known to build these roads at a cost above the profit from logging. It gives companies short-term contracts to log trees, which gives them little incentive to worry about long-term conservation of resources. This amounts to nothing more than a subsidy for clear-cutting that runs contrary to the agency's mission of conserving our forests.

When paper and timber companies have to manage their own privately held land, they suddenly look like staunch environmentalists. They have a strong incentive to maintain the stock of trees because they want to maintain the long-term value of their land. Timber companies like Weyerhaeuser and Georgia Pacific have consistently done a better job at forest conservation than the Federal Government. The uses of their land also include game preserves and camping and hiking facilities. In fact, International Paper in the South makes as much as 30% of its profit from recreational use of its forests.[Bergland][Ruwart]

Private property is even better at protecting endangered species than government bureaucracies. For example, in Zimbabwe, the government honors traditional claims to land, which also includes the right to hunt and sell elephants. Land owners have a strong incentive to protect the value of their elephants and do everything they can to protect them from poachers. They try to raise as many elephants as they can so they can profit from sponsoring safaris, and selling meat, hide, and ivory. As a result, the elephant population in Zimbabwe has increased from 30,000 to 43,000 over the last ten years. In contrast, in Kenya, where the government claims ownership of all elephants, the population has fallen by 67%.[Ruwart]

Even some government programs that could only seem to do good have had their share of negative consequences. One such example is Superfund, a Federal program designed to subsidize the cleanup of toxic spills. On the surface this would seem like a good idea, but because chemical producers know that part of the cost of a spill will be funded by the government, they have less incentive to keep one from happening. In effect this is a subsidy for irresponsibility.

Some government policies even run explicitly counter to protecting the environment. In the 1950's insurance companies would not insure nuclear power plants because of the enormous risk of accidents. Consequently, power companies refused to consider nuclear power. At least, that was until the government came along and fixed everything. It limited the amount of money nuclear disaster victims could collect in damages to $560 million, 80% of which would be payed by the government. Not surprisingly after this, nuclear power plants, and with them the risk of nuclear accidents, proliferated.[Ruwart]

Government has been also instrumental in the destruction of the rainforests. Third World dictators routinely remove native peoples from their rainforest homes so that special interests can clear out the forests. Worse still, such activities have been subsidized by U.S. foreign aid.

Such acts of government should be ended as well. However, this is nothing compared to the damage done by our nation's worst polluter -- The United States Military.

In 1991, Pentagon Spokesperson Kevin Doxey stated, "We have found some 17,400 contaminated sites at 1,850 installations, not including formerly used sites." In 1988, The Department of Energy estimated that it would take 100 billion dollars and 50 years just to clean up 17 of these sites.[Ruwart]

If this were not enough, when the government damages the environment there is no legal recourse -- even if it results in death. In 1984 a Utah court ruled that 10 out of 24 cases of cancer brought to its attention were due to the negligence of the U.S. Military in association with nuclear weapons testing. Yet the government did not have to pay any damages, because it claims "sovereign immunity."[Ruwart]

Such sovereign immunity laws should be eliminated. The government, like everyone else, should be held accountable for its actions.

Finally, we must consider the threat to our political freedom posed by giving the government centralized control over our activities. The more complex the regulations, and the greater the power of the bureaucracies, the more leeway it has in arbitrarily controlling people's lives. This can be especially dangerous for those at odds with those in power.

For example, in San Rafael, California, an employee of a construction company owned by Fred Grange accidentally spilled one barrel of oil on a vacant lot. As he was supposed to, Mr. Grange reported this to the EPA and local environmental agencies. Soon there were a dozen government agencies and hundreds of investigators on the scene. Mr. Grange, justifiably got angry at this, so they decided to make an example of him. Fines of over $20 million were imposed, forcing him to close his business.[Wollstein]

You might object that private property rights are no guarantee that the environment will be protected, but government regulations are no guarantee either. You might be able to get the government to enact only good regulations that protect the environment, though there is good reason to believe that that is impossible. Even if you could do that today, there is no guarantee that your policies would remain intact tomorrow. That is not how democracy works.

In four years we might have a Republican-controlled government that wants to cut down our forests and pave over Yosemite. If our lands were publicly held, they could do just that. However, once private property has been established, constitutional barriers stand in the way of taking it back without compensation. Private property rights could not guarantee the environment would be protected, but they are a solution that would probably protect it quite well and would be politically quite difficult to remove.

We must keep in mind that even good government policies inevitably pave the way for bad ones, and the bad ones pave the way for even worse. Expansion of the government into one area, such as environmental protection, gives it more resources and sets precedents that allow it to expand into other areas.

The libertarian solution to this is limiting government to the absolute minimum possible. It should only provide things that the free market most definitely cannot provide itself. Depending on who you ask this may range from a moderate array of functions to absolutely nothing at all, but what unites us all is a healthy distrust of unlimited government.


Bergland, David Libertarianism in One Lesson. Costa Mesa, CA: Orpheus Publications, 1993
Friedman, David The Machinery of Freedom. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1989
Friedman, David "The Swedes Get It Right". (Reprinted from Liberty Magazine).
Ruwart, Mary "The Pollution Solution." International Society for Individual Liberty Educational Pamphlet Series. Available online at:
Wollstein, Jarret B. "The Green Gestapo." International Society for Individual Liberty Educational Pamphlet Series. Available online at:

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