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Freedom, Private Property, and the Environment


Unfortunately, most Americans believe that the only way to preserve our environment is through public ownership of the means of production. “If there were no environmental threat,” the refrain goes, “we would favor a capitalist system for America. But since our environment is at stake, we have no choice but to accept socialism for the foreseeable future.” The result, of course, is an ever-increasing amount of governmental ownership of property and control over people’s lives and businesses.

The irony is there is no surer way to destroy the environment than through government ownership of the means of production. I find it amusing when advocates of public ownership and control exclaim, “We can’t trust private owners with the environment — they might destroy it because they want profits.” Yet, they blind themselves to this: governmental ownership is the biggest cause of environmental damage!

Waterways, Parks, and Forests

For example, consider rivers. It is, of course, difficult to find unpolluted rivers in the United States. In fact, today a person would have to be of unsound mind to swim in such rivers as the Rio Grande, the Mississippi, or the Hudson. And if a fisherman were fortunate enough to catch fish in them, he would be risking his life by eating them.

Environmentalists see the rivers’ pollution and call for more governmental controls over the industries that are doing the polluting. Yet, they miss the basic fact that is staring them in the face: the rivers are governmentally owned. And that’s the problem!

Another example — the national parks and forests. Americans have the same attitude toward national parks that they do with public schools, the banking system, and other parts of our lives that are governmentally owned or controlled: as long as the matter is in the hands of the government, all is well with the world. But the situation is exactly the opposite: the government has done as much destruction to governmentally owned lands as it has done to all other things it has touched.

For example, read Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First National Park by Alston Chase, published in 1986. Chase holds degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Princeton universities and is a well-known speaker and writer on environmental issues. Inspired by his love of nature, Chase initially believed that his book would sing the praises of the National Park Service. The result was the exact opposite:

“Writing the book, rather than being an inspirational experience, turned out to be exciting, to be sure, but also disillusioning, exhausting, and sometimes dangerous. . . . As a wildlife refuge, Yellowstone is dying. Indeed, the park’s reputation as a great game sanctuary is perhaps the best-sustained myth in American conservation history and the story of its decline perhaps one of our government’s best-kept secrets.”

And for the next 400 pages of his book, Chase carefully documents how the U.S. government has ecologically destroyed Yellowstone National Park.

It is the same with the national forests. How often do environmentalists say, “If private corporations owned the national forests, they would tear down all the trees out of selfishness and greed”? But they are actually describing the conduct of the United States government! For example, there are more miles of roads in the national forests than the entire interstate-highway system. Why? Because the budget of the Forest Service is based on how many roads it builds every year! Thus, the Forest Service tears down trees to build roads in order to maintain its budget!

How about oil spills, such as that of the Exxon Valdez? Again, we are dealing with property that is not privately owned — oceans and beaches.

Incentives and the Environment

The basic difference between a private-property system and a public-property system is this: private owners, unlike bureaucrats, have an incentive to take care of their property in order to maximize their financial position.

But wouldn’t private paper companies, for example, just destroy all the forests to maximize their short-term profits, it is asked? Maybe, but this is highly unlikely. This is conduct that invariably characterizes the government, not private companies (recall the Forest Service and its road-building budget). How often do you hear of a major paper company destroying its long-term profit potential? Rarely, if ever. On the contrary, paper companies are constantly replacing trees on land they own in order to maximize their long-term position.

Would environmentally sensitive areas — such as park lands — fall into the hands of people who are not environmentally sensitive? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Those who place a high value on the environment would have to put their money where their values are, rather than running to their friendly bureaucrat for assistance. For example, the Audubon Society has purchased thousands of acres of land for environmental purposes (and even leased its land to oil companies under highly restrictive conditions, enabling the society to buy even more land!). Here is another example: a group intended to develop an area near Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Environmentalists became inflamed and ran to the politicians and bureaucrats for protection — but without success. What did they then do? They held a series of concerts and other fund-raising events — and used the money to buy the property from the developers!

Environmental Disputes

Would it be difficult to assign ownership rights to rivers, waterways, parks, and forests? Of course, but the initial allocation of property rights is not an insurmountable problem — it is simply a difficult legal one.

How would environmental problems be handled in a private-property, free-market system? Through reliance on the judicial system to resolve disputes between private owners. For example, if an industry began polluting a company’s river, the latter, in order to protect its river, would immediately go to court with an application for injunctive relief and a suit for damages. The legal theories are already in place — trespass, nuisance, negligence, and other aspects of tort law.

What about air pollution? Obviously, this is a more difficult area than that involving infringements on real or personal property. But before the Environmental Protection Agency — and its thousands of regulations — came into being, the law of nuisance was developing quite nicely to deal with these types of problems. If a factory is spewing pollutants into the air that are landing on adjoining landowners, the landowners would sue in a class action for injunctive relief and damages.


Since the American people fail to recognize that public ownership is the usual cause of environmental problems, their solution to these problems has been a perverted one: turning over more control to governmental officials. And the best example of this has been the creation of the EPA.

While there are other U.S. governmental agencies which closely resemble the storm troopers of Nazi Germany, certainly the EPA has to rank near the top. This agency consists of people who have gone mad with power. They are persecuting and prosecuting people for violating regulations (and interpretations of the regulations!) that are so numerous, so confusing, so conflicting, and so unclear that the average business is always “guilty.” An article in the October 26, 1992, issue of Forbes entitled “Designated Inmates,” by Leslie Stahl, put it this way: “The problem for every regulated company is this: The laws have become so complex that few companies can be 100% in compliance all the time. Yet almost any civil violation can now be prosecuted as a criminal violation. The government has promised to be ‘lenient’ with companies that try hard to comply. But federal and state environmental crimes bureaucracies are burgeoning. Industry compliance officers and plant managers can only pray they all remember that promise.”

And here’s a real-life example of the terrors of environmental regulations. A friend of mine attended a business conference at which an EPA official spoke. The official told the audience that every single person in the audience was guilty of violating EPA regulations — and that once the EPA had the manpower to examine closely their businesses, the EPA would get these “criminals.” Not even the minions of King George displayed this type of arrogance toward private citizens. But the terrifying truth is that the official was right. It is simply not possible to be in full compliance in a highly regulated system — everyone is a “criminal.”

Too many business people, unfortunately, believe that the best route to follow is to kowtow to the bureaucrats — to be as nice as they can to them and hope that their wrath is brought to bear on others. But those who cower before their masters — and refuse to stand with those who are oppressed — will soon find themselves at the receiving end of the tyranny. The only honorable solution is to resist these little storm troopers at every possible opportunity — and ultimately to privatize them by abolishing, not reforming, the EPA and its volumes of regulations. The ultimate answer to environmental problems lies in private property and free markets and a judicial system devoted to resolving disputes between people. There is no other way.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.