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Liberty and the Environment: Freedom Protects, Government Destroys


All of us want a safer, less-polluted environment. Increasingly, people throughout the world have become aware that we are damaging our environment in many ways, harming ourselves and threatening the welfare of future generations.

In South America and Asia, rain forests are being destroyed at the rate of over 30 acres a minute. In 50 years, these forests could be completely gone. In Eastern Europe, entire villages are covered by toxic, black soot from industrial pollution. In Western Europe, over 70% of the trees in the Black Forest are sick or dying. Even in the United States, which has one of the best environmental records, there are thousands of potentially deadly toxic waste dumps, and many rivers and streams are threatened with biological destruction by agricultural run-off.

Polluting other people’s property is wrong, period. An individual has no more right to pollute another person’s water or air than he has to put poison in their coffee or arsenic in their food. Polluters who harm the health of others and damage their property should compensate their victims and be restrained from causing further harm — whether the transgressor is a single individual, a large corporation or a government.

Government Control Destroys

While most agree that pollution needs to be controlled, there is much debate about how to do it. One method that definitely does not work is the collectivist approach of declaring that the earth is the “common property of all.”

Property that belongs to “everyone” becomes the responsibility of no one. Making seas, rivers, pastures or forests common property creates an enormous incentive for each person to exploit them as quickly as possible. There is no reason for a timber company to chop down fewer trees if its restraint only enables its competitors to chop down more trees. Common ownership inevitably leads to overuse and destruction, as witnessed by over-fishing in oceans and the destruction of large mammals in Africa. In 1968, Garrett Hardin gave the disaster of common ownership of resources the name “the tragedy of the commons.”

A second failed method of protecting property is government ownership and management. People often think that government employees will protect the “public interest” because they are motivated by “the public good” rather than by profits. However, in any society there is not one, single public interest, but, instead, many different publics with diverse, often conflicting interests. Different groups may want to use the same land to build houses, as a military base, or for a wilderness area. Which “public interest” should government managers uphold?

When government controls property, the desires of government agents and powerful social groups (such as large corporations and wealthy political contributors) will usually prevail over the interests of ordinary citizens. Both the environment and the public are usually losers. Here are some examples:

Destruction of the Forests. In the 1960s, Brazil embarked upon massive development of the Amazon rain forest. The government built thousands of miles of tax-subsidized roads, gave low-interest loans to farmers and cattle ranchers, and even provided free transportation.

To farm the Amazon, settlers must first burn the trees and underbrush, destroying thousands of unique native plant and animal species. However, rain forest soil is very poor; most nutrients are held in plants. After a few years of farming, cleared land becomes unproductive. Farmers must periodically move on, destroying more forest with each move, and leaving a wasteland behind.

Farming and ranching the Amazon is only profitable because of the many subsidies provided by the government, including subsidized roads and credit, and accelerated depreciation. Despite these incentives, Robert Repetto’s 1988 study, “The Forest for the Trees,” found that cattle sales brought in only 55% of development costs.

With declining crop yields and falling world beef sales, farming and ranching the Amazon has become an ecological and economic disaster. Without massive subsidies from the Brazilian government and the World Bank, most of this destruction would have never occurred.

Old-growth forests in the United States have also been devastated. The primary culprit is, again, government subsidies. The U.S. Forest Service has built nearly 343,000 miles of taxpayer-subsidized logging roads — eight times the entire U.S. interstate highway system. Without this $800 million giveaway to the timber industry, harvesting most U.S. old-growth forests would be physically impossible and economically unprofitable.

Ecocide in the USSR. The Aral Sea in Kazakhstan was the sixth largest lake in the world. As a result of forced Soviet development, it is disappearing. Ninety percent of rivers feeding the sea were diverted to grow cotton. Forty-four percent of the lake is now gone, replaced by desert. However, the soil of the cotton fields is nutritionally poor, so crop yields have steadily declined, and most farms now lose money. Worse, the Aral and surrounding land have been poisoned by pesticides. As Feshbach and Friendly observe in their book Ecocide in the USSR, “The level of chemical residues washed back from irrigated lands is so high that the fish die,” and “two out of every three people examined in public health dispensaries are ill.” Formerly prosperous fishing villages now lay in poisoned deserts — thanks to government management.

U.S. Toxic Waste Dumps. According to Pentagon spokesman Kevin Doxey, in 1991 there were 17,400 contaminated toxic waste dumps at 1,850 U.S. government installations. Waste from these sites is leaking into groundwater, contaminating land, killing livestock, and causing increased rates of cancers. When outraged citizens have tried to sue the government, they have found they can’t: the U.S. government has “sovereign immunity” from lawsuits!

Government regulatory agencies typically end up being controlled by the most powerful factions of the very industries they are intended to regulate. Those groups have both the most resources to spend on lobbyists and the most to gain. Thus, James Bovard reports in The Farm Fiasco, the federal Navel Orange Administration Committee (which controls orange production in California and Arizona) has a direct phone line to Sunkist Growers, Inc., America’s most powerful citrus cartel! Not surprisingly, Orange Administration regulations greatly benefit Sunkist members at the expense of other growers.

Neither common ownership of resources nor government management protects the environment. Fortunately, there is a third alternative.

Free Market Environmentalism

In the Soviet Union, before the collapse of communism, only 7% of the farms were private. Yet, they grew nearly half of all the food produced in the country!

When resources are privately owned, three important things happen: First, individual owners conserve and manage their property for the long-run, rather than rush to exploit it. If you own a forest or a herd of elephants, the last thing you want to do is destroy them! Second, owners have both the moral and economic incentive to defend resources from poachers and polluters. Third, when individuals own resources, they have the moral and legal responsibility to avoid using their property in ways that will harm others.

Here are some examples of how private ownership and individual responsibility protect both individual rights and social welfare:

Privatizing Rivers, Streams and Oceans. In England and Scotland, individuals can acquire private property rights to fish in many rivers and streams. Trespassers who violate these rights are subject to significant fines. According to a 1991 study by the National Center for Policy Analysis entitled Progressive Environmentalism, “Since the 1950s, the Anglers’ Cooperative Association in England has handled more than fifteen hundred cases of pollution [and] recovered hundreds of pounds in damages to enable club and riparian owners to restore their fisheries; [and] it has also defeated the attempt by various governments to alter the common law in relation to pollution.”

In contrast, the study points out, in the U.S., “Because there are no well-defined property rights, virtually every major species of commercially valuable marine life is being over-fished and stocks are being depleted.”

To protect marine species, private property rights need to be expanded. This would even make possible the conservation of ocean-going fish and mammals. Fishermen should be able to claim fishing rights in defined areas and be able to defend those rights against poachers. Creating “ocean fishing property rights” would end our oceanic tragedy of the commons. Ocean property rights would create an incentive for fishermen to restrict their harvesting of fish and conserve the oceans in perpetuity.

Protecting Endangered Species. Private ownership also protects endangered species. In Kenya, where ivory sales are illegal, the population of elephants has declined over 70% in the last ten years (from 65,000 to 19,000). However, in Zimbabwe, where private ownership of elephants is allowed, elephant populations have increased from 30,000 to 43,000 in the last decade.

Harnessing the Creative Power of Free Men and Women. Increasingly, private charities are discovering the power of private ownership and the free market. The Nature Conservancy protects the environment by buying land with privately donated funds. Since 1951, they have preserved over 2.4 million acres of environmentally threatened land. One of the Conservancy’s most imaginative innovations is “debt for nature swaps,” where banks partially forgive debts of poor countries in exchange for their protecting ecologically important areas.

Many other private groups throughout the world are engaged in conservation, including the National Wildlife Foundation, the Audubon Society, and Trout Unlimited. In the U.S., 11,000 private duck clubs have protected 5 to 7 million acres of wetlands. The creativity and compassion of ordinary citizens, combined with the financial power of the free market, are our best hope for protecting the environment.

Making Peace With Our Environment

The path to healing our environment lies neither in the chaos of common ownership of property nor in the tyranny of government management. Common ownership of resources harms the environment because it fails to define property rights, making it in everyone’s interest to rush to exploit resources. Government management harms the environment because it makes property rights subject to the will of bureaucrats, guaranteeing only that the interests of the state and the most powerful social groups will prevail.

The proper environmental role for government is to recognize and protect individual property rights and to avoid either causing or sanctioning environmental harm. When property rights are respected, men and women conserve resources and stop polluters. To make peace with the planet, we need to employ the healing powers of private property, individual responsibility, and the free market.

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    Jarret Wollstein is a director at The International Society for Individual Liberty and co-founder of the original Society for Individual Liberty in 1969. He is the author of 28 books and special reports, including Surviving Terrorism and Shadow Over the Land: The Government's War On Your Liberty and the author of 300 articles and speeches.