Bryan Caplan  

EconLog Book Club: For a New Liberty, Chapter 13

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Summary
This chapter, on "Conservation, Ecology, and Growth," is an early statement of free-market environmentalism.  It begins by ridiculing leftists' decades of contradictory complaints about capitalism: "Stagnation; deficient growth; overaffluence; overpoverty; the intellectual fashions changed like ladies' hemlines," and quoting one of Schumpter's best lines:
Capitalism stands its trial before judges who have the sentence of death in their pockets. They are going to pass it, whatever the defense they may hear; the only success victorious defense can possibly produce is a change in the indictment.
Then Rothbard gets down to business.  He defends the benefits of economic growth and technology against radical Greens, and takes a proto-Simonian position on natural resource scarcity.  He then explains how private property gives incentives for conservation and discovery.  A corollary is that expanding the scope of private property would solve many environmental problems.  His chief example is aquaculture:
[I]f anyone tried to farm the sea and to increase the productivity of the fisheries by fertilizers, he would immediately be deprived of the fruits of his efforts because he could not keep other fishermen from rushing in and seizing the fish... Furthermore, there is no economic incentive--in fact, there is every disincentive--for anyone to engage in technological research in the ways and means of improving the productivity of the fisheries, or in extracting the mineral resources of the oceans. There will only be such incentive when property rights in parts of the ocean are as fully allowed as property rights in the land.
Finally, Rothbard turns to pollution.  Here he departs from almost every other environmental economist, left and right, by calling for outright bans on air and noise (!) pollution. 
The remedy is simply for the courts to return to their function of defending person and property rights against invasion, and therefore to enjoin anyone from injecting pollutants into the air...

The argument that such an injunctive prohibition against pollution would add to the costs of industrial production is as reprehensible as the pre-Civil War argument that the abolition of slavery would add to the costs of growing cotton, and that therefore abolition, however morally correct, was "impractical."
Rothbard then attacks Friedmanite proposals for pollution taxes or tradable permits, and suggests that technological progress could cope with a total pollution ban:
Mufflers can be installed on noisy machines that emit sound waves precisely contra-cyclical to the waves of the machines, and thereby can cancel out these racking sounds. Air wastes can even now be recaptured as they leave the chimney and be recycled to yield products useful to industry. Thus, sulfur dioxide, a major noxious air pollutant, can be captured and recycled to produce economically valuable sulfuric acid. The highly polluting spark ignition engine will either have to be "cured" by new devices or replaced altogether by such nonpolluting engines as diesel, gas turbine, or steam, or by an electric car.
Critical Comments
There's a lot to like in this chapter.  The opening ridicule is priceless.  His early defense of free-market environmentalism and resource optimism are also very good. 

The problems arise in the section on pollution.  A total ban may sound good, but doesn't it imply that breathing and speaking are impermissible acts of aggression?  After all, you don't get other people's consent to emit carbon dioxide on them, or bombard their ears with sound waves.

Rothbard might reply that spraying me with small amounts of carbon dioxide is too minimal to deserve to be called "aggression."  But then couldn't a polluting factory owner argue the same thing?  In the end, both the individual and the factory owner wind up arguing that their emissions are "reasonable," and there's no clean way for libertarian principle to adjudicate their claims.  Under the circumstances, what's so awful about e.g. tradable pollution rights? 

In Hard Heads, Soft Hearts, Alan Blinder tells us that, "A pollution-free society is unattainable, both physically and economically.  To think otherwise is not to think."  In For a New Liberty, Rothbard seems to stubbornly deny Blinder's truism.  It is interesting, then, that Rothbard later wrote "Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution," an article that - for practical purposes - completely vitiated his hard-line position. 

How so?  In this article, Rothbard continues to insist on an absolute right to not be polluted upon, but he also insists upon stringent hurdles to prosecution.  A victim is entitled to an injunction against pollution provided that:
(a) the polluter has not previously established a homestead easement; (b) while visible pollutants or noxious odors are per se aggression, in the case of invisible and insensible pollutants the plaintiff must prove actual harm; (c) the burden of proof of such aggression rests upon the plaintiff; (d) the plaintiff must prove strict causality from the actions of the defendant to the victimization of the plaintiff; (e) the plaintiff must prove such causality and aggression beyond a reasonable doubt; and (f) there is no vicarious liability, but only liability for those who actually commit the deed.
Unfortunately, if a million people simultaneously pollute, it will be impossible to prove that any one person caused any one injury, so despite Rothbard's "ban all pollution" position, people will be able to pollute with impunity. 

The lesson I draw: When right and wrong are black and white - and they often are - Rothbard does better than mainstream thinkers.  Pollution, however, is an intrinsically gray issue - and when such questions arise, Rothbard winds up awkwardly vacillating between two unsatisfactory extreme positions.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Rockford Coscia writes:

I feel like an important point missed in this argument is the precise definition of 'pollution'. I think you would agree that there should be an outright ban on certain types of pollution (mercury, hexavelent chromium and the like) but carbon dioxide enters a very grey area indeed. It may detract from the elegance of his argument, but Rothbard may want to insert a small clarification into his treatise.

Blackadder writes:

While I found the stuff on free market environmentalism intriguing, I think that the example of the oceans serves as a decent counter-example to Rothbard's views on the private provision of things like police protection and courts. Rothbard claims that the problems of the oceans stem from the fact that there are no enforceable private property rights. But on his own view, you don't need government to have enforceable private property rights. According to Rothbard all that needs to happen is for government to get out of the way, and private systems of protection for private property will develop naturally. That this hasn't happened in the oceans suggests that he was wrong about this.

gnat writes:

So its is all about property right regulation. The chapter seems consistent with Dean Baker's point(Free Market Myth):
"...political debates over regulation have been wrongly cast as disputes over the extent of regulation, with conservatives assumed to prefer less regulation, while liberals prefer more. In fact conservatives do not necessarily desire less regulation, nor do liberals necessarily desire more. Conservatives support regulatory structures that cause income to flow upward, while liberals support regulatory structures that promote equality."

Mark Bahner writes:

"I think you would agree that there should be an outright ban on certain types of pollution (mercury, hexavelent chromium and the like)..."

I wouldn't agree that there should be an outright ban on mercury, hexavalent chromium, and the like. Here are EPA estimates of anthropogenic (human) emissions of mercury to the atmosphere in the U.S. in 1994 (see Table ES-3):

Mercury Report to Congress

Total = 144 tons

Utility boilers = 47 tons
Municipal Waste Combustors (MWCs) = 27 tons
Medical Waste Incinerators (MWIs) = 14.6 tons
Hazardous Waste Combustors =6.4 tons
Residential Boilers = 3.3 tons
Cement Kilns = 4.4 tons

etc. etc.

The only way to make emissions from all those sources go to zero (as opposed to reducing them by 50, 60, 70, 80, or 90 percent) would be to shut every one of those facilities down.

Coal-fired boilers alone supply 50% of our electricity. And if one is going to make emissions go to zero, even oil-fired (0.2 tons per year) and natural-gas-fired (

And then there's cement kilns. No Portland cement kilns, no Portland cement.

It's simply not going to happen. (Because if it did, it would be a disaster.)

P.S. And even if all 144 tons of mercury emissions to air were eliminated in the U.S., there would still be the ***5000+*** tons per year of mercury emissions from all the other countries in the world. China's mercury emissions in 1999 were estimated at 536 tons (or about 3.7 times the U.S. emissions in 1994).

Mercury emissions from China

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"In fact conservatives do not necessarily desire less regulation, nor do liberals necessarily desire more. Conservatives support regulatory structures that cause income to flow upward, while liberals support regulatory structures that promote equality." -Dean Baker via gnat

By what standard is Murray Rothbard, who was an atheist and an anarchist, a conservative? Know many conservative anarchists do you?

gnat writes:

"By what standard is Murray Rothbard, who was an atheist and an anarchist, a conservative? Know many conservative anarchists do you?"

Look at Rothard's "stringent" rules for prosecuting pollution. It reads like the ICC railroad regulation rules. Dean's point which pollution rules illustrate IMO is that the focus is transferred to definitions of property rights.

Robert Speirs writes:

Liberals love poor people. That's why they want to increase their numbers. Equality will only work when every man is equally productive. In other words, never.

johnnyk writes:

To call Murray Rothbard an anarchist is a true insult to anarchists everywhere who have fought and are still fighting against capitalism and the state. Libertarian Party people have nothing to do with the real libertarians - anarchists, libertarian socialists, libertarian communists. There is no such thing as "anarcho"-capitalism!!!!! There can never be - capitalism requires the state (to print money, enforce contracts, enforce property laws). It's perhaps the biggest oxymoron ever.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Is CO2 a pollutant?

It is now. Or rather, CO2 has been politically classified as a pollutant, to achieve political ends.

I'm not sure how Rothbard's approach protects us from a purely political attack like this. But, I suppose, it can't be worse than what's already happening.

Mark Bahner writes:

"Rothbard then attacks Friedmanite proposals for pollution taxes or tradable permits, and suggests that technological progress could cope with a total pollution ban:"

"Mufflers can be installed on noisy machines that emit sound waves precisely contra-cyclical to the waves of the machines, and thereby can cancel out these racking sounds. Air wastes can even now be recaptured as they leave the chimney and be recycled to yield products useful to industry. Thus, sulfur dioxide, a major noxious air pollutant, can be captured and recycled to produce economically valuable sulfuric acid. The highly polluting spark ignition engine will either have to be "cured" by new devices or replaced altogether by such nonpolluting engines as diesel, gas turbine, or steam, or by an electric car."

Rothbard's suggestions display a profound ignorance of pollution related to various technologies. In fact, his ignorance is apparently even greater than the average layperson. For example, what other layperson would describe diesel engines as "nonpolluting"?

On a somewhat more esoteric subject: 1) acid plants (that convert sulfur dioxide to sulfuric acid) aren't economically practical for coal-fired power plant exhausts, because the sulfur dioxide concentration is too low, and 2) even if acid plants were cost-effective, their sulfur dioxide removal is not 100 percent, so they're not "pollution free."

Active noise cancellation is also not 100 percent effective. Here's what someone who actually knows about the subject writes:

"The design trade-off is governed by the constraints that active noise cancellation does not work very well at high frequencies but does work well at low frequencies, while passive cancellation at the low frequencies requires massive (i.e. heavy) sound absorbing materials, which would weigh the airplane down. At high frequencies, the materials can be much lighter. So, as you can see, the design trade-off works out very neatly - active at low frequencies and passive at the high frequencies."

(Note that the author uses "works well" not "works perfectly," or "eliminates noise.")

Informed discussion of noise cancellation

It's easy to claim that completely eliminating pollution is achievable, if one knows nothing about the subject. "Ignorance is bliss."

Zac writes:

Blackadder wrote:

According to Rothbard all that needs to happen is for government to get out of the way, and private systems of protection for private property will develop naturally. That this hasn't happened in the oceans suggests that he was wrong about this."
Well, no one is allowed to claim the oceans as their personal property. In theory, we could build floating platforms on the ocean and have property rights over them (seasteading), but this emergence is yet to be seen (until recently, we did not have the technology to support it).

As far as traversing the oceans with private property, you can hire private defense to protect your cargo, but most shippers will just pay the ransoms to pirates rather than investing in defense or alternative routes. This doesn't mean that protection of private property could never emerge, only that given the current level of sea banditry, few are willing to pay the cost of protection.

Kurbla writes:

Lets assume property is justified. If I own house, then I should have right to ban all electromagnetic radiation through my house. I should be able to shut down all radio and TV and cell phone stations, all computers in the world. All of them transmit some EM waves through my property.

Libertarians can protect my property only if they are willing to give up from technology. Now, if private property, and "liberty" based on that property is really most important, then why not? Private property should be more important than technology, right? If you disagree, if you believe that world - as collective - as we ("we" from "drop that we") - should give up from such protection for a common good, isn't it a bit of communist way of thinking here?

Johnnyk, yes, Rothbard's anarchy might be actually the same thing as feudalism.


Jayson Virissimo writes:

Kurbla, property rights are a kind of technology. In fact, it is possibly the most important technology in the history of economic development.

http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Property/Property.html

gnat writes:

There appears to be an underlying premise in the anarchist views on the character of human nature. Contrast this with Niebuhr, for example, who emphasized the mixed and ambivalent character of human nature - creative impulses matched by destructive impulses (animal spirits?), regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, the individual under constant temptation to play God to history: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." See e.g., http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/18/books/review/18schlesinger.html.

Rothbard also seems to try to define the rules that apply under particular circumstances so that you can have contracts. How does he deal with undefined situations which were not anticipated?

James writes:

Kurbla,

Why do you think you should get to shut down every emitter of radiation without first proving harm? You are ignoring the final blockquote in the original post!

If I found myself having to misrepresent some political philosophy every time I tried to find fault with it, I'd quickly come to the conclusion that my target had more going for it than I had realized. What's taking you so long?

gnat,

The only circumstances in which contracts are not possible are those in which resources are not owned. (So long as resources are owned, owners can enter into contracts.) He deals with this by suggesting that individuals be able to homestead unowned resources.

Kurbla writes:

James, these are two versions. In his book, Rothbard argued against any pollution. In later article he argued only against provably harmful pollution. I think the book version is more libertarian: on my property, I'm one who make decisions, i do not need to prove anything.

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