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The Environment’s True Friends Are Libertarians

David S. D'Amato, Foundation for Economic Education

Government is itself the worst polluter, responsible for more serious environmental damage than any other single actor. Government wastes and destroys its own holdings, because it lacks the incentives of the true owner, insulated as it is from the attendant costs.

Photo published for The Environment’s True Friends Are Libertarians

The libertarian movement should have been the natural home of environmentalism. Robust, well-defined property rights and mutually-beneficial exchange in a genuine free market create strong incentives for environmental stewardship, thwarting the kinds of environmental degradation that have been all too common under the status quo, defined by pervasive regulation, inept bureaucracy, and thus frequent disasters.

As economist and public policy scholar Robert H. Nelson observed, “environmentalism and libertarianism have important common elements. Both outlooks are fearful of the uses to which human beings will put the enormous new powers made available by the modern products of science and economics.”

The philosophy of liberty furthermore emphasizes the importance of accountability, personal responsibility, and efficiency: values which should be focal points for any worthwhile project of environmental protection. Why, then, does prevailing opinion make private property and free market competition the enemies of nature, cast as the sources of widespread pollution, ecosystem destruction, and thoughtless resource depletion? Clearly something has been lost in translation, confused by the easy and largely incoherent narratives of left versus right.

Recasting the Debate

Libertarians are, no doubt, partially to blame for this. We have emphasized the primacy of economic development and market innovation, the processes that have enriched the world. But the fact that the selfsame processes have at the same time made the world cleaner and more sanitary is less frequently remarked upon, lost in the narrative that freedom means corporate license—which in turn spells doom for the natural world.

First, libertarians must challenge the oft-repeated myth that unhindered competition is a cutthroat game of wild and irresponsible misbehavior, the inevitable result of which is environmental destruction borne by the many, and large profits enjoyed by the few. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, libertarians see well-defined private property rights and voluntary exchanges in the marketplace as the best mechanisms through which to protect the natural world and its resources. Seldom do the free market’s detractors—or indeed even its friends—observe its valuable restraining effects: the natural limits that property and exchange place on corporate power and license.

Sincere environmentalists should care about the track record of government intervention and regulation. The worst, most tragic environmental disasters have uniformly been spawned from heavily-regulated and cartelized industries, occurring in spheres of human activity in which property rights are not well defined or are vested in derelict government bureaucracies.

And we should be especially indisposed to give credence to government’s lofty environmental protection rhetoric given that government is itself the worst polluter, responsible for more serious environmental damage than any other single actor. That this fact will surprise so many demonstrates the success with which the federal leviathan has deceived and cheated the American people.

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