<TITLE>E.2 Can "absolute" private property rights protect the environment?</TITLE>
<H1>E.2 Can <I>"absolute"</I> private property rights protect the environment? </h1>
According to free market capitalists, only private property can protect the
environment. Murray Rothbard, for example, claims that <I>"if private firms
were able to own the rivers and lakes. . .anyone dumping garbage. . .
would promptly be sued in the courts for their aggression against private
property. . . . Thus, only private property rights will insure an end to
pollution-invasion of resources"</I> [<B>For a New Liberty</B>, p. 256].
This ignores one major point: why <B>would</B> the private owner be interested
in keeping it clean? What if the garbage dumper is the corporation that
owns the property? Why not just assume that the company can make more
money turning the lakes and rivers into dumping sites, or trees into junk
mail? This scenario is no less plausible. In fact, it is more likely to
happen in many cases. As Glenn Albrecht argues, such a capitalist "solution"
to environmental problems is only <I>"likely to be effective in protecting
species [or ecosystems] which are commercially important only if the
commercial value of that species [or ecosystem] exceeds that of other
potential sources of income that could be generated from the same 'natural
capital'. . .this model becomes progressively less plausible when we are
confronted with rare but commercially unimportant species [or ecosystems]
versus very large development proposals that are inconsistent with their
continual existence. The less charismatic the species, the more 'unattractive'
the ecosystem, the more likely it will be that the development proposal will
proceed. . ."</I>
[<I>"Ethics, Anarchy and Sustainable Development"</I>, <B>Anarchist
Studies</B> vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 104-5] To claim that "absolute" property rights will
protect the environment is just another example of "free market" capitalism's
attempt to give the reader what he or she wants to hear.
But, of course, the supporter of capitalism will jump in and say that if
dumping were allowed, this would cause pollution, which would affect others,
who would then sue the owner in question. "Maybe" is the answer to this
claim, for there are many circumstances where a lawsuit would be unlikely
to happen. For example, what if the locals are slum dwellers and cannot
afford to sue? What if they are afraid that their landlords will evict
them if they sue (particularly if the landlords also own the polluting
property in question)? What if many members of the affected community
work for the polluting company and stand to lose their jobs if they sue?
(See next section). Also, this reply totally ignores the fact suing would
only occur <B>after</B> the damage has already been done. It's not easy to
replace ecosystems and extinct species. And if the threat of court action
had a "deterrent" effect, then pollution, murder, stealing and a host of
other crimes would long ago have disappeared.
But, beyond these points lies the most important ones, namely: is the
option to bring suit against polluters <B>really</B> available in a free market
based on private property? Rothbard thinks it is. Taking the case of
factory smoke in the 19th Century, he notes that it and <I>"many of its bad
effects have been known since the Industrial Revolution, known to the
extent that the American courts, during the. . . 19th century made the
deliberate decision to allow property rights to be violated by industrial
smoke. To do so, the courts had to -- and did -- systematically change and
weaken the defences of property rights embedded in Anglo-Saxon common law.
. . the courts systematically altered the law of negligence and the law of
nuisance to <B>permit</B> any air pollution which was not unusually greater
than any similar manufacturing firm"</I> [Rothbard, <b>Op. Cit.</b>, p. 257].
In this remarkably self-contradictory passage, we are invited to draw the
conclusion that private property <B>must</B> provide the solution to the
pollution problem from an account of how it clearly did <B>not</B> do so! If
the 19th-century USA -- which for many Libertarian's is a kind of "golden
era" of free-market capitalism -- saw a move from an initial situation of
well-defended property rights to a later situation where greater pollution
was tolerated, as Rothbard claims, then property rights cannot provide a
solution to the pollution problem.
It is likely, of course, that Rothbard and other free marketeers will claim
that the 19th-century capitalist system was not pure enough, that the
courts were motivated to act under pressure from the state (which in turn
was pressured by powerful industrialists). But can it be purified by just
removing the government and privatising the courts, relying on a so-called
<I>"free market for justice"</I>? The pressure from the industrialists remains,
if not increases, on the privately owned courts trying to make a living on
the market. Indeed, the whole concept of private courts competing in a
<I>"free market for justice"</I> becomes absurd once it is recognised that those
with the most money will be able to buy the most "justice" (as is largely the
The characteristically "free market" capitalist argument that if X were
privately owned, Y would almost certainly occur, is just wishful thinking.