The anarchist case for climate action

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A spate of recent articles have purported to offer the “conservative case for a carbon tax” or the “libertarian case for climate action,” or some similar riff. R Street itself has contributed to the genre on occasion.

I want to do something even more challenging: present the case for action on climate change from an anarchist—specifically, anarcho-capitalist—perspective.

For those not up on the terminology, an anarcho-capitalist is someone who believes the free market can and should handle all government functions. An anarcho-capitalist takes the sorts of arguments that a conservative or libertarian might use to argue that Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service ought to be privatized and applies them to things like roads, police, courts and national defense. It is, needless to say, a very uncompromising point of view.

I am not an anarchist of any sort. But I do think it can be useful to give the anarcho-capitalist perspective on an issue like climate change, because it clarifies how principles like property rights and individual liberty would apply, if we all weren’t such statist squishes (if this sort of philosophical musing isn’t your thing, you can go read about the Environmental Protection Agency and Star Wars instead).

One might think the anarcho-capitalist position on climate change would be obvious. Calls for action on climate typically involve proposing the government do something to deal with the situation. An anarcho-capitalist, by definition, doesn’t believe in government – that is, in an agency that enjoys a monopoly on the lawful use of force within a given territory. The anarcho-capitalist approach to climate change would be roughly the same as Michael Corleone’s offer to Sen. Geary: nothing.

But in fact, anarcho-capitalists have worked out responses to pollution and environmental issues generally that are at odds with common stereotypes of defenders of the free market. In fact, as some anarcho-capitalists would see it, the problem with most environmental regulation is not that it unjustly restricts business, but that it isn’t restrictive enough.

According to the late anarcho-capitalist economist Murray Rothbard, for instance, pollution should be seen as a violation of property rights. Just as it would violate my rights if a business decided to dump its garbage in my backyard, so too is it a violation of my rights when a factory pollutes the air I breathe or otherwise damages my health or my property without my consent. In keeping with the strict stand against all violations of property rights, Rothbard called for an absolute ban on pollution, regardless of cost to industry:

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 later added some procedural requirements (such as clarifying the burden of proof) that would make it more difficult for plaintiffs to get an injunction without showing harm. Nevertheless, under the Rothbardian approach, if greenhouse-gas emissions are shown to result in harm to individuals or their property (e.g., by causing rising sea levels that flood the property and render it uninhabitable), then the property owner should be able to go to court and get an injunction against the emitters.

You don’t have to take my word for it. A while back, two of my favorite anarcho-capitalists, Tom Woods and Bob Murphy, took precisely this approach when discussing the proper free-market response to climate change on Woods’ radio show. The show was mostly devoted to trashing the case for a carbon tax as a nonlibertarian response to the risks of climate change. Toward the end, however, Woods asked a very interesting question:

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument [climate change is happening]… and various forms of human activity are contributing to it and so therefore we want to discourage this kind of activity so the glaciers don’t all melt and we all drown and die and California falls into the sea, whatever the results would be. What kind of libertarian response could there be? This would seem to be the classic case of needing a global government, right? You need a global government to go out and deal with a global problem… What is the libertarian answer?  

After several attempts to evade the issue (positing that, even if there is a problem, you can’t trust government to solve it; that it won’t get bad for more than 50 years, etc.) Murphy finally responds the same way Rothbard’s approach suggests: treat pollution as a violation of property rights that people can go to court to stop.

Ultimately the solution would be to have property rights in the integrity of the atmosphere and that you’re not allowed as a business – just as you can’t dump chemicals in the river – you’re not allowed to emit tons of CO2 into the atmosphere if that really is causing physical demonstrable harm to everyone else on the planet. So that would be a property rights violation… And people who were being harmed could go to a libertarian judge and say ‘hey that power plant is emitting all sorts of CO2 and here’s the science and see they’re directly causing us property damage.’ And so then they could get an injunction or they could have some kind of agreement where they work out with the owner some kind of compensation scheme.

In order to get an injunction, a property owner would, of course, have to show that they would be harmed by the continued emissions. However, it’s important to note what they wouldn’t have to prove under the Rothbard-Murphy approach. They wouldn’t have to prove that climate change poses serious risks to human civilization, or that the costs from climate change are greater than the costs of stopping all emissions. It could even be the case that climate change overall was beneficial to humanity. All they need to show is that their property rights have been violated.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that this method of dealing with climate change is not very practical. Consider, for example, the residents of Lima, Peru. Climate change is altering the melt rate for the mountain ice on which the city depends, compounding the already difficult problem of providing a reliable and safe water supply. Suppose the residents sue and are able to prove that greenhouse-gas emissions are causing or will cause this problem. Under the Rothbard-Murphy approach, they would be able to get an injunction against most of the industrial activity in the world (even if you are skeptical of this particular example, recall that all it would take is for someone, somewhere to prove some harm from greenhouse-gas emissions to produce the same result).

Clearly, anarcho-capitalists don’t want to see the end of industrial civilization. But how can they avoid it, without abandoning their principles? One possibility would be to fall back on contract. A factory owner, for example, might agree to pay the residents of Lima for the right to continue to emit greenhouse gases. If the value of being able to operate the factory was greater than the cost to the residents, it should be possible to work out some mutually beneficial agreement that would allow the factory to keep running.

This might work for cases where the numbers of polluters and property owners are both reasonably small. In the case of greenhouse gases, however, we are dealing with millions of emitters and potentially billions of property-owner plaintiffs. The sheer cost of negotiating contracts that allow for continued emissions would be prohibitive.

As I mentioned before, I am not an anarchist. While I think government should be as small as possible, there are some areas, including environmental protection, where I think the impracticality of a pure property-rights approach means the government can play a role. I do, however, find the Rothbard-Murphy approach important in highlighting an often-overlooked feature of debates on environmental policy – namely that pollution is a violation of property rights. Indeed, from a pure free-market perspective, the problem with things like a carbon tax may not be that they are too burdensome on business, but that they aren’t nearly burdensome enough.


Image by Darryl Brooks

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  • Free-Market Anarchist

    If industries were getting sued for XYX, they need to stop XYZ but continue to make profit. In this case, that means adopting cleaner processes and using cleaner products in the industry. In addition, there are many people passionate about climate change. All it takes is one group to develop a process or product that enables industry to do the SAME task, but cheaper and cleaner and the industry will buy it.

    I think you’ve dismissed the anarcho-capitalist argument on environmentalism too quickly.

    -former ancap, free-market anarchist

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