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Libertarian denial; clever but not wise

[Previously posted on a recent thread (Malthus and Mein Kampf come to Cork – thanks, Sean Corrigan!) in response to someone who is concerned about environmental problems but is unfamiliar with Austrian approaches.]

Man is clever but not wise (“homo sapiens” is a misnomer) and we remain very much a part of the ecosystems that we pretend to master even as we swamp them with the growing demands that our rapidly improving technology and burgeoning populations impose.

While our demands on the natural environment is much tempered in the developed economies by the feedback mechanisms of property rights, markets and pricing signals, those signals are flawed in our own economies as a result of government interference, and in any event are not working well with respect to many resources and products acquired from developing economies – due to the interwined problems of a lack of clear and enforceable property rights, government ownership and regulation/fiat, and kleptocracy and corruption for the benefit of elites.

For other shared resources/ecosystems – the atmosphere and oceans – the lack of property rights or other accepted management regime is leading to clear stresses, as we wipe out one fish stock after another and continue to unintentionally modify our global climate by various economic behavior for which actors have no liability to others.

And in the developing world, our improving technology and growing market demands are devasting tropical forests – which indigenous inhabitants are hapless to defend against theft by governments and elites – and leading to severe environmental problems in places where there are no effective ownership rights or liability rules.

As a result, despite a fair degree of property-rights-based managment in the developed economies, it does rather seem that mankind is eating itself out of house and home, and leaving less and less to our coinhabitants – other than those we`ve made expressly a part of our food chain.

These are very difficult problems that will not go away. My own view is that the reticence with which others here approach these issues is informed by the rather glaring truth – especially in the US – that the government is always susceptible to rent-seeking by parties looking for a handout or special treatment at the cost of others, hopelessly incompetent and always subject to corruption and self-aggrandizement by bureaucrats and power-broking politicians.

The concern about “socialism” is a code for the very worst excesses of government (particularly war and genocide) that we saw in the last century and are still evident today.

Libertarians have been preoccupied with trying to fight government and restore greater human dignity and freedom, and have tended (as the Western environmental crises have been largely resolved) to overlook – as largely out of view – problems of the type that you have been pointing out, while seeing those with environmental concerns as merely another set of obnoxious people trying to get what they want not through the marketplace but by pushing greater governmental involvement. Besides, they are in principle opposed to governments acting, and so find themselves at a loss to address problems that arise are a result of ineffective governance elsewhere.

So they tend to prefer to argue with you over ways in which YOU misunderstand markets (such as correctly explaining that peak oil is not a real problem as it will be handled by the markets as it involves owned resources) rather than how THEY are ignoring the significant cases where the markets are functioning very poorly due to a lack of clear and enforceable property rights.

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It used to be that nature itself kept us in check and our impact on the natural world relative limited. But modern, industrial man is no longer threatened by predators and our cooperative organizational abilities and evolving technology literally mean that we are eating most life on this planet out of house and home. I read recently that humans now consume something like 25% of the world`s primary production.

The question is how do we best regulate our impact? I think we have to acknowledge that man will always place a priority on satisying our personal needs, at the cost of both shared needs and concerns (more or less shared) about the broader environment that supports us and the rest of creation. But there are signs of hope in the west (as Lomborg correctly notes), even as one is easily dismayed by the destruction taking place in the oceans and in less developed countries. The hope is proved by the recovery of domestic environments when people move to protect property rights and regulate industrial activities that are ecologically/economically damaging.

The more difficult problem lies in those places where those who are concerned about the abusive use of resources are unable to express their preferences by directly acquiring and protecting resources or persuading others to do so, because of a want of sufficent law and order.

It seems that, in the face of the ongoing development of parts of the world that are still experiencing population growth, the best we can hope for is the preservation of scraps of the natural world, and that – after ocean fisheries and tropical forests are largely destroyed – that various ownership and management regimes will finally arise that will find economic benefit in restoring parts of the wild.

  1. TokyoTom
    October 22nd, 2007 at 04:00 | #1

    Juan, who’s saying you should listen to me? I’ve made arguments above about what I see are problems – feel free to argue them directly.

    You can think and engage in discussion, or you can prove my point for me. The reflexive prickliness is an inherited tribal cognitive mechanism that gets in the way of thinking clearly. Have you noticed this? There are still an awful lot of Bush supporters who think the the Iraq invasion and subsequent war conduct were all the morally right thing to do – and they typically think those who disagree with them are insane or liberals or both.

  2. Juan
    October 21st, 2007 at 18:42 | #2

    we should we listen to your ‘arguments’ ?

    I meant :

    Why should we listen to your ‘arguments’ ?

  3. Juan
    October 21st, 2007 at 18:41 | #3

    It’s allright Tokyo. Your claim that ‘libertarians’ deny I don’t know what , sounds offensive to me. And the claim that man is clever, but not wise, sounds also offensive.

    And let me ask, If man is not wise, we should we listen to your ‘arguments’ ?

  4. TokyoTom
    October 20th, 2007 at 15:21 | #4

    Juan, your presumptive strawman is offensive, so you hardly invite me to bother with you further.

    No, I don`t advocate world government.

    I`ve already given you a thread that spells out more of what I think. You can take a look, or wait until I post more here. Your choice.

  5. Juan
    October 19th, 2007 at 16:51 | #5

    So, you’re not advocating the privatization of the sea, but rather that world-government control it ? Same thing for the atmosphere ?

  6. TokyoTom
    October 19th, 2007 at 04:37 | #6

    I believe that government is not needed for domestic pollution problems, but for climate change and the oceans, which involve resources nobody owns, there is an imprtant role for government.

  7. Juan
    October 18th, 2007 at 18:18 | #7

    I’m more or less familiar with your position, I think ?

    You believe that ‘science’ has declared that GW is a fact – is real – is objective – etc ?

    You say that property rights are needed to address the problem ?

  8. TokyoTom
    October 18th, 2007 at 12:27 | #8

    Juan, thanks for your visit.

    I am certainly in favor of radical envrionmental deregulation domestically, but believe a more nuanced position is required for problems that are outside or extend beyond our borders. In any case, I don’t expect our government will voluntarily disappear, so I am in favor of incremental changes that shift towards a greater reliance on property rights, markets and voluntary cooperation.

    I hope you will browse through my other posts to get a better picture of what I think. In addition, you might try this comment thread on the main Mises blog:

  9. Juan
    October 18th, 2007 at 03:54 | #9

    I also realize that for certain cases our shared tool of government may serve productive or even essential purposes.

    So, you believe that government is needed to ‘fix’ the enviromental ‘problems’ ???

    I always thought that to be a libertarian, one needed to understand that the only legitimate function of government is to protect individual rights.

    Also, libertarians usually realize that monopolic government can’t really protect individual rights because it is…a monopoly.

    You on the other hand, don’t realize this, and also believe that government is essential to deal with polution ?

  10. TokyoTom
    October 16th, 2007 at 06:21 | #10
  11. JonBostwick
    October 16th, 2007 at 01:02 | #11

    “Man is clever but not wise (“homo sapiens” is a misnomer)”

    True. But humanity is wise. Men create cultures, economies and law.

    Man’s flaw is that he is over confident of his own intelligence. He tries to control things he doesn’t understand, like culture, economies, and law.

    You have just made an excellent case for why government involvement will not improve the environment. Because governments, like man, are not wise.

  12. TokyoTom
    October 13th, 2007 at 08:52 | #12

    Ron, good questions. Appropriate responses of course depend on the precise problem that you’re talking about.

    Individual responses on what we call “environmental” problems typically have limited effectiveness because harms are usally spread out, it is often difficult to identify a precise person/firm responsible and one’s legal rights to take action both limited and burdened by the balance between personal costs and benefits that are shared with others.

    Individuals can multiply their influence by banding together with those who agree with them and making their voice heard through purchasing campaigns, protests and other forms of market pressure (boycotts, speech, disclosure/dissemination of information about the undesired behavior, supporting “green” firms and products, etc.).

    Changes in market demand gradually move businesses and as supply gradually changes more “expensive” green products become less expensive. And of course pollution isn’t “free” – but merely the shifting of real costs to others – and often represents real welfare losses that would be avoided by more efficient arrangements that had the effect of internalizing external costs. Cleaning up the environment in the Western nations did not impoverish anyone.

    There are of course profitable businesses to be made in finding and marketing ways that reduce the inefficiencies that result in environmental damage. Cleaner and greener businesses should be marketing themselves, not only to consumers but to other businesses. Information is a key driver of expanding opportunities to reduce pollution, etc.

    Clean businesses should be campaigning to get the government out of the way as much as possible, except for trying to clarify and enforce property rights, or otherwise coordinating group action.

  13. October 12th, 2007 at 14:10 | #13


    I’m curious to know what you feel should be done about environmental crises, within a Libertarian framework? We both agree that employing government force in a command-and-control paradigm is ineffective and actually destructive, so what would you propose that individuals do within their own sphere of voluntary influence to address these issues?

    Also, since talking about individual actions speaks primarily to actions taken on the consumer side of the equation, what would you propose that businesses do to address these issues? Environmentally-friendly production methods are all well and good, but how would you resolve the fact that many of these methods simply aren’t profitable in today’s market? Some people are indeed willing to pay extra for environmentally-friendly products, as evidenced by the proliferation of organic food markets, but I suspect that they are in the minority. In any case, how do you prevent pricing the poor out of some market by advocating a switch to more expensive, yet more environmentally conscious methods of production, without forced “charity” to make up the difference?

    ~ Ron

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