Monday, April 09, 2007

“Once the Sun burns out, this planet is doomed. You're just making sure we spend our last days using inferior products.”

I’m not a big fan of most of the Libertarian Party’s positions. To me, government is all about balancing values: freedom v. security, right to choose v. right to life, etc., and it’s not always easy. The Libertarians (and most third parties) usually ignore these problems or assume that private action will solve them. I think that they are wrong on both counts.

One position that I find particularly odious, is how Libertarian Party deals with the environment. Their party platform states, “Public Policy instruments including eminent domain, zoning laws, building codes, rent control, regional planning, property taxes, resource management and public health legislation remove property rights from owners and transfer them to the State, while raising costs of property ownership.... [A]nd regulation of property shall be limited to that which secures the rights of individuals.” (To see the full quote so that you can tell that I’m not taking it out of context, check out the Libertarian Party Platform.)

If I am reading this correctly, the government cannot exercise any control over what an individual does with his own property except to ensure that he can own property. A typical argument goes something like, “The government shouldn’t tell me how to use my land. If I want to build ____ structure on my land, and do _____ activity on my land, I should be able to. The government has no business telling me what I can do with my own property.” This position is very problematic because it ignores externalities. (An externality is a cost of an activity that is born by someone other than the actor engaging in the activity. For more, read, "The Tragedy of the Commons.") To illustrate the problems with the Libertarian position, consider the following hypothetical:

A stream runs through the properties of two different farmers. In his spare time, Farmer Upstream repairs old cars. Rather than throwing away the old fluids drained from these cars, he simply dumps them into the stream at the bottom end of his property, letting the water carry them away. Farmer Downstream relies on the stream water to irrigate his crops. When the chemicals dumped by Farmer Upstream get into the irrigation water, it kills Farmer Downstream’s crops.

The Libertarian position doesn’t seem to acknowledge these externalities. Using their philosophy, Farmer Upstream can dump his chemicals on his own land, but then he doesn’t have to bear the cost of that activity. The cost is born by Farmer Downstream as his crops die. Farmer Upstream has no incentive to stop dumping except his own conscience – Farmer Downstream has no power to force a bargain in the Libertarian’s hypothetical free market.

If my farmer hypothetical is too abstract for you, let me give you a real scenario. The Colorado River flows through four dry western states. All four states rely on the river for water, hydropower, recreation, and tourism. If Arizona decides to build a dam, it will lower the amount of water available in California and cause a lake to form in Utah, destroying many archeological and natural sites while Arizona gets all the power from the dam. If we strictly follow the Libertarian position, then the states have to negotiate between themselves how to resolve this problem. I can see Utah and Arizona striking some kind of deal where they split the power – Utah will leverage the threat of building another dam upstream to force a bargain – but California is left in the dust (pun intended). And how are Utah and Arizona to keep Colorado from building another upstream dam, rendering theirs useless? If you don’t like that example, think about factories in California that dump pollution into the air that then comes down on Nevada and Utah as acid rain. What can Utah and Nevada do about that?

The typical response to these questions was laid out in the comments to a recent news story from KSL. The story reported that the air pollution problem in Utah is causing kids with asthma to have an increased number of episodes. In the comments, many people expressed the following sentiment: “If air quality causes problems, look for a different place to live.” What happens when even children who are born healthy develop asthma because of air pollution and every city in the world has adopted that commenter’s view? Where will they move then?

My point is that absent federal regulation, there is no guarantee that property owners will use their land in a way that is fair to everyone or “which secures the rights of individuals”. The Libertarians are wrong when it comes to the environment and we need legislation like the Clean Air Act to ensure that all people can enjoy the use of their private property.

p.s. On their site, they have a link to a test that you can take to determine if you are a Libertarian. Apparently, I am not.


Rob said...

Look at me I'm a Centrist.

Eric said...

Re: the KSL comments

The commenter at the top of the page (Charles h) has adopted one of the more troubling attitudes found in this area, which is that if you don't like X, you should just move away. Curiously, he is disappointed with the number of illegal (read: Mexican) immigrants, and yet he is unwilling to move to a less Hispanic area.

Daniel said...

Eric, your comment got an out-loud laugh from Janay. Good job.

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