More Nonsense From Monbiot About Libertarians And Climate Change

I really wish that George Monbiot would do his homework before attacking Libertarians.

Once again he has set up a straw man, this time its his misguided view of Libertarian property rights. He ignores all the subtleties and complexities of the system and replaces it with complete nonsense that no genuine Libertarian would accept.

Monbiot says:

Let us accept the idea that damage to the value of property without the owner’s consent is an unwarranted intrusion upon the owner’s freedoms.”

Error number 1:

Libertarians do not believe that damage to “the value” of property without consent is an intrusion upon the owners freedom. The value of property is determined by the views of others in free exchange. An owner of property does not own other people’s opinions of it and therefore cannot own its value.

In Libertarian philosophy if a man paints his house bright pink and as a result the value of your house falls then your property rights have not been infringed.

Libertarians property rights are only concerned with physical damage to property.

He goes on with:

“Climate change, industrial pollution, ozone depletion, damage to the physical beauty of the area surrounding people’s homes (and therefore their value) – all these, if libertarians did not possess a shocking set of double standards, would be denounced by them as infringements on other people’s property.”

Error Number 2:

The climate and the ozone layer are not other people’s property, they are unowned. It is in fact the lack of well defined property rights over common resources that leads to the well known “tragedy of the commons” type problems.

Damage to the physical beauty surrounding people’s homes is not a violation of Libertarian property rights (as explained in error 1).

Let us consider the more interesting case of industrial pollution from a factory. This may or may not be an infringement of Libertarian property rights. For it to be an infringement of a neighbouring property owners rights it must pass the following tests:

1. The “damage” to the property must interfere with the exclusive possession, use or enjoyment of their property.

As Rothbard says:

“…consider the case of radio waves, which is a crossing of other people’s boundaries that is invisible and insensible in every way to the property owner. We are all bombarded by radio waves that cross our properties without our knowledge or consent.

Are they invasive and should they therefore be illegal, now that we have scientific
devices to detect such waves? Are we then to outlaw all radio transmission? And if not, why not?

The reason why not is that these boundary crossings do not interfere with anyone’s exclusive possession, use or enjoyment of their property. They are invisible, cannot be detected by man’s senses, and do no harm. They are therefore not really invasions of
property, for we must refine our concept of invasion to mean not just boundary crossing, but boundary crossings that in some way interfere with the owner’s use or enjoyment of this property.

What counts is whether the senses of the property owner are interfered with. Well, when human beings exhale, their product, CO2, also, “cannot be detected by man’s senses, and do no harm.”

2. The damage must be done without the property owners consent.

Clearly their is no violation of property rights if property owner B gives permission for property owner A.

3. The damage must not be too remote. i.e. It must be caused wholly by the action of the polluter or interactions of the polluter with things on the damaged property, without the intervening action of a third party.

E.g. If a factory allows a piece of paper to blow out of its window and that piece of paper is picked up by somebody else who lights it and throws it on to the neighbours land burning his house down, then the factory did not violate the neighbours property rights, the arsonist did!

4. The damage must be done without the benefit of an easement over the neighbouring property.

If somebody builds a factory and the smoke from the factory blows East over unowned  land then the factory owner acquires a property right, via the Libertarian principle of homesteading. The right acquired is an easement to discharge smoke to the East. If somebody later acquires the unowned land (via homesteading) they do so with the encumbrance of an easement to discharge smoke. The discharging of smoke is not a violation of their property rights as it pre-dates their ownership.

So if I build a new factory next to an existing town and without permission dump toxic chemicals onto other peoples land causing them to suffer a detriment to their use, possession or enjoyment of their property then that is a violation of property rights and Libertarians would support taking action against the factory owner.

Monbiot continues:

The owners of coal-burning power stations in the UK have not obtained the consent of everyone who owns a lake or a forest in Sweden to deposit acid rain there. So their emissions, in the libertarian worldview, should be regarded as a form of trespass on the property of Swedish landowners.

Error Number 3:

The damage is too remote, factories do not emit acid rain, it is the complex interaction of many processes, some man-made (Including some factories) and some natural, that cause the acid rain to form and fall in a particular place.

Nor have they – or airports, oil companies or car manufacturers – obtained the consent of all those it will affect to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, altering global temperatures and – through rising sea levels, droughts, storms and other impacts – damaging the property of many people

Error Number 4:

In the Libertarian view of property rights the discharge of C02 does not interfere directly with anyone’s exclusive possession, use or enjoyment of their property. (See the Rothbard quote above). Indeed we all breathe out C02 every few seconds.

The longer term damage that may accrue is too remote, unpredictable and the result of many complex interactions by many different parties to be considered a property violation by the CO2 emitter.

Monbiot goes on:

“So here we have a simple and coherent explanation of why libertarianism is so often associated with climate change denial, and the playing down or dismissal of other environmental issues. It would be impossible for the owner of a power station, steel plant, quarry, farm or any large enterprise to obtain consent for all the trespasses he commits against other people’s property – including their bodies.”

Error Number 5:

A simple, coherent, and logically contradictory explanation.

How would climate change denial help the Libertarian position as misrepresented by Monbiot?

It would already be sunk by the existence of air pollution! Even Monbiot’s misguided fulminations do not not accuse Libertarians of denying the existence of air pollution!

He concludes:

Any honest and thorough application of this philosophy would run counter to its aim: which is to allow the owners of capital to expand their interests without taxation, regulation or recognition of the rights of other people.”

Perhaps that is true of the straw-man philosophy I shall refer to as “Monbiotian Libertarianism”, but as such a philosophy exists only in the minds of socialists this conclusion does nothing more than re-enforce  existing misconceptions and prejudices.

Words by Murray Rothbard



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  • nana

    On a side note, partly unrelated to the topic, that was one of the best argumentations why liberatarians can’t deal with complex pollution situation. Thanks.