How do we protect the environment? Society provides us with two answers- one from the right and one from the left. As usual, both of these answers are wrong.
The right-wing has no real answer to this question. At best, they mumble something about how government is the largest polluter (which is true) and thus if the government was smaller and had less power, it would pollute less (which is also true).
There are two problems with this. It doesn’t address the pollution caused by the free market. Second, it doesn’t address the vast amount of environmental damage done by the military and wars, things the right-wing really enjoy and doesn’t want to see reduced in any real way.
The left-wing does have an answer to this question, and it’s pretty scary. Their answer is to give big, fat, corrupt, inefficient government vast power over individuals and companies to coerce you in almost every aspect of your life. Government should tell people exactly how large their toilets should be. Government should tell companies exactly how to construct their products. Billions, if not trillions of dollars, are spent and wasted butting into people’s personal business by bureaucrats who don’t know anything about economics or environment. Companies doing nothing wrong are put out of business, and people doing nothing wrong are fined or thrown in jail.
I once consulted with a leather tannery. They adhered to 100% of the environmental laws in their area. There was a pungent odor coming from their building because of the chemicals used in their tanning process. The odor wasn’t harmful; it just smelled weird. This was all okay because they made sure to build their plant way out in the country where no one lived.
Over time, folks started building houses near the plant. These people complained about the smell to the local version of the EPA. Remember, the plant was there first, many years in advance of the people now living there, and the smell was not harmful to humans, animals, or plants in any way.
The bureaucrats from the EPA descended on this company, and long story short, the company couldn’t pay all the legal bills, so they went out of business. Eighty hard-working people lost their jobs, eighty jobs were permanently removed from the local economy, the owner went bankrupt, and some of the vendors went bankrupt.
There are many horror stories like this.
So the right-wing answer is to do pretty much nothing and the left-wing answer is to control and screw up your life via massive state power and waste your hard-earned tax dollars. Could there be third option?
We Do Need To Protect The Environment
I’m going to admit my own bias. In terms of protecting the environment, this is one of the few areas where I bend away from hardcore libertarianism and lean a little left. I said a little left. I still don’t want big government putting a gun to your head and telling you how big your toilet should be. That’s insane. Yet I do think that the local government has a right to protect the air, water, flora, and fauna of its local city area.
Case in point, Los Angeles. Decades ago, Los Angeles was beautiful. Over time, the air became worse and worse, and soon you couldn’t even see the local mountains because the smog was so bad. The LA government enacted a pile of environmental laws, many of which where stupid and many of which I disagreed with, but there were some that made sense.
Today, you can see the mountains again! The air is much clearer now than what it used to be just a decade or two ago. The local laws worked, at least in that respect.
Does the local LA government have a right to impose environment laws on the local LA citizens to improve or maintain air and water quality of LA? Yes.
Can local LA citizens and companies move out of LA if they hate these laws? Yes.
Now here’s where things get interesting…
Does the local LA government have a right to impose environment laws on people outside of LA? No!
Do local voters in LA have a right to vote for environmental laws to control the lives of people living in New Hampshire? No!
This all goes back to the concept of local governance that I’ve touched on before. In a free country, the federal government does almost nothing. Not literally nothing, but almost nothing (like not, for example, having all these stupid wars that damage the environment). All other authority rests with your local city. There, you can vote for any laws you like, but you can’t vote for laws that affect other cites. People in San Francisco have every right to tell other people in San Francisco what to do via their votes, but they have no right to tell people in Miami what to do. What people in Miami do is none of their damn business. If people in San Francisco hate Miami, then they shouldn’t live there or visit there. If they love Miami, they should move there. But they can’t use government force to tell Miami what to do from 2000 miles away.
This applies to environmental laws. The federal government shouldn’t be allowed to enact any environmental laws at all. There should be no EPA whatsoever. It’s blatantly unconstitutional anyway.
However, the environment should still be protected. It’s important. Thus, your city can, and should, enact common-sense laws to protect its local environment. If you hate those laws, you can move to another city with more lax environmental regulations. If you think your town needs more environmental laws, you can vote for politicians who will support those, or move to a different city with stronger environmental regulations. Everyone wins.
I can read your mind and see an objection brewing. Let’s assume that right-wing City A doesn’t care at all about its air quality and has virtually no environmental laws. Just 20 miles away is left-wing City B with extreme environmental protections. City B has clean air, but soon a bunch of factories in City A pollute the air and it blows over to City B, poisoning and darkening its air as well. See Caleb?!? Your system doesn’t work!!!
Yes, it does. In a free country, City B can sue City A for damages using the federal court system. If City B clearly shows that City A is polluting its air, City A would be found guilty and would have to pay City B millions, if not billions of dollars. City A’s taxpayers would have to pay for that, something I’m sure they wouldn’t be happy about.
Therefore, under this system, cities would have to be aware not only of their own city, but other nearby cities as well.
The same applies if City B was downstream on the same river as City A, and City A was polluting it. City B would have legal recourse to sue for damages to its river.
Some cities, like Denver, would be so far away from other major cities that it could do whatever it liked. Clustered cities, such as those on the east coast, would have to be more careful.
It’s entirely possible that several clustered cities could make deals with each other, such as to allow a certain amount of industry without suing each other (as long as it was okay with those cities’ voters of course). The possibilities are endless.
This concept also extends to individuals. Ideally, you and I would live in a city with very few environmental regulations and thus few intrusions on our personal lives, but if you polluted a stream that you and I both shared, and I was downstream from you and got your garbage, I could quickly and cheaply sue your ass for a lot of money and win. Under this system, people would be very careful not to pollute shared air, water, and soil resources. No huge regulations needed, just an inexpensive, easy-to-use, loser-pays legal system (instead of the insane winner-pays legal system we have now).
There’s a final aspect to environmental protection that no one ever talks about, and it’s critically important.
On a semi-regular basis, we have huge forest wildfires that destroy hundreds or even thousands of acres of forest and cause millions of dollars of damage to homes and businesses. These stories are always tragic and everyone feels bad when they see them on TV, as they should.
The one question that no one ever asks is: Who’s land are these fires starting on?
It’s an important question. Do you know the answer? I do. It’s the federal government.
That’s right. Just about every major forest fire is started and propagated on federal lands. Often these fires are started by federal employees! One major forest fire in California a few years back was started by a forest ranger (a federal government employee) who lit a letter on fire which she had received from her ex-boyfriend. Millions of dollars in damages were the result.
Forests on federal land are always burning to the ground and/or rotting. Whereas forests owned by corporations, such as Boise Cascade here in the northwest, are always pristine, beautiful, and never have fires. Why? It’s because if anyone damages or doesn’t maintain the corporate-owned forests, shareholders lose money, so people get fired and heads roll. Employees of free market companies make sure that those forests are always healthy and solid (and not burning).
If anyone damages or doesn’t maintain the government forests, no one cares and nothing happens. Thus, the government-owned forests often burn up, cause massive environmental damage, and cost millions in dollars in real damages.
Therefore, if you want to protect the environment, you would not want the government to own very much land, particularly our beautiful forests. Take all that government-owned land that’s burning or rotting and sell the forests to corporations, individuals, farmers, co-ops, or charities like the Sierra Club. All of these will likely manage the land better than the government, which demonstrably manages its land in an extremely environmentally abusive way.
So there you have it: local environmental laws, the ability to cheaply sue others if they damage your environment, and private ownership of land. None of those things are perfect solutions, but they’re far better at protecting the environment compared to the current system that most countries employ.