Can a libertarian explain to me how we are supposed to prevent environmental disaster?

I’ve had about a million frustrating conversations with libertarians, and for reasons I can’t understand, no one can answer this simple question for me: In a libertarian system, are there ANY preventative measures used towards anything? For example, if a company wants to dump dioxin in a field, is anyone allowed to stop them beforehand? Or is our only form of redress reactive and after-the-fact?

I’ve asked this question a hundred times, and all I get is something along the lines of “well, a company wouldn’t want to poison its own customers, that would be dumb.”

Excellent question. And I just want to point out that companies have poisoned their customers throughout history, with some Chinese companies doing it today.

“For example, if a company wants to dump dioxin in a field, is anyone allowed to stop them beforehand? Or is our only form of redress reactive and after-the-fact?”

I’m not sure I’m seeing the difference between what exists now in the US. If some company wanted to dump dioxin in a field somewhere, how would you stop them? You wouldn’t know they were doing it until after the fact. If you were somehow informed of it, how would that information sharing be any different in a Libertarian country?

After all, even Libertaria is going to have laws against dumping poisons in random places.

But the system does provide some deterrence.

Well, that’s just it; that is by no means self-evident. And Libertaria is a country where such laws as exist might or might not be enforced with rigor, owing to political-cultural reluctance to spend the money.

Well, I think that in the Libertarian ideal, all property is private, so if a company wanted to dump dioxins, they would have to pay the property owner to do so. That of course ignores the problem of who owns the water in the water table and who owns the oceans, etc.

This is one place I break with Libertarians. I think dealing with externalities is a legitimate function of government.


Would there be laws against power plants emitting poisons into the atmosphere? It is not at all clear that libertarians have been strong in support of such laws.
The question is whether the regulations preventing pollution would exist. I’d assume that if someone showed that a company killed or injured someone through neglect they’d still be liable even in a libertarian society. Detection is not an issue - murder laws are still good things despite them not being able to stop a murderer.

In support of this, if they owned the chunk of river outside their plant, dumping waste into it is no better than if they didn’t.

To be more clear, the issue that I’ve never gotten a libertarian to answer in a straightforward way relates to interdependency. Libertarians say you should be able to do anything as long as it doesn’t impact anyone else. But the problem is that nearly everything affects someone else. A manufacturer pumping out smoke at their factory on their own land is still polluting my air. Even if they dump dioxin only on their own land, there is a strong possibility that the neighbors are eventually going to be affected. How does libertarianism address these problems? And does it only address it after risks are imposed onto others?

Further, it is not enough to force transgressors to clean up after the fact if such cleanup is almost impossible. If an unregulated-for-safety Libertarian oil tanker has a major spill off the coast of Libertaria, what the hell can after-the-fact punishments do?

I consider myself to be a libertarian on many issues, including environmental ones. The best means of dealing with it is by pricing in the costs of the economic damage and requiring the companies to pay for it. A good example of this is the cap and trade system of emission allowances for NOx and SO2 (although asdmittedly, it’s a little broken at the moment - it was working better a few years ago and should be fixed soon, hopefully).

The general idea is that if you know the costs of some enviromental damage, or the cleanup costs, then you find a way to ‘bill’ the companies for those costs, and then use the money for cleanup or redress, or whatever else. Of course, it would be nice to not have any damage at all - but society demands certain things and, as a whole, is willing to live with certain impacts. The most important thing to do is to make sure that those costs are distributed in a logical manner. So, when it comes to dealing with the costs of burning coal for electricity, the appropriate people to bear those costs are the ones using the electricity - not someone downwind or whatever. Making the utility pay for the costs allows them to recover it from their customers, who benefit from the electricity derived from that coal.

Of course, some environmental actions are simply not permissable at all, or not permissable at certain levels, as they’re simply too dangerous. In those cases, the government should be able to impose maximums or ban things altogether. It’s just that when there’s a market mechanism available, it’s preferable to use that instead.

That’s my take anyway. Being a libertarian doesn’t mean you have to be an asshat. I don’t want to drink mercury more than anyone else.

Honestly, I don’t see how a non-Libertarian system offers any more deterrence than a Libertarian one. Using the OPs example, if a company chooses to dump poisons, if they get found out, the government hits them with penalties, they get bad press, probably lose some customers and get protests from environmental groups and all that.

The only real difference I see in Libertaria is that the government hitting them with penalties would likely be replaced with lawsuits from surrounding land owners and such.

So which is more of a deterent, getting hit with penalties from the government, or getting sued by surrounding land owners and/or people made sick when the discovery is made? It seems pretty much a wash to me.
To give a sort of example of how I see it working would probably be not too much unlike the events in Erin Brokovich. The people were sick, they were able to get together and sue the company that made them sick, even after the company tried to exercise some legal loop holes to avoid it. In Libertaria, those loop holes would be less likely to exist because there’d be so many fewer laws.

I don’t think such laws necessarily exist, and that’s sort of an advantage of the system. In our current system, if there’s no law against dumping a certain chemical in a certain way, what can the government do? Its not unlike doping in a lot of professional sports where when one chemical gets banned, dopers just move to a new one that hasn’t been banned yet.

In Libertaria, you wouldn’t necessarily need to say that dumping a certain chemical in a certain way is illegal, rather, if you damage someone else’s property or make them sick, you’re legally responsible. It doesn’t matter if a certain chemical is banned or not or whether it’s politically helpful or suicidal to punish a company; if people are hurt or their property is damaged, they can sue.

And for the record, to the OP, yes, I think most modern companies in developed countries still wouldn’t do it because it’s stupid, but that’s a terrible explanation for why it ought to work and only really makes any sense if we assume a purely free-market economy which I don’t think is necessarily a given in Libertaria. The fundamental difference that is important is that in Libertaria, it’s not the government that enforces environmental protection, but the people, and not just the people who are injured in some way, but also the people who care about those issues.

That is, basically imagine if there were a stronger group, akin to the ACLU or NRA, that focused heavily on environmental issues, raising awareness about their issues and helping those who care about or are hurt by violations of those issues.

So a tax? I thought mainstream libertarianism would reject that out-of-hand, no?

I sometimes call myself a libertarian.

Here’s how I’d answer.

Suppose I whip up a giant batch of Chemical X. No problemo.

I store the Chemical X on my land. No problemo.

The storage barrels leak, and the Chemical X gets into the water on my land. No problemo.

Except, water doesn’t stay on my land, because water never does. So the Chemical X leaks onto my neighbor’s land. Mucho problemo.

And the Chemical X evaporates, as volatile chemicals always do. So the air on my property becomes contaminated with Chemical X. No problemo.

However, air doesn’t stay on my land, because air never does. So the Chemical X drifts onto my neighbor’s land. Mucho problemo.

Since I have no right to dump Chemical X onto anyone else’s property without their permission, in a libertarian context I have no right to emit ANY chemical of ANY sort, because of the physical fact that water and air can’t be confined by property lines.

It doesn’t matter that I claim that Chemical X has no harmful effects. A scrap of paper would have no harmful effects either, that doesn’t mean I have the right to dump a scrap of paper on your property. And so you have the right to demand that I remediate the problem I caused. If it’s a scrap of paper, you demand that I clean up the paper. However, if your groundwater is contaminated with Chemical X, it’s going to be a heck of a lot harder for me to clean that shit up. In fact, nearly impossible. And so I’ve pretty much bankrupted myself due to my negligence in getting my Chemical X all over your property. If we had bankruptcy laws, or limited liability corporations in Libertarian-land, which we probably don’t. And so I become your indentured servant for the rest of my life.

I don’t know if there’s a mainstream libertarianism or not, but I would say that

a) it’s not really a tax, although it is similar; and
b) no, not all taxes are bad - they are simply to be avoided whenever possible, most particularly in regards to supporting the government in performing actions that private entities could perform better. There are a lot of things that must, or should, be done cooperatively, such as the military and police, and yes, environmental stuff. It usually comes down to economics, when you have free rider problems, rent seeking, or negative externalities, a cooperative approach is typically preferred and that requires taxes.

You don’t think that in Libertaria there would be laws against damaging private property or that if there were laws they wouldn’t be strictly enforced? On what basis? Libertarians place the protection of private property at the top of the heap when it comes to valid functions of the government.

Once again, I must remind you that Libertaria is not Anarchia.

Libertarians seem to be up in arms about either cap and trade or carbon taxes. You don’t have to be a libertarian to think that market forces (distorted by the government) are the best way of reducing pollution caused by many companies and incrementally harmful.

The problem with this is that the damage done might be greater than the ability of a company to pay. Not every polluter is as big as Exxon or BP. Bankrupting a company may do more harm to the innocent (most employees, the stockholders) than the guilty - who have been collecting big paychecks for years before the disaster.
There is also the fact that prevention is far more economically efficient than clean up. A little more money on inspection of oil platforms would have saved a bundle. But inspections cost the innocent as well as the guilty. If we are not libertarians, we can do a cost benefit analysis on how many inspections we need. If we are libertarians, we oppose government interference in the running of a business on first principles.
There aren’t a lot of regulations put in just for the fun of it - they are all there to address specific problems, many of which have popped up in the past.

I was going to say that perhaps we should hold polluters personally liable, and flay them or something. However, China appears to be hanging people who poison milk, and the problem has not seemed to have vanished. Immediate rewards of money seem to trump the low probability of getting caught. Catching, punishing, and shaming violators before they do a lot of damage seems to work much better.

Maybe no bankruptcy laws, but why not have limited liability corporations? If we did not have them, innovation would be much reduced. Who would be an executive or a board member or even a founder of a corporation if your personal wealth was at stake? If you want to see what happens if liability is not limited, look up Lloyds of London.
In any case, Libertopia must work even if not all the people who live there are card-carrying libertarians. Plenty of people do things which may (and do) make them indentured servants to the state for quite a while. If you think that everyone would, for fear of getting caught, pay lots to get their waste hauled away instead of just burying it and hoping that the barrels don’t leak you are very naive. It is far more efficient to encourage you or the non-libertarian chemical factory owner to do the right thing by dropping by every so often and looking for barrels that may eventually leak.

Not far from me PG&E seems to have lost track of its gas pipe inventory, and over-pressurized some, causing an explosion that killed 8 people and destroyed many houses and their contents. We haven’t heard the full regulatory story yet, but it appears to be inadequate. No amount of bankruptcy or servitude is going to bring those 8 people back. Neither will it bring back the treasured possessions that were lost.

Depends on how broad the definition on libertarian is. I know several libertarians that believe protection the commons is a proper role for the government, and environmental legislation would fall under that.

OTOH a pure libertarian would probably oppose the idea. But pure libertarianism is about as realistic as well as pure communism, pure capitalism, or pure socialism. In other words there has never been a nation that even tried it, and probably never will be.

I support cap and trade, and I work at a large CO2 producer, and I consider myself a libertarian. But libertarians don’t tend to agree with each on much, so…

And you are right about not needing to be a libertarian to believe in market forces - and that’s good.

Well, with an allowance system you pay before you pollute, so I’m not sure that this would be a problem. What you’re talking about is more applicable regarding lawsuits after a big violation - which is a legitimate problem under just about any scenario.

Cost benefit analyses are good. Prevention is often better than cleanup. I oppose gov’t intervention until it’s shown that it’s warranted (by reasoning, not by waiting for an actual catastrophe). To me, at least, spending a few bucks to make sure that we don’t destroy a huge swath of ocean is reasonable.


I don’t believe in corporal punishment.

Regarding people who violate current regulations - I don’t care what your political affiliation is - you don’t deal with bad laws by breaking them (with some rare exceptions) - you deal with them via the democratic process. So even if I don’t like current regulations, that doesn’t mean I’d give anyone a pass for breaking them.

And, yes, when it comes to motivating corporations to do the ‘right’ thing - $$$ is the correct incentive.

You don’t seem to be much of a libertarian - and that is a compliment. Someone who wants to impose expensive regulations on a company to keep a few employees from scraping their kneecaps or something is just as irrational as someone who wants to avoid nearly all regulations because companies will never do the wrong thing for fear of punishment.
We’re not discussing current regulations, but whether they are warranted.
Money is a good incentive, but it has to be enough to make a difference, and not be treated as a cost of doing business. Shaming might work also. The restaurant inspectors in New York used to publish a list of restaurants that failed their follow-up inspection. It ran in the Sunday Times and was one of my favorite things to read. It worked too well, and they discovered that inspectors were shaking down restaurants by threatening to put them on the list. In California restaurants have to post their grade, and that is a far more effective way of keeping things clean than silently fining violators. A big red “P” on the smokestack of a polluter might do wonders.