I’m Voting Third-Party on November 8th, and Your Grandma-Lecturing Facebook Posts Won’t Change That

November 3, 2016

My Vote Is Not A Protest VoteThere Is No “Just This Once” in PoliticsVoting for the Lesser of Evils Enables a Race to the BottomI’m Voting for the FutureIt Takes All Kinds. • Third Party Presidential Candidates Build Party Visibility for Candidates at All Levels of GovernmentThe American Republican Party was Viable within Two Years and in the Oval Office Within SixI’m No More Selfish Than Any Other Self-Interested Voter Is On Election DaySummary


I’ve found that some of the most acerbic, haughty, and belligerent political critiques so far this election season to have been levied not at Donald Trump or his supporters but rather at us third party supporters who were more-or-less minding our own business before the travelling Grand Giugnol commonly referred to as “mainstream politics” came to town and dumped endless rivers of useless effluvium down our facebook feeds. Read the rest of this entry »

11 Questions to see if libertarians are hypocrites: Still lame, two years on [Typos corrected].

October 1, 2015


I read a post by one R. J. Eskow, when AlterNet and Salon.com first published it two years ago: 11 questions to see if libertarians are hypocrites. At the time, I thought about recording a YouTube selfie diatribe answering these questions, but I ended up not bothering after libertarian historian Tom Woods issued his podcast rebuttal. I declined to duplicate Tom’s fine work, and went on with the other things I had planned for that day. It was raining, so I tested my new tent for waterproofness. I actually got in there in the rain and hemmed up a couple pairs of pants, one of which I’m actually wearing right now. That’s called “multi-tasking”.

Here we are, two years on, and I’ve just received a request from a facebook friend to answer these questions. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise, but anything for a friend, right? Before I answer the questions, let’s get a few things straightened out:

Preface 1: Libertarians have more productive things to do than respond to inane Salon.com articles. Salon has thi [Intermission. I’m going to mow my lawn right now, since there is a break in the rain. … Start time: 9:23. Stop time 9:52] s stalkerish, obsessive compulsion to bash libertarians. Radley Balko profiled it in his piece entitled: Portrait of an obsession: Every Alternet and/or Salon headline about libertarians from the last three years. I’ve read many of the articles mentioned in that maniacal list, and I’ve found them bereft of useful insight and understanding of the subjects they were written to criticize—childishly so, not in the higher-level details. Trust me: If you find a Salon.com article with the word Libertarian in headline, or crowned with a photograph of Rand Paul, just skip it. Move on. Don’t read it, and—by God—don’t respond to it. Use your scarce time more productively. If I had responded to this article two years ago, I would not now be enjoying these righteously hemmed up pants. What will I wish I had in two years that I won’t have because I’m now wasting time responding to this? I’ll never know.

Preface 2: Asking a bunch of questions doesn’t necessarily make one insightful. It might just make one ignorant. R. J. Eskow doesn’t understand what libertarians believe? Join the club. A lot of people don’t get it. Fair enough. That’s what questions are for, and I’m happy to answer them for people who are interested in learning. I understand that R. J. Eskow is ignorant, but he doesn’t have to be a douche about it. A better title for this article would have been: I’m ignorant, so I’m asking libertarians these 11 questions because I want to learn something. Of course, that was neither the title nor the tone of the article. For me, a person who is becoming more conscious of how I spend my scarce time, I have to wonder: Will someone like R. J. Eskow exhibit genuine curiosity, and actually exert effort toward understanding what I have to say? If I don’t receive any indication that the answer will be yes, then I don’t see why I should have to bother—and if you’re reading this because you think R. J. Eskow is, like, “Wow, totally spot on, man!” because he phrases his ignorance in question form, then do yourself a favor and stop reading this right now. Go do something productive. Go bake a cake, or something. Make something. Do something that actually manifests in a product to show for your efforts. Increase your wealth. Stop wasting time on mental masturbation. If, on the other hand, you are genuinely curious about what libertarians think, and you’ll find that useful information to apply in your daily life, then read on.

Preface 3: Hypocrisy is a trumped-up charge, in my opinion. So what if R. J. Eskow proves that I’m a hypocrite with his little questions? That doesn’t that make the things I say about libertarianism incorrect. All he’s proven is that I’ve failed to attain my higher standards. This is in contrast to the norm of American political life, which is to set low standards and rarely fail. Think about it: If I go to the store, steal a candy bar, and speak nothing of it, that makes me a thief. If I go to the store, steal a candy bar, and then counsel all of my facebook friends about the social harm of stealing, that makes me a thief and a hypocrite. Fair enough, but I stand by what I say, even when I fail to live up to it. Contrast that with a typical lefty non-libertarian who counsels that stealing is wrong, unless voted into rightness by a critical mass of theives, who then steal a million candy bars en masse, and then congratulate themselves for not being hypocrites. Give me a libertarian hypocrite any day, who rightly counsels those around him to improve their world while personally failing, over any progressive popinjay, who, in ignorance, counsels those around him to injure their world, and they publicly succeed. Am I a hypocrite? Let us remove the issue the table, and stipulate for the purpose of this post that I am. Don’t we all fall short of perfection? Let us then take what I say on it’s merits, and stop pursuing meritless excuses for rejecting good advice.

Those issues hopefully having been clarified, let’s proceed with these 11 questions. When the author writes in his article, “a libertarian”, or “our libertarian”, I’ll assume he’s referring to me, personally, so I’ll substitute words to that effect in my responses.

#1) Are unions, political parties, elections, and social movements like Occupy examples of “spontaneous order”—and if not, why not?

Spontaneous human combustion: Almost as bad as a politicians.

Spontaneous human combustion: Almost as bad as politicians.

Sure they are, but bear in mind that libertarians don’t necessarily like everything that’s spontaneous. For example: Spontaneous human combustion is spontaneous. Libertarian don’t like spontaneously bursting into flames. We’d rather not do that. No, libertarians don’t love spontaneity.  Libertarians mention spontaneous order to reassure critics that people will get along well enough on this Earth without central planners micromanaging everyone’s lives—not because we have any particular love of spontaneity. Congratulations to unions and political parties on being spontaneous. If they could ever make themselves more useful than spontaneous human combustion, I would welcome them.

#2) Am I willing to admit that production is the result of many forces, each of which should be recognized and rewarded?

Yes on part one. Production is the result of many forces. Consider the story I, Pencil, by Leonard Read, to learn how libertarians acknowledge and appreciate this fact.

Part two is a passively-voiced half-thought. It’s missing an agent. Who, exactly, should do the rewarding? Only those who value the product should reward the many varied producers, and the reward should accord with the terms to which the producers agreed.

#3) Am I willing to acknowledge that workers who bargain for their services, individually and collectively, are also employing market forces?

Yes, sure. But (a) so are employers who fire workers for unionizing, so be careful with that one, and (b) let’s not kid ourselves. We all know that unions don’t limit their activities to benign bargaining. Answering, ‘Yes,’ to #3 is by no means an endorsement of all union activity.

#4) Am I willing to admit that a “free market” needs regulation?

Another passively-voiced half-thought. Does it matter whom I call upon to implement this regulation? The question doesn’t specify so I assume I’m free to choose anyone. So confident R. J. Eskow is to brand libertarians as hypocrites, at some point in his life must have heard one assert that markets self-regulate. I reckon the author doesn’t believe that markets self-regulate, but rather than offer insight, he substitutes a banal question.

Yes, markets need regulation, and hear this explanation: Regulation is a market function. It’s a service. If customers demand that service, suppliers will provide it. A more interesting question than whether a market needs regulation is how a market could possibly exist without regulation. They can’t. Markets self-regulate.

I reckon this explanation won’t satisfy R. J. Eskow, who attempted in his article to use the mortgage crisis to demonstrate that markets need regulation via threat of government force. He asserts that the mortgage problems occurred after the market was “deregulated”. Well, may I remind him that, in spite of any recent “deregulation”, that the whole of the banking and monetary systems are still centrally planned by a government institution? I think that detail is significant. The most R. J. Eskow can draw from his case study is that whereas the regulatory leviathan controlling the banking system a few decades ago was bad, the regulatory leviathan controlling the banking system in the years leading up to the mortgage crisis was horrendous. R. J. Eskow’s example offers no insight into the effects of actual deregulation. So it doesn’t really bear on his question—his real question, not his passively voiced half-thought:

Do people in their private dealings need for armed agents of the government to interfere, forcing them a threat to do some things, and prohibiting them at threat to do others? No. I don’t believe that that’s necessary, and I don’t believe R. J. Eskow’s chosen example demonstrates any such necessity.

#5) Do I believe in democracy? If yes, explain what’s wrong with governments that regulate.

“Believe in” isn’t very clear. Do I believe it exists? Do I believe it exists in America? Do I believe it works? Do I believe it is an appropriate method to settle all questions? Let me rephrase this question to get at what I think the author is getting at: Does an aggressive act that’s harmful when committed by an individual become beneficial when voted upon by a group? If so, at what number of voters does the harmful act become beneficial? I don’t think there is such a number. I think the act remains harmful, no matter how many people vote for it. So I don’t think I quite “believe in” democracy. I think it’s fine for voluntary associations, and not really so fine for wishing something harmful into something beneficial.

Elections are great. Just keep them to yourselves.

Elections are great. Just keep them to yourselves.

If I join the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo, Lodge No. 26., tomorrow then yes. As a member of that organization, I’d be interested to participate in their internal democracy, provided I’m free to leave the organization peacefully if I find that it no longer serves my interest. Believing in that, however, does not imply that I want the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo, Lodge No. 26., to show up on my doorstep uninvited to impose upon me the will of its uninformed membership.

My short answer is that democracy is adequate for resolving some issues, but not all issues. What’s wrong with governments that regulate? I don’t think the public, or the governments purporting to represent them, ought to be weighing in on or forcefully interfering with the private transactions of consenting parties. I do not believe that is an appropriate exercise of democracy, and I’ll leave Milton Friedman to finish the point:

#6) Do I use wealth that wouldn’t exist without government in order to preach against the role of government?

Yes, and here is my justification for doing so:

I don’t believe I could answer this question fairly without some accounting of the things I use that would not exist without government. R. J. Eskow prattles off several items in which the government has stuck its fingers: schools, intellectual property, computer technology, Internet, a communications web. His litany is insufficient for its purpose. Just because the government sticks its fingers in things, that doesn’t establish that these things couldn’t have existed, possibly in better form, but for government. I assert in my defense that a great many of the things I use would not only have come into being without the government’s meddling, but might actually have turned out better for it.

Secondly, the ways in which government routinely impoverishes its people are myriad. When I’m trying to run a business and the government taxes and regulates it into bankruptcy, I’m poorer for that. When I have to pay more for medicine because the government has blockaded off imports, I’m poorer for that. When the government criminalizes opportunity by interfering in my private affairs, I’m poorer for that. When the government destroys communities with its senseless prohibitions, I’m poorer for that. After all this, so what if the government leaves me a functional communications web that may well have come about in its absence anyway? Am I supposed to kiss its feet? I assert in my defense that to the extent I utilize wealth in which the government has stuck its fingers, the government has also made me at least that much poorer with its myriad interventions and prohibitions. So long as the government has left me a functional communications web, I’ll use it to preach against the government’s costly interventions. If that makes me a hypocrite, then so be it.

#7) Do I reject any and all government protection for my intellectual property?

Here’s a gotcha. R. J. Eskow can gloat over this on all the way home. He’s got me. I’m a hypocrite! Get this: I’m trying to run a genealogy services business, and part of what I do is take photos for people, some of which end up on online, often on the Find-A-Grave web site. The Find-A-Grave site says that I retain the intellectual property rights, so what I say to users of that site is that I release the photos under a Creative Commons Attribution licence, meaning that people are free to use the photos any way they want so long as the reasonably credit me for taking the photo. If they don’t credit me, then that’s technically a violation of the license that I can run to papa government to have enforced. Will I ever do that? Will I ever run to the government and say “Hey, please enforce this licence for me?” No, I’ll never bother. I leave the threat to loom. I’d like for my name to go with my images when people share them, but the threat is idle and toothless. Maybe I shouldn’t say that stuff about Creative Commons and I should say instead that I release all my works into the public domain. So yeah. He’s got me! I’ve been a hypocrite!

R. J. Eskow should know, anyhow, that there is a growing movement among libertarians to reject intellectual property, so he may not net as many hypocrites with this question as he thought he would. A lot of libertarians fully reject intellectual property.

#8) Why isn’t a democratically elected government the ultimate demonstration of “spontaneous order”? Do I recognize that democracy is a form of marketplace?

Let me remind those readers who have followed me this far: Libertarians aren’t infatuated with spontaneity. Spontaneous human combustion is also spontaneous, and I, as a libertarian, am not interested in spontaneously combusting. So yes, the democratically elected government is a demonstration of spontaneous order, and if democratically elected governments could ever make themselves more useful than spontaneous human combustion, then I might then appreciate them.

Is democracy a form of marketplace? The voluntary organization kind of democracy is. Again, if I join the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo, Lodge No. 26., participate in their internal democracy, and if I turn out not to like the result, then I can always easily leave for some competitor that offers a better product.

What about the involuntary kind that I believe the author is referring to, when people show up to your door uninvited and impose all manner of ill-considered public policies on you? Is that a marketplace? One must strain the imagination to make the comparison, but I believe it’s possible. I’ll say, “Yes, but gimme a break.”

I know you'll enjoy eating pepperoni pizza for the next four years. It was the result of a free and fair election!

I know you’ll enjoy eating pepperoni pizza for the next four years. It was the result of a free and fair election!

Imagine a “marketplace” in which every four years the public votes on what our collective pizza topping will be, for example. Suppose pepperoni wins the election this year—but suppose you don’t like pepperoni. Too bad. It’s pepperoni for you, for the next four years. If you really don’t like pepperoni, then the competition is that you have to pick up stakes at great personal expense and move to some other country, where maybe the collective pizza topping in power is less to your disliking. Repeat this process for everything you consume, in attempt to maximize the elections you win and minimize the elections you lose. Come on. Is this a marketplace? There are elements of competition, so I suppose it could possibly meet the bare minimum criteria for what could constitute a marketplace, but let’s get real. When democracy is imposed on everyone in a large geographical region, I’m pretty sure it’s the shittiest marketplace the imagination could possibly conjure.

#9) If big governments are bad, why are big corporations so acceptable? Do I recognize that large corporations are a threat to our freedoms?

When many corporations compete in a marketplace, no individual is under compulsion to deal with any particular corporation. The customers choose whom they deal with. Governments, by contrast, compel “customers” at threat of force to either deal with them or leave the country. Corporations have an incentive to behave well because they need to attract your business away from competitors. Governments have less incentive to behave well because utilizing the services of a competitor government is too expensive for most of the government’s “customers”.

Do I recognize that large corporations are a threat to our either our freedoms or to our general prosperity, or whatever? Sure. Yes I do, but relatively speaking corporations are less menacing to me because they have a stronger incentive than governments have to respond well to customer demands. Of course, corporations can go rogue. When they do, usually it is because governments have enabled them by either providing material support or undermining competitors who would do better work.

Maybe I can summarize: If the government is The Grinch, then Big Corporations are a seasick crocodile. Between the two of them, I’d choose the seasick crocodile. And it’s not even like that because I’m pretty sure that, over the course of my lifetime, big corporations have offered me a net benefit, whereas the government’s track record of generating benefits is a little less clear.

#10: Ayn Rand was an adamant opponent of good works, writing that “The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves.” That raises another test: Do I think that Rand was off the mark on this one, or do I agree that historical figures like King and Gandhi were “parasites”?

I’ve never read any Ayn Rand. I saw portions of her interview with Phil Donahue in which she criticized charity and altruism. I thought her comments were a little over-the-top. Here are her comments on that show. By the end of the clip even she admits that she is using harsh language for rhetorical purposes. So yes, I thought that comment was a bit off. As a libertarian, I don’t feel like I need to adopt everything she says and take it all literally, least of all this point about altruism.

#11) Libertarianism would have died out as a philosophy if it weren’t for the funding that’s been lavished on the movement by billionaires like Thiel and the Kochs and corporations like ExxonMobil. So our final question is:  If you believe in the free market, why weren’t you willing to accept as final the judgment against libertarianism rendered decades ago in the free and unfettered marketplace of ideas?

I’ve found the ideas of libertarianism to stand on their merits, irrespective of who funds them, and who else buys them in the marketplace of ideas. “Believing in” the free market, to me, means that I buy what I want, and everyone else buys what they want. It does not mean, to me, that I should want to buy what other people are buying. So too in the marketplace of ideas. If R. J. Eskow looks for other people to tell him what to think, that’s his business, and I’d thank him to leave me out of it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I had other things I wanted to do today. If I’ve made any typos, screw ’em. Okay, I broke down and made some minor revisions for clarity.

Thoughts on Property Rights

November 10, 2013
Thinking about property rights.

Thinking about property rights.

In the midst of a fruitful conversation with a critic of libertarianism, the following question arose:

I have been trying to pin you down for some time now to speak more clearly on what rights there are, could you please elaborate on to whom those rights belong. The right to be left alone, perhaps. I would like to be left alone to breathe clean air, enjoy clean water, eat clean food for example. My rights in this regard seem to be subjugated under a corporate right to pollute the public’s air with carbon emissions and other pollutants, dump calamitous amounts of oil and other carcinogens on the public’s beaches and to contaminate our national food supply with artificially genetically modified organisms that are now in the wild and affecting other growers who do not wish or want to use the technology. Is there a right to profit at the expense of public goods? Does it supersede an individual’s right to enjoy those public goods?

In regards to GMO’s, it is Monsantos position that if sell their goods to one farmer and the pollen blows over to the next farmer’s land, they (Monsanto) assert that they have a right to put the second farmer out of business for patent infringement. This is not a hypothetical. Where do libertarian beliefs fall in a case like this? Should the second farmer have to do business with Monsanto because of a chance gust of wind?

As I feel the answers to these questions are too long to write in one sitting, I chose to type it out here where I have the option to save drafts.

Anyone who has diligently considered the writings and ideas of libertarians has probably already come across the term homesteading. For those who are not familiar with how libertarians use the term, I will describe that first the best that I can, and I will use the situation described in the second paragraph to make the point. I’ll set the patent question aside for now, and consider first the more traditional conflict of unwanted items blowing away from one person’s land and onto the land of another.

The basic principle of homesteading is that the first person who arrives on the scene to use a resource establishes an ownership right over it. This is similar to john Locke’s famous Labor Theory of Property, whereby one who mixes his labor with the land comes into ownership of the land. That ownership follows from labor does not necessarily follow logically, as the libertarian theorist Robert Nozick observed, but I believe most reasonable people would agree that those who work on unclaimed resources ought to retain the benefits of their labor. Traditionally, original land owners have erected boundaries around the areas they have appropriated through use, and excluded others from entering. Homesteading offers a more flexible alternative to rigid boundary lines in determining how the first user of one plot of land may also use surrounding land for some purposes. Murray Rothbard used the example of an airport, which emits sound beyond its geographic boundaries. The owners of the airport have homesteaded the surrounding land for the specific purposes of propagating sound waves and as a through-way for low flying aircraft, provided no prior resident comes forward to oppose these user. Those who later wish to move in next to the airport may do so, provided they acknowledge and accept the prior established use of the land.

The first in time principle should settle the dispute between the farmers. Imagine a farming town out in Farm Country called Frankentown. The farmers of Frankentown have all used GMO seeds from Monstanto for generations. Nobody has ever raised any objection. The farmers of Frankentown have all homesteaded their neighbors’ land for the limited purpose of blowing frankenpollen there. Suppose one of the farmers in the center of Frankentown sells his farm to the tight-jeaned and bespectacled Hipsterfarmer, who wants to start Frankentown’s first organic farm. I believe Hipsterfarmer should run into trouble, because the other farmers in Frankentown have homesteaded Hipsterfarmers land for the purpose of blowing frankenpollen all over it, that being the earlier established and accepted use of the land. Alternatively, imagine another farming town, across the river, called Organicsville. The farmers of Organicsville have all resisted using Monsanto’s GMO seeds because they are wary of heretofore undiscovered potential health and environmental effects. Organicsville is proudly GMO free by choice. Suppose one of the farmers of Organicsville sells his land to the wild-eyed, lab-coated mad scientist, Frankenfarmer, who wishes to try out his new experimental frankenseeds right in the heart of Organicsville. I believe Frankenfarmer should run into trouble, as his pollen blow-over would substantially interfere with his neighbor’s prior use of proudly growing GMO free crops. Frankenfarmer must either build himself some sort of biodome or build his farm elsewhere, as otherwise the blow-over of frankenpollen onto neighboring land would present a nuisance for which the neighboring organic farmers out to be entitled to relief.

In the situation offered in the question, an inquiry into the history of the use of each property should offer guidance. The earlier established and unchallenged use of the land should prevail. The later arriving farmer is not entitled to impose a restriction upon the earlier established farmer. Future uses should be allowed so long as they do not conflict with the prior use. Prior farmers are not entitled to relief of future nearby uses unless they can show a conflict. Now that I have described the rights and responsibilities of the farmers with regard to one another, I’ll discuss the Monsanto patent issue.

The libertarian community is split on the issue of intellectual property. Many libertarians would decide against Monsanto simply upon reading the word patent. I personally discourage the use of state power whenever possible, so I would scrutinize Monsanto’s patent claims very closely. Based on what little information is offered in the question, Monsanto’s claim seems frivolous to me, but I would like to read Monsanto’s complaint to understand the basis for its action. If Monsanto could perhaps establish that the new farmer moved adjacent to the farm that was using Monsanto seeds for the hidden purpose of receiving the benefits of Monsanto’s frankenpollen without paying for them, then Monsanto could potentially have a claim that the newer farmer intentionally pirated Monsanto’s technology. The claim seems far-fetched to me, and since I’m inclined to disfavor intellectual property claims anyway, I would presume that the invasion of frankenpollen upon the aggrieved farmer was an unwanted nuisance unless Monsanto established otherwise under a heavy burden of proof.

You would like to be left alone to breathe clean air. I believe that you have properly stated a legitimate claim. Unfortunately, 19th century American court judges began our national trend against vindicating these sorts of claims. I recall reading the following passage from the New York case Losee v. Buchanan, 51 N.Y. 476 (1873), in law school. In that case, a steam boiler at a paper mill exploded. Pieces of it flew onto a neighbor’s lawn and caused damage. I assume that the paper mill did not homestead the surrounding land for the purpose of receiving pieces of exploded machinery. This was not an established prior use of the land. Nevertheless, the court found for the defendant paper mill, reasoning as follows:

By becoming a member of civilized society, I am compelled to give up many of my natural rights, but I receive more than a compensation from the surrender by every other man of the same rights, and the security, advantage, and protection which the laws give me. So, too, the general rules that I may have the exclusive and undisturbed use and possession of my real estate as not to injure my neighbor, are much modified by the exigencies of the social state. We must have factories. machinery, dams, canals, and railroads. They are demanded by the manifold wants of mankind, and lay at the basis of all our civilization. If I have any of these on upon my lands, and they are not a nuisance, and are not so managed to become as such, I am not responsible for any damage they accidentally and unavoidably do my neighbor. He receives his compensation for such damages by the general good, in which he shares, and the right which he has to place the same things upon his lands. I may not place or keep a nuisance upon my land to the damage of my neighbor, and I have my compensation for the surrender of this right to use my own as I will by the similar restriction imposed upon my neighbor for my benefit. I hold my property subject to the risk that it may be unavoidably or accidentally injured by those who live near me; and as I move about the public highways and in all places where others may lawfully be, I take the risk of being accidentally injured in my person by them without fault on their part. Most of the rights of property, as well as of person, in the social state are not absolute but relative, and they must be so arranged and modified, not unnecessarily infringing upon natural rights, as upon the whole to promote the general welfare.

The bold portions here are the ones that I highlighted in my textbook. This is but one example of the public courts subjugating the property rights of individuals to the “right” of factory owners to create nuisances, so long as those nuisances might be described as either “accidental” or “unavoidable”. In For a New liberty, Murray Rothbard described how courts applied the same reasoning to air pollution, i.e. factory pollution is necessary for the “common good”. I recall hearing in one of the many lectures I’ve listened to over the years that homemakers used to take factory owners to court over the factory soot that would sully the laundry hanging on their lines, among other things. Before long, courts favored the factories over the homemakers. The courts based their decisions to allow pollution on appeals to the general welfare and the common good. Modern non-libertarians now use the same appeal to advocate for stricter government controls on businesses. The common good seems to be whatever the advocates of any policy say it is. Strict enforcement of individual property rights, on the other hand, is a more objective and predictable principle upon which to settle disputes. Property rights are established in the manner described above, with the earlier established use prevailing..

Libertarians would have enforced individual property rights in the case of the paper mill, in the case of the homemaker hanging laundry on the line, and in the case of your lungs. Courts should vindicate any claim you may have against any polluter and award you damages. The trend of the 19th century was for courts not to do so, thereby enabling the proliferation of pollution. The trend of the 20th century has been to promulgate regulations to prevent pollution, rather than return to enforcing property rights. I believe this is an example of one of the underlying tensions between libertarians and non-libertarians: Whereas libertarians would rather deter harmful conduct by vindicating claims retroactively in court, non-libertarians would prevent harm proactively with regulation. Both strategies have merit, but I believe non-libertarians consistently fail to acknowledge the high opportunity costs of regulation. Many businesses that would create many useful things for many people are either shut down or never start up on account of regulation, and the harm averted through regulation is often overstated. This is a great boon to wealthy corporations who enjoy the reduced competition when start-ups that can not afford to abide by the regulations are put out of business. The libertarian strategy would allow these start-ups to continue, to innovate their own solutions to the problems of nuisance and pollution, and hold them strictly accountable if harm results from their failure to do so.

I believe there are some few situations in which strict enforcement of property rights is impractical. If some few identifiable factories create a known pollution problem, bringing them to justice is relatively straightforward. On the other hand, when innumerable perpetrators each contribute tiny transgressions that aggregate into a larger problem, I recognize that bringing them each to their tiny individual justices presents a logistical problem where resources for administering justice are limited. Pollution from automobile exhaust is the prime example when it aggregates into smog and climate change. In the absence of a practical way to administer justice against all transgressors, I’m willing to consider other suggestions for reducing aggregated harm, provided the courtesy is returned to me when I request an honest confrontation of the economic effects of the suggestions.

The “cap and trade” issue arose in another thread. The first time I heard of this policy was in a Mises Institute podcast by the libertarian economics professor Walter Block. He advocated the policy as a market substitute. So long as the market fails, a market substitute should be the next best option. When the policy later came into public prominence, I was surprised to see opposition to it from conservatives and libertarians, but I probably should not have been. I know Ron Paul came out against it. As far as I’m concerned, “cap and trade” might be the best of a number of bad options, and I would tolerate that until innovators introduce better alternatives. I think libertarians generally prefer to deny what they consider to be “the global warming religion” rather than confront the thorny property rights question, which is unfortunate. I am not a climatologist, so I avoid opining on that subject. I believe instead that thoughtful libertarians who have not studied climatology should have a set of principles ready to apply in the case that the climate science on global warming is true, in addition to the case that it is false. In my observation, logistical problems arise in this special case of aggregation when attempting to enforce an otherwise noble and beneficial theory of property rights.

I think progressives err, however, by taking this principle of aggregated harm too far and using it to justify all manner of injurious interventions. I’ve spoken with progressives who believe that everything everybody does affects everybody else entirely, as if they had derived their political philosophy from the label of a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap. This is a mistake. I maintain that the vast majority of rights violations involve a limited number of identifiable perpetrators who should be brought to justice as individuals before the public should call upon government to impose a one-size-fits-all regulatory burden on all perpetrators and non-perpetrators alike.

You would like to be left alone to enjoy clean water, and have lamented the dumping of oil and carcinogens onto public beaches. I agree that pollution of waterways is unfortunate, but the problem as I see it is that the government, having decreed itself to be the owner of the rivers and oceans, has failed diligently to enforce its own self-granted property rights. The government should relinquish these rights to private parties who would better enforce them. Citizens will always demand to enjoy clean water. In the marketplace, businessmen should earn profits by servicing that need, and the businessmen who do will have a direct interest in diligently policing the waterways that they have put to that use. Their livelihoods will depend on it. The trouble with government ownership of the waterways is that, since the livelihoods of bureaucrats do not depend on the cleanliness of the waters they oversee, the bureaucrats have a lesser incentive to keep these waters enjoyable. In one famous incident, the government encouraged deep water off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, where underwater problems would be more difficult to solve, by offering discounted leases to oil prospectors to drill in these areas. The government oversaw regulation of the drilling,which many critics described as lax. The government limited oil company liability by law, almost as if the government was disinterested in enforcing its own self-granted property rights.

I believe this is not a shortcoming of any particular political party. I believe that electing more democrats or more greens will not solve this problem, although that might help. The best solution, from the libertarian point of view, would be to put these waters under the direct control of the people whose livelihoods directly rely on their being clean and enjoyable. The government’s arbitrary ideas about its own alleged property rights do not serve the people. The Supreme Court recently heard a dispute over the ownership of Montana’s rivers. Long ago, the federal government granted property rights over the “navigable” rivers to state governments. Where the federal government got this authority is beyond me, but that’s beside the point. The point is that the determination of ownership turned on whether the waters were navigable at the time of Montana’s entry into the union. This entailed, among other fanciful things, a review of the journals of Lewis and Clark for their assessments of the navigability of the waters. This arbitrary method for determining property rights is nothing short of madness, but it the sort of madness one should expect from a bureaucrats who assert ownership over the rivers without basis, and whose livelihoods do not directly depend on the rivers’ use and enjoyability. Libertarians would credit and respect the earliest established use of the rivers and disallow later conflicting uses. Regarding river pollution, I believe many of our more harmful toxins were developed after uses for the rivers have been established, and private owners of the rivers should have had greater standing and reason to challenge the harmful dumping of chemicals in them.

You would like to be left alone to eat clean, GMO-free food. This claim of right is not like the others, each of which involve some element of a commons or a public good. Air is an ever-moving resource, from which every living being draws, that defies capture and private ownership. Government has asserted ownership over waters and riverbeds and holds them in common allegedly for the public benefit. In no similar way, except perhaps to hunter-gatherers, is food a public good. Any food item that was grown by a farmer is the farmer’s private property until he sells it to another party. Only the farmer has standing to challenge the misconduct of another that has made his food unclean, although his customers may support him in this action. In most situations, however, I find that the farmers themselves have caused the alleged uncleanliness through practices common enough to be called “conventional”. Farmers who wish to deliver a higher quality, more pristine, more unconventional product should establish farms for that purpose, provided they do not impose upon earlier established uses of the land. Courts should enjoin later conflicting uses of neighboring lands would diminish the quality of these farmers’ crops. At no time, however, do end consumers enjoy a right to clean, GMO free food. Any such alleged right is subject to the willingness and ability of some farmer to produce the same. If no farmer produces the same, then consumers must either accept the conventional food products on offer or produce their own unconventional food (i.e. be the change they wish to see).

A final observation about the subject of externalities. You mentioned in a subsequent post:

Corporations, by law and tradition, are duty bound to derive profit regardless of costs to others. To this end, corporations must externalize all the possible costs of their operations onto others. In other words, they must, to the greatest extent possible, force upon others the payment of those costs they create, that they can discharge. Pollution of the environment is but one of these externalizable costs. Thus, if they can dispose of their waste products safely, but it is less expensive to the corporation to spew the wastes into the environment and harms others by depriving them of clean air, water or soil, they are duty bound to do so.

I am familiar with the rule of law, and I oppose it. I learned it in law school as the “business judgment rule” articulated in Dodge v. Ford Motor Company, 204 Mich. 459 (1919). In my opinion, the corporation should be duty bound only to be open, frank, and honest with shareholders with their future intentions for their businesses, and leave shareholders to decide whether to continue holding stock in the company in light of those intentions. Many shareholders might appreciate a move toward better corporate citizenship in spite of a reduction in profits. Many conscientious investors evaluate corporate citizenship when deciding whether to buy shares in the first place. I was once a member of Co-op America, now Green America, which assisted novice investors in doing just that through a process I believe they called green investing. So I oppose this rule of law that encourages the money über alles attitude in the conduct of business. As you have stated, and as I agree, other interests are at stake.

I believe the discussion above should have clarified the libertarian view on externalities and how courts ought to remedy claims of intrusion. Remember, however, that not every claim of injury or cost imposed on a neighbor deserves a remedy. Only valid claims deserve a remedy. As mentioned above, those first in time enjoy rights over later comers in the use of neighboring land. Also, if a new market entrant competes with an established business for customers, no violation of right occurs if the established business loses business. The established business enjoys rights over its property, but not over the minds of customers who might choose to patronize competitors.

Lastly, private businesses are not the only ones who impose externalities on others. Governments do it in spades, with one obvious example being the outcomes of elections. If a candidate wins an election by 55%, the election immediately imposes a four-year externality on the 45% of voters who would have preferred a different outcome. Prof. Tom DiLorenzo delivered a lecture called Economics of the Public Sector in which he described many political externalities that seem to go unaccounted for by those who recommend government solutions to private externalities. I highly recommend a listen.

There will always be questions, I’m sure, but I hope I have made some in-roads here to your understanding of how libertarians like myself apportion rights.