Grant McDermott bio photo

Grant McDermott

Assistant Professor
Dept. of Economics
University of Oregon

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Like, take it easy, Man.
Disclaimer: I've conflated a lot of libertarianism/Austrianism in post. This was partly for simplicity, but also because I'm recalling a personal exchange where the people involved were familiar with each other's ideological beliefs. My advice before continuing; if the shoe fits, wear it. If not, don't. 


Fresh on the heels of my discussion on the roll of tort law in controlling pollution, say nothing of the asteroid vs taxes showdown, here is another take on the moral implications of dogmatic libertarianism in the presence of negative externalities. In particular, David Sobel argues that strict/deontological libertarianism takes us to untenable places if applied to climate change (and other pollution problems affecting "the commons"):
Libertarianism and Pollution

One might try saying that we are better off because people polluted, or flew, or whatever. If previous generations had been forbidden from doing this, we would have much less material wealth. But again, I might be better off if someone straps me down and involuntarily gives me a root canal, but still, I would have thought, that does not show that doing so does not violate my Libertarian rights. The polluter seems to not leave as much and as good air, water, whatever, for the rest of us, thus seemingly violating the Lockian Proviso. One might try to compensate for the loss but I don’t see how to put a price on the loss. One might give the loss a market price but I might truthfully not have been willing to make the trade at that price. One could try asking me what price I want, but that will result in strategic issues and some rabid anti-pollution folks who will not sell at any price.
Sobel continues in a follow-up post (Property Rights and Moral Seriousness), in which he basically says that failure to distinguish various degrees of rights violations forces libertarians into ridiculous positions:
Now if [all] rights violation were treated as just as morally important as taking someone’s organs against her will, then, since there will be many such rights violations as a result of the pollution, surely such pollution would be impermissible. But this would shut down much of the economy of the world we are imagining and it would radically restrict the liberties of people in such a world. 
[HT: Bleeding Heart Libertarians]

===

Without being too self-congratulatory, I've been trying to point out the same issues to dogmatic libertarian friends of mine for some time. Here is part of an email that I wrote to one such friend last year:
I actually think that the Austrian/Libertarian perspective is particularly weak in this area [i.e. dealing with climate change], given its slavish fixation on property rights. Consider the hypothetical case of some hippie refusing to bargain for any climate change impacts on his property... Let’s just imagine that his love for the environment is not for sale. As far as I understand, he would have the right to enjoin all activities threatening his property under a strict Libertarian framework. Is that correct? If so, couldn’t we literally see a complete shutdown of industry based on the preferences of a very small portion of the population?
My friend responded by saying that other people would hold vastly different subjective valuations of the hippie's property (e.g. $5 versus $5 trillion). Following this, he made the assertion that: "Whatever our subjective valuations are, there will be a market price for this against which the hippie's claim would be measured, to see whether it is reasonable or not." He went on to add that the courts would eventually decide who's claim is most reasonable. I replied:
You haven't answered the question... And it appears that you are abandoning your principles and embracing mine; which would make sense to me, as I can't see the Austrian property fixation holding up to broader logic and a sense of social justice or, (warning: bad word ahead) fairness.  

This is how I understand the "Austrian" position:  

If it is my property, then \(-\) excluding murder and so forth \(-\) I am the only person entitled to decide what happens there. Non-coercion and all that, right? Since we've just been discussing subjective value, isn't it also irrelevant what price you or any other person (including the court) would accept or deem fair for climate change impacts to the hippie's property? He owns this land and $5 trillion is his valuation. To be strictly consistent with your original theory, the court would have to accept that the hippie's subjective value as the only one that ultimately counts... whether everyone else regards it as ridiculous or not. 

A simple thought experiment: Let's imagine it as an extreme version of 'The Castle' [brilliant movie if you haven't seen it - Ed]. Except now substitute the Kerrigins with the hippie, and the Melbourne Airport Company with CO2-emitting industries around the world. The Kerrigins didn't want to move and, ultimately, the courts forbade the Airport company from expanding despite all their financial sweeteners as recompense. In this case, the hippie also doesn't care for generous financial compensation and won't move either. Industry has to stop activities or else find a way to emitting the carbon that impacts the hippie's property. Again: he would ostensibly have the right to enjoin ALL activities impacting his property. 

Of course, I don't regard this is a reasonable position to support. That's why I don't subscribe to it. I think that, somewhere along the line, we have to try and incorporate broader social welfare calculations that transcend the unyielding veto of private property rights. However, as far as I can tell, my little scenario above encapsulates your position pretty well if taken to it's logical conclusion. Either you stick to your guns by accepting that the owner's subjective valuation of his own property right is sacrosanct, and that he has the final say on what happens on his land... Or, you override his subjective valuation through court decision, but betray your fundamental principles in the process. 
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Making compromises is part of life. Taking the dogmatic/ deontological libertarian position to its ultimate conclusion often leads - I believe - to untenable outcomes. The case of global warming is a prime example. Libertarians that slavishly hold personal property rights above all else would inadvertently open the way for eco-fundamentalists to enjoin virtually all industrial activity. In doing so, they would threaten to form an unholy coalition that makes it impossible for society to react to an immensely complex problem in any sensible way. They would, in effect, become Baptists and Bootleggers for the 21st century.

Sisters: Doing it for themselves