Freedom Poverty

Monday, October 24, 2011

Forbes contributor Patrick Michaels discusses an interesting phenomenon taking place in Europe: As the worldwide depression continues to worsen, various "green" government schemes are going by the wayside. The whole article is worth reading, but I wish to comment briefly on a couple of points.

First, I think that Michaels misses an opportunity to learn a little bit more from history when he opens with the following:

History ... repeatedly shows that environmental protection is a luxury good. When per-capita income reaches some threshold, the citizenry tire of opaque air and sleazy waters, various agencies and permanent bureaucracies sprout, and, as long as times are good, regulation is good.


This all splatters to a halt when economies go south. And the crash can be especially jarring if greenness is one of the causes. Thanks in no small part to the debacle in Europe, in a very few recent weeks, we have witnessed the great green crack-up.
Michaels is right that, in a sense, such regulations are a luxury, but he falls too easily into the trap of giving false credence to the idea that capitalism causes pollution. As a result, he wrongly concedes that such regulations are also, in some sense, a necessity.

Regarding capitalism's assumed deficiencies in the clean air department, Alex Epstein of the Ayn Rand Institute has pointed out that pollution couldn't become such a problem under a system in which property rights are properly defined and protected under the law:
Under a pure capitalist system, as described in philosopher Ayn Rand's works, everything is privately owned. As a consequence, nature is preserved only to the extent that it benefits man. Companies cannot dump waste into rivers at whim, because those rivers are the property of someone else. The same applies to any other form of pollution that is harmful to man -- nobody wants to pollute their own property, and no one is allowed to pollute anyone else's, so waste management is handled in a very clean fashion.
No massive tomes of regulations required; and such "luxuries" as clean air arise in the same way that the entire cornucopia of other capitalist luxuries arise -- as a consequence of men being barred from harming each other, and so free to make (and act on) their best judgement. It is hardly a coincidence that, as I wish Michaels had noted, pollution in the communist world was much worse in many respects than it was in the relatively free non-communist world.

The second point follows from the first. When a government is premised not on protecting individual rights, but on prescribing how people are to act, the misguided crusades of its officialdom can, and often do, become threats to the quality of our lives when they don't threaten our very lives. In this vein, Michaels provides us with an excellent example of a "luxury" we can do without:
Guess what?  Electricity prices [due to mandated solar power subsidies (in Britain!)] have gone through the roof.  The average U.K. household bill is a tad under $200 per month, and so the thermostat goes down. It’s pretty chilly there for much of the year, and a cold house has consequences.  A study just came out today on the health costs of what they call "fuel poverty", commissioned by the Energy and Climate Change Secretary (don't we need one of  those?), Chris Huhne.  Bottom line: the chill from green taxes is now killing more Brits per year than car crashes. [bold added]
The biggest threat to our environment -- properly understood as the conditions, including freedom, that human beings require to live -- isn't "too much" government, but improper government. (You do need government to enforce property rights, for example.) The "energy poverty" seen in Britain is a real problem, but it is only a symptom of its underlying freedom poverty.

-- CAV


Vigilis said...

Communist pollution must include the Chernobyl plant's failed radiation containment, which not only sickened locals, but also inspired measurement-minded Swedes to ban consumption of animal and vegetable stocks from its northern regions (I know this first hand while in Sweden in the aftermath).

The aftermath of the U.S. Three Mile Island plant contrasts the benefits of capitalism, including legal protections and design standards rather sharply, Gus.

Enjoyed this piece, which I would have missed. Thanks for your highlighting!

Gus Van Horn said...

Regarding Chernobyl, I fully agree. It's a fine example, especially since its design is fundamentally unsafe.