Infinite Sink No More


Earth day 1970 has come and gone; millions of students, thousands of newsmen, and hundreds of authors have demonstrated that ecology is The Issue of 1970. Given this popularity it is hardly surprising that those with axes to grind are sharpening them on ecology. Congressmen propose (literally) thousands of new laws, professional anticapitalists blame environmental destruction on free enterprise, New Leftists advocate revolution to save the environment, and advocates of Zen announce that only they can lead us back into harmony with nature. In the midst of all this shouting, one could hardly be blamed for assuming that the whole issue was merely a further symptom of our culture's prevailing irrationality. Rationality however, demands that ecology be given a closer look to see whether or not, behind all the rhetoric, there really is an issue.

There really is.

Unfortunately, some very serious things have been happening to man's natural environment:

In the U.S. every year some 72 million tons of carbon monoxide, 26 million tons of sulfur oxides, 13 million tons of nitrogen oxides, 19 million tons of hydrocarbons, and 11 million tons of carbon particles are poured into the air by factories, homes, and automobiles.1 Automobiles also discharge 250 million pounds of lead into the air each year.2

"Killer smogs" have resulted in deaths in Donora, Pa. in 1948, London in 1952 and 1962, and New York in 1953 and 1966. The 1952 London smog was responsible for some 4000 deaths.3

Increasing acidity of rain and snow, due to sulfur oxides from German and British smokestacks, is leading to destructive changes in trees and fish life in Norway.4 Los Angeles' smog is killing trees in San Bernardino, 80 miles to the east.

Annual U.S. property damage from air pollution is estimated at $12 billion by a group at MIT.5

A million tons of oil are released into the oceans every year, both accidentally and on purpose, from oil tankers. The Sargasso Sea now contains a permanent oil slick covering several hundred square miles.6 Petroleum constituents are entering the oceanic food chain and could eventually reach kitchen tables.

Over one billion pounds of active DDT still exist, either in the soil or in rivers, lakes, and the ocean.7As it moves up the food chain, DDT is progressively concentrated—the amount found in nursing mothers is often 2 to 6 times greater than that allowed in milk for commercial sale.

Lake Erie is "dead," having become so choked with algae, in response to sewage and other pollution, that the oxygen content decreased below the level required to sustain life. The same thing is happening to Chesapeake Bay and numerous other lakes and rivers.

Examples such as these could be multiplied indefinitely. It should be clear that profound changes are taking place in the environment, many of which may pose direct or indirect threats to people's lives and property.

Some Political Responses

As ominous as the damage to the environment, is the caliber of the political responses. Happy politicians indeed are those who find an issue which appears to be virtually as "safe" as the flag and apple pie. Having chosen ecology as their issue, politicians then proceed to do what they know best how to do: create programs and bureaus and tax revenue to finance them. Thus, Nixon's State of the Union message promised "the most comprehensive and costly program in the nation's history," spearheaded by a "muscled, direct-action agency." To which Senator Muskie added, "We [the government] must spend much more [taxpayers'] money."8 Over 1200 measures affecting water resources were introduced in the last session of Congress; 12 Senate committees vie for the ecology spotlight, as do 13 in the House.

And how well do the government programs work? Several examples will illustrate the inherent drawbacks of politicizing environmental problems. The most obvious difficulty, already much noted, is that more than one government wants to get in on the action, leading frequently to conflicting regulations. Inter-government disputes are of minor consequence, however, compared with the defects inherent in government regulatory agencies. As Ralph Nader and other "liberals" are painfully discovering, there seems to be a regular pattern in the history of such agencies—they invariably come to represent and serve the special interests of the established companies in the industry supposedly being regulated. The ICC, the FTC, the FDA—all have been carefully investigated by Nader's Raiders over the last two years and the same pattern has been uncovered in each. The main function of the agency, it turns out, becomes to protect the regulated industry from competition, while giving the government the appearance of "protecting" the consumer from the industry. All of which works out nicely for the Congressman passing the regulations (who can pose as champions of "the people"), the industry leaders (who can get by with far less effort and fewer uncertainties), and the regulatory agency bureaucrats (who can look forward to fat retirement jobs on the boards of directors of the regulated industries).

Generally, cozy arrangements of this type are supposed to take a number of years to develop. Yet the 3-year old National Air Pollution Control Agency already shows signs of deterioration. A recent AP story disclosed that between 70 and 80% of all new cars coming off the assembly lines do not meet the NAPCA exhaust emission standards, even though this is required by the Air Quality Act of 19679 Added Rep. Paul Rogers "…what's more amazing is that the NAPCA knows this and has known this." What has been going on is simple: the auto manufacturers submitted hand-tuned prototype automobiles to NAPCA for testing; NAPCA obligingly "assumed" that because the prototypes met the standards, obviously the production models would. So they never checked the production models!

In a similar vein, Secretary of Interior Hickel recently blasted Chevron Oil for not meeting Interior Department regulations regarding safety valves on the offshore drilling rig which leaked tons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Geological Survey stated that Chevron had committed 347 violations of federal drilling regulations.10 Years of living with government regulations and placating bureaucrats appear to have led the oil industry into the typical "special relationship" with its regulators. The emphasis, rather than on protecting the environment, is instead on getting away with the minimum compliance with regulations, with the tacit approval of the bureaucrats. Given the thoroughly politicized nature of the situation, incidents like the Santa Barbara and Gulf coast oil spills are inevitable.

Therefore, although proposals for stronger regulations and more regulatory agencies continue to be advanced, it seems highly unlikely that they will accomplish very much more than create thousands more government jobs, roundup millions of votes for environmentally-conscious lawmakers, and reduce even further competition in still more industries that come under the jurisdiction and protection of the new agencies.

Several "liberal" Senators are trying a somewhat different approach. On January 20, Sen. Gaylord Nelson announced that he intends to introduce a Constitutional amendment asserting "the right of every American to a decent environment."11 Sen. Nelson is supported in this plan by Sen. Henry Jackson, whose proposed amendment to the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act included an "environmental bill of rights" asserting that "each person has a fundamental and inalienable right to a healthful environment."11 (Sen. Jackson's amendment was defeated, but he intends to introduce it again this year.) One can sympathize with the Senators' concern that a fundamental change in the legal system, rather than more and more bureaucracy, is required. Unfortunately, the facts of reality cannot be changed by legislative whim (or by Constitutional amendment). There is no such thing as a right to a "healthful environment"—are we to eliminate the flu or malaria by declaring them illegal? Shall blizzards be outlawed because they lead to frostbite and heart attacks? Likewise there can be no right to a "decent" environment, since "decent" may mean different legitimate ends to different people. To many "environmentalists" a decent environment would be one without freeways, power lines, and subdivisions. To pass Sen. Proxmire's amendment would be to abandon any pretext of objective law, in favor of an orgy of subjectivism and interest-group welfare, as each group sought to exert control over everyone else, to ensure that its version of a "decent environment" were enforced.

Some Other Responses

As bad as the political proposals are, they are only a sample of the sloppy thinking that appears to be running rampant outside the political arena—in business and academic circles. Perhaps because the problems of the environment are so large and complex, many otherwise reasonable people seem to be unable or unwilling to deal rationally with them; since we've never faced such problems before, they appear to be saying, our past experience is irrelevant. Economists—and even businessmen—are lamenting the "fact" that the market mechanism cannot deal with pollution (not that it has so far failed to do so, but that it is incapable of doing so).

Thus, for example, we find David Kiefer, Senior Editor of Chemical and Engineering News, in his "Business Perspectives" column writing that, due to the new awareness of pollution:

"The classical concept that an economy's resources are allocated most efficiently through the free interplay in the marketplace of supply and demand, prices and utility, may prove less meaningful in the future. The time-honored theory that a market economy works best when buyers and sellers are permitted to act unhampered in their own interests through countless individual transactions will seem less in touch with reality."12

At the last American Economic Association meeting in New York, Harvard economist Kenneth J. Arrow advanced the thesis that pollution is evidence of a wide divergence between the "private costs" and "social costs" of goods, the latter cost including environmental effects. Arrow considers the price system of the free market to be defective in dealing with environmental effects, which he terms "externalities" (i.e., by definition outside the market process). According to a Business Week report, Arrow "proved by mathematical formulation that society would be better off if it developed some 'nonmarket mechanisms' for allocating resources where private costs and social costs were substantially different."13

At the same meeting John Kenneth Galbraith (after blaming pollution on the "sovereign" producer's careless pursuit of consumer satisfaction) called for "'the replacement of the sovereign producer with the sovereign state' in determining society's pattern of consumption."13 Galbraith elsewhere has attacked the concept of economic growth, as indicated by a rising Gross National Product. Nor is Galbraith alone; economist Kenneth Boulding states that the GNP is a measure appropriate to the "cowboy economy" of the frontier in which production and consumption (throughput) are considered good by definition.14 However, in the "spaceman economy" foreseen by Boulding, the concern will not be with growth, but rather with the efficiency by which a fixed level of activity is maintained. In this static economy, throughput is supposed to be minimized, not maximized. Boulding bases his case for a "spaceman economy" on two premises—the exhaustibility of resources and the limited capacity of the environment to sustain damage from pollution.

As economists go, Galbraith and Boulding are taking fairly radical views. Compared to the views of many environmentalists, however, the economists are conservatives. Although the specifics vary greatly, the trend among a number of prominent environmentalists is to denounce technology, as such, as the cause of pollution. Microbiologist Barry Commoner, in a Time cover story, called for "a complete overhaul of the progress through technology ethic."15 One of the classic papers developing this rationale is the 1967 Science article by UCLA historian Lynn White, Jr. entitled "The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis."16 White searches the history of western thought and finds that the dominant view always has been that man should have dominion over nature. This view helped pave the way for western man's technological developments, from water power to agricultural mechanization to the steam engine; similarly, in the 19th century this view of man helped to foster the marriage of the scientific approach to knowledge with rapidly-developing practical technology, leading to the massive technological achievements of the 20th century. All of this does not seem to impress White very much; focusing on the side effects of this technology, he argues that more science and technology are not going to prevent a "disastrous ecologic backlash" and that what is needed is to "find a new religion, or rethink our old one." We should abandon the view of man as conqueror of nature in favor of the ideals of St. Francis of Assisi and Zen Buddhism. (The reader should remember that this appeared in the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.)

The New Left, needless to say, has picked up on this line of thought with a vengeance. A recent Los Angeles Free Press article exemplifies this viewpoint:

"The Greek rationalism of Aristotle, the Roman Engineering mentality, the biblical anthropomorphic injunctions to 'have dominion over the land and subdue every creeping thing, the post-Enlightenment notions of growth and progress, the present technical corporate economic systems motivated by competition—all dominate the Western mentality of man against nature. Where nature works toward harmony, cooperation, and interdependence, advanced industrial society works toward growth, competition, and independence. The advanced nation state works in direct opposition to those basic life-giving instincts which have nourished our billion-year evolution. To repeat: the domination of man by man and man over nature are two sides of the same coin."17 (italics added)

Even some libertarians appear to have been swayed by this line of thinking, to the point where one hears some of them lamenting such things as "irreversible depletion of natural resources" and questioning whether mankind's survival might not demand some form of coercive "whole-earth" master plan or "trustees of the earth" to limit population growth and prevent the "permanent loss of resources." All of which suggests the need for hard analysis to determine the true problems, their causes, their solutions.

For the purposes of this discussion, pollution will be defined as the transfer of harmful matter or energy to the person or property of another, without the latter's consent. Thus, oil spilled on a beach, soot falling on a house, sulfur dioxide impinging on a man's lungs—all are cases in which the by-product of some sort of legitimate productive activity is carelessly discarded from the producer's property (factory, automobile, etc.), causing harm to the person or property of someone else.

Why do we have such serious amounts of pollution in a country supposedly based firmly on the right to life and property? The first reason is that, for the most part, serious pollution is a fairly recent phenomenon. Once it was true, as the engineering textbooks blithely state, that the air or a river or the ocean was an "infinite sink," i.e. a body whose mass is so great that its essential properties are unchanged by the minuscule additions which man could make, in the form of smoke or chemicals or sewage. (Or as Norman Mailer put it, during his campaign for mayor of New York, "Remember when you were a kid and they said that air is invisible…and it was?"). For centuries, pollution existed only in specific locations (like factory towns), from which one was always free to leave if bothered by the pollution.

Only in mid-twentieth century did the combination of accelerating population and a rapidly-rising standard of living produce widespread pollution of such a magnitude that large numbers of people were aware of definite harm to their persons or property. Unfortunately, our mixed-premise, slow-moving legal system has been extremely negligent in providing people with full protection of their lives and property. As Murray Rothbard recently pointed out18, when the courts have been confronted with cases of industrial polluters vs. injured citizens, the courts have historically ruled in favor of industry, considering pollution to be a "necessary evil." Thus, the absence in the law of a clear-cut, consistent definition of rights has allowed the present situation to develop.

The level of pollution would be nowhere near as great if population were not expanding so rapidly, giving rise to more and more cars, power plants, sewage, etc. Thus, a second fact of central importance is that population is growing rapidly all over the world, greatly affecting any considerations of pollution, conservation and use of resources, or economic growth. In this regard, there is a lesson to be learned from the population problems of the "third world"—the underdeveloped countries.

Experts in population biology, such as Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford, warn that in most of these countries the rate of population growth is rapidly outstripping the growth in food supply, to the point where massive famines can be expected within ten years. How has this situation come about? The single most important cause has been government. Acting in accordance with their philosophy of collectivism, the governments of these backward countries, aided by the U.S., enacted massive "public health" programs aimed at wiping out many diseases which had previously taken a heavy toll. As a result the death rate dropped very substantially. Unfortunately, the birth rate (of the now-larger population) remained the same, as the people continued having the large numbers of children which they had traditionally needed to have, in order to offset the high infant mortality rate. Only now, due to the public health measures, most of the children survived, to grow up and reproduce in an economy barely above the subsistence level.

In a libertarian society, if food supply, shelter, clothing, jobs, etc. were in short supply, this "feedback" would tend to act as a check on the birth rate, as people learned they could not adequately support large numbers of children. In the underdeveloped countries, however, government has frequently acted to destroy this feedback by handing out free food (often obtained as foreign aid) and enacting other welfare programs. Add to this the people's general ignorance of, or religious hostility to, birth control, and you have a system almost guaranteed to produce famine, given the primitive state of these countries' regulated non-capitalist economies.

Public health measures and various welfare programs have much the same general effects on people in developed countries like the U.S.—destroying the link between family size and economic reality by relieving the people of the responsibility for their own lives and actions. But the consequences have not been as severe (except for the recipients of such aid) in the U.S. because the percentage of the population affected is fairly small. Nevertheless, the population explosion does pose significant problems for this country. First of all, our rapidly-expanding population, with its increasing demand for electricity, automobiles, and manufactured goods, means that we have only begun to struggle with pollution. Even now the effectiveness of mandatory automobile pollution-control devices has been offset by the increased number of cars on the road. Power plants being designed and built today are ten times the size of those of a decade ago, and nuclear power plants posing even greater environmental dangers are being advertised as the only possible way of meeting the predicted demand for electricity. Most of today's sewage systems are loaded beyond capacity, and serious water shortages have already occurred in New York and California.

Besides increasing air and water pollution, a rapidly-increasing population means the conversion of more and more wilderness land into subdivisions, parking lots, shopping centers, etc., making escape from crowded urban conditions less and less feasible for more and more people. A second, and more serious result is the alteration of ecological cycles.

The third major fact, then, is that the science of ecology can no longer be ignored as an ivory-tower intellectual's pastime. The most important legitimate point that ecologists like Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich are making is that one's actions can have far-reaching consequences on other people's lives. "Pollution," as defined previously, refers to rather direct and obvious actions—the direct transfer of matter or energy to an unwilling victim's person or property. Ecology deals with actions which are much less direct. For example, when a farmer uses DDT to kill insects in his fields, the DDT is washed away and enters rivers and streams. So does the DDT used by many other farmers. Most of the DDT (a very long-lived chemical) ends up in the ocean where it is absorbed by algae. DDT (in small concentrations) has been found to have two effects on algae: it reduces the rate of photosynthesis and it reduces the reproduction rate.19 Why should this be of concern to anyone? Because of the following facts: algae in the sea produce, by photosynthesis, a large fraction of the oxygen needed to sustain all animal life on earth: algae are also at the base of the ocean's food chain; thus, DDT in algae affects this food chain by 1) reducing the supply of fish, due to the reduced algae supply, and 2) successively concentrating DDT all the way up the food chain, culminating with commercial food fish. Hence, DDT in the oceans is a threat to man's supply of both food and oxygen.

Large-scale destruction of forests has similarly widespread effects. Besides reducing the production of oxygen from photosynthesis, the absence of trees can increase the danger of erosion and flooding, and also reduces the bird population, allowing insects and rodents to multiply profusely. Building a large dam can likewise have many, indirect consequences. Besides the more obvious flooding of a river, there are numerous changes in ecological cycles; in addition the altered loading of the earth's crust can produce seismic disturbances (earthquakes) in the surrounding areas.20

The point of all this is to demonstrate that ecology, by determining the large-scale indirect effects of man's actions on the life-support system of the earth, is revealing facts of reality which until now have scarcely been noticed. Neither our legal system nor libertarian philosophy have adequately dealt with such facts, to date.

Libertarian Analysis

Essentially, the problem can be summed up as follows: a continually-expanding population poses increasingly serious problems of direct (pollution) and indirect (ecological) disturbance of the natural environment.

Such disturbances can, and often do, threaten the lives and property of large numbers of people. Politicians want to deal with such problems in political fashion—by erecting ever greater forests of regulations and investing bureaucracies with ever more power to control people's lives. Romanticists—including some economists, ecologists, and New Leftists—want to force people back to the simpler things, so that their demand for electricity, automobiles, etc. will be reduced, thereby reducing pollution. When rising population causes even this simple life to lead to pollution, they would forcibly restrict population growth. The common denominator of all these solutions is force, and their frequent concomitant is irrational distrust of technology.

In the face of all this, an analysis consistent with human liberty—a libertarian analysis—has a twofold purpose: to show how political power—directly and indirectly—has been the major factor leading to the present crisis, and to point the way to solutions consistent with all the facts of reality, not the least of which is human liberty.

As pointed out earlier, the single biggest reason for there being a pollution problem is that government has failed to protect people's lives and property from assaults by pollutants. Oystermen can have their livelihood destroyed by chemicals or heated water or sewage dumped in a lake or river—and no one is held liable. Homeowners can have their houses damaged by soot or sulfur oxides—and no one is liable. Motorists can drive around in cars spewing forth carcinogenic exhaust gases into a smog-filled air mass trapped by an inversion—and no one is liable for the resulting respiratory disease and deaths. The government—supposedly the protector of our lives and property—has been so busy building bureaucratic empires and making volumes of regulations that it has failed to establish full liability for the actions of polluters. This, alone, makes government the primary culprit.

But there are also innumerable instances in which the government has encouraged pollution by direct actions. Government action is, by definition, coercive. This means, in general, that the projects the state engages in are carried out differently than projects carried out by individuals or companies. In the absence of coercive power, private parties must rely on economic motivations for accomplishing things; hence, they are concerned with long-term efficiency, in order to maximize profits. Now consider the pre-eminence of automobiles, the source of from 50 to 75% of all smog, in American transportation. The automobile has become our dominant mode of transportation partly because of massive governmental subsidies over the years in the form of tax-financed eminent-domain-obtained highways, and fossil fuel made relatively cheap via the oil depletion allowance. In a free market, the number of (privately-purchased) rights of way devoted to highly inefficient modes of transportation like automobiles, would be far less than at present. The entrepreneur seeking to maximize his profits would attempt to move the maximum number of people over his right of way, with minimum expenditure of energy (fuel). The automobile is one of the least efficient modes of transportation—the throughput (people moved/hour) of rapid transit trains, for example, is from 10 to 20 times greater,21 and with far less energy expenditure per person moved. In a completely free-market economy, the relative cost of automobile transportation would reflect the road owner's "opportunity cost" for alternative uses of his right of way; hence, automobile transportation would be relatively more expensive and would be less popular, ergo, there would be less air pollution.

Other government distortions of the economy come readily to mind. The state often asserts ownership of scarce resources such as beaches and scenic mountain areas (national parks), in order to "preserve" them for the benefit of everyone. To carry this out, the state allows everyone free (or virtually free) access (if one's hair is short enough) to the area in question. The result is the familiar "tragedy of the commons"—since none of the users owns the land, he has no qualms about using it, overusing it or abusing it. Hence, the phenomenon of filthy, littered, and overcrowded beaches and the horrible sight of smog hovering over the Yosemite valley. Once again, government force has created a situation which the market would not tolerate—in a free market, owners of such scarce resources would charge a price sufficiently high to ration out the supply among those most willing to pay. And the resources would be preserved rather than destroyed.

In addition to its negligence in defining pollution liability, and its pollution-inducing distortions of the economy, government also takes after the environment by more direct means: bulldozers. The Army Corps of Engineers has a well-deserved reputation for creating classic "public works" boondoggles at the expense of the environment. Writes Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, "Operating with virtual impunity, it continues to wreak ecological havoc across the land."22 The Corps, like government agencies generally, is liable to no one. Similarly without liability for the land it destroys is the Agriculture Department's Forest Service, which runs the National Forests. Although private industry has long been blamed for wholesale destruction of forests, the fact is that most such destruction has been on National Forest lands, for which the Forest Service bureaucrats grant cutting rights. Since the companies do not own the land, they have no stake in conserving the forests: therefore, they have sometimes leveled them to the ground. Forests owned by large lumber producers like Georgia-Pacific and U.S. Plywood are rationally managed, with the emphasis on long-range profitability. Thus, privately owned forests are scientifically cut and reforested to assure a continuing supply of trees into the future. Again, the market wins out over government fo force. [The reader may find value in Ramparts Magazine recent (May 70) issue, which includes an article which further illustrates the role of the government in handing out resources.]

The preceding examples have pointed out the principal ways in which government allows, encourages, and accomplishes the destruction of the environment. New and more extensive government coercion is obviously not the solution to the pollution/population/ecology problem. Yet government exists and will continue to exists as a major factor in any solution. Given this fact, what sort of actions does a libertarian view suggest?

Pollution Solution

Murray Rothbard, among others, has pointed in the general direction that must be taken to abate the rise of effluence. No programs, no bureaus, no tax dollars are needed; all that is required is that the courts charge polluters with full liability for any and all harm induced by their activities. Once this principle is firmly established in law, firms will find it in their interest to spend large sums of money installing pollution-control equipment, rather than being constantly involved in lawsuits and damage payments. The costs of pollution control, of course, would ultimately be borne by the consumers of the firms' products, i.e. by those who choose to associate with the firm, rather than being passed on to innocent third parties in the form of pollution. Thus, the market mechanism is the only truly just way of "allocating" the costs of pollution control.

With the full-liability principle firmly established in law, the problem is reduced primarily to a technological one of determining what levels of various pollutants cause what sort of damage. Automobile pollution is somewhat complicated by the fact that there are many thousands of individual sources, each contributing only a minute fraction of the total. Yet it is a fact that once the quantity of a particular exhaust product (e.g. carbon monoxide) in a given locality reaches the level at which human health is endangered, then the right to emit such an exhaust product ceases to exist. Such a product has then become, literally, a poison. Hence, at that point, vehicles emitting that exhaust product can no longer be allowed to operate in that locality.

There has been some disagreement among libertarians on the proper method of dealing with air pollution. Certain economists of the Chicago school, such as Prof. Harold Demsetz, are fond of stating the case that pollution has occurred because air has always been considered a "free good" when in reality it was a scarce resource. Hence, since nobody owned it, nobody had responsibility for it and everybody went ahead and polluted it—another "tragedy of the commons" situation. The cure, they argue, is to stop treating the air as a free good, and somehow price it. Prices presuppose ownership, yet nobody owns all the air; hence, the only kind of air which could be owned and sold is purified air, which could be piped into people's homes and factories after being treated in a purification plant. The users of this air would pay for it, much as they now pay for electricity or gas. Everyone else would be left to breathe the free polluted air, if they could. Eventually gas masks would be required outside of buildings, and trees, birds, and animals would have to survive as best they could. The entire ecosystem would undergo vast changes; food might have to be grown underground, or in huge purified-air hothouses. But, never fear, the market would be working, supplying purified air in accordance with supply and demand (!)

What is wrong with the preceding "free-market" analysis? On the surface it seems reasonable (aside from the grotesque nature of the world it would lead to). Unfortunately, it is an example of the most serious failing of the Chicago economists: nowhere in the argument is there any mention of rights. This is the same failing that has undercut the advocates of capitalism for 200 years. Even today, the term "laissez-faire" brings forth (to the average man) images of 18th-century English factory towns engulfed in smoke and grimy with soot. The early capitalists agreed with the courts that smoke and soot were the "price" that must be paid for the benefits of industry—i.e., that the "public interest" required the sacrifice of somebody's property rights in order that all could enjoy manufactured products. Yet capitalism without rights is a contradiction in terms—capitalism is based on and derived from man's rights, and can endure only when rights are held inviolable. Now, in an age of increasing awareness of the environment, this old contradiction is coming back to haunt capitalism, and the Chicago-school people are only providing grist for the anti-capitalists' mill by their avoidance of the issue of rights.

It is true that air is a scarce resource. But one must then ask why it is scarce. If it is scarce because of a systematic violation of rights, then the solution is not to apply the free market to the status quo, thereby sanctioning the rights-violations, but to assert the rights and demand that they be protected. One could analyze a slave market in "laissez-faire" terms, and it might be of academic interest to do so. But that description would not legitimize the institution of slavery. Nor does a free-market description of air pollution legitimize the daily violations of people's "lives and property by polluters. The air, after all, is only a medium through which various molecules move. When a factory discharges a great quantity of sulfur dioxide molecules which come floating into my lungs and cause pulmonary edema, the factory owners have aggressed against their neighbors as much as if they had shot up the town. That there may be all sorts of economic consequences of the sulfur dioxide emission (i.e., land values, housing patterns, product prices) is interesting but irrelevant to the basic issue—the rights violation. Libertarians must be explicit on this point because it is vital to the entire libertarian and laissez-faire capitalist position. A laissez-faire capitalist polluter is a contradiction in terms and must be identified as such. A libertarian society is a full-liability society, where everyone is fully responsible for his actions and any harmful consequences they may cause. The market mechanism then operates with prices which include the full costs of all products—there are no "externalities" to pass on to innocent third parties.


How does this libertarian view deal with the population problem? Essentially it recognizes that there is not, and cannot be, a population problem where there is full liability—i.e. where everyone is fully responsible for his own life and actions. The "problem" comes about when government—by action or inaction—separates actions from their consequences. How this has worked in the underdeveloped countries has already been described. The upcoming famines over much of the earth will provide an eloquent—if gruesome—demonstration of the evil consequences in reality of the state's attempt to remove from the people the full responsibility for their own lives.

But what of the United States? Is there a population problem here? Before answering this question, it must be re-emphasized that we do not presently live in a full-liability society. If we did, then the decision to have children and the costs of their upbringing would be entirely the responsibility of the parents involved.

In such circumstances, the birth of someone else's child could not possibly impose direct costs on third parties. Hence, although I might not like a crowded country, I could not complain that the increased population was actually a threat to me.

Contrast this with our present society. Every child born to people on welfare is a direct economic threat to me, since his existence will increase my taxes. Similarly, every child born anywhere in the country is a threat to me, since I, as a non-parent, am forced to pay local, state and federal taxes to support public schools. The public school system constitutes a vast subsidy from everyone else to those who are parents of school-age children, encouraging these parents to have and raise children without having to bear the full costs of their education. Hence, not only does the system violate my rights in the present, it also provides a continuing incentive for more and more people to have more and more children, secure in the knowledge that they will only have to pay a portion of the cost of educating them. The extent of this subsidy is so vast that it makes the $600 tax exemption for each child look almost negligible.

Beyond such direct costs of increased population, until such time as full liability is required of all polluters, any increase in population will result in increased pollution (more cars, more factories, more detergents, more pesticides, more sewage, etc.), with the resulting harm to my person and property. Since full liability is not likely to come about soon (past federal programs will primarily disguise the pollution problem, while claiming to solve it), an expanding U.S. population will indeed pose a threat to life and property in the foreseeable future.

Given that this is the case, what positions should libertarians advocate with regard to government policy on population? To say that government should just do nothing (since having children is an individual concern) misses the point that we live in a society in which government is already actively encouraging and subsidizing the increased production of children. For the government to actually do "nothing," it will have to stop doing a host of things it presently does. The first thing the government could do would be to repeal all laws regulating sex and marriage. On a variety of levels, and through numerous statutes, the government prohibits many attractive forms of birth control. Abortion is almost universally available only through the black market because of state laws, Massachusetts prohibits the sale of contraceptive foam to the unmarried (it is sold anyway), and the Federal Drug Administration can probably be fingered as being instrumental in the scrapping of a number of male and female chemical contraceptives that are highly effective but for easily avoidable side effects (see upcoming FDA article). The one exception to this pattern is voluntary sterilization, which is legal in all but one state.

The governments and laws also disincline all but traditional monogamous marriages which has the effect of encouraging people's life-styles to fall into the typical suburban three-child "nuclear" family pattern. Other possible life-styles—group marriages with a few children raised by several couples, homosexual marriages—are illegal because they are "against public policy," that policy presumably being the maximization of child-production by the nuclear family. By allowing people to legally choose whatever life-style they desired, the social pressure to conform and have three children "like everybody else" would be reduced. Along with these changes, of course, the current tax discrimination against single people should be abolished, such that there are no longer tax incentives favoring one life-style over another.

Following these changes, the government should begin phasing out the public school system, perhaps at first by means of Milton Friedman's voucher system, but ultimately returning educational expenses where they belong—to the parents. Finally, the government should work toward eliminating all forms of welfare, recognizing the incentives provided by the welfare state for increasing population. With regard to public schools and welfare, libertarians should note that the population issue has given them a unique opportunity to influence "liberals," since many "liberals" are very concerned overpopulation, but only beginning to see the incentive-producing nature of the public school and welfare systems for so long they have supported.


Finally, what does the libertarian view imply for ecology? The basic principle is again full liability for one's actions. The major contribution of the ecologists is to discover the facts of reality inherent in the complex cycles which take place in the earth's life support system. That many of these facts are new and unfamiliar does not mean that they are any less real. If everyone continues to dump DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides into the earth's water supply, for example, we will end up seriously short of fish and oxygen. Ecology can tell us what the consequences of certain actions will be, so that we can evaluate them, hopefully in advance of causing serious harm. Clearly, the result of some such evaluations will be the conclusion that certain actions, if continued or engaged in, will cause demonstrable harm to human life, because of the resulting changes in the ecosystem. Such actions may legitimately be prevented, by force if necessary, since if carried out, these actions would be aggression against some or all of humanity.

This is not to say that any time an "ecologist" asserts that he doesn't like a certain factory or dam or farm or other enterprise, that it must be shut down. Ecologists don't have magic insights not possessed by others; the same need for rigorous, logical thinking required in any science is required by ecology. Since the epistemological principles are universal, ecologists can and must demonstrate to non-ecologists what facts of reality they are concerned about, how they know, what the implications are for action (or causing action), and why this action is required. Unfortunately, in our irrational society, this is no easy task for ecologists. For this reason, perhaps, one should not yet be hypercritical of the attempt by men such as Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner to dramatize the possibilities of "eco-catastrophes," even though such attempts may involve exaggerations. Perhaps such tactics are necessary to awaken our concrete-bound legislators and jurists to the need for an enlarged concept of liability.

At the same time, however, there is no excuse for tolerating an ecologist's irrational feelings about economics or technology, just because he is an expert on ecology. Thus, when Commoner calls for overhauling our "progress through technology ethic," it is up to rational technologists to set the record straight. This is even more necessary when non-ecologist ecology fans start making pronouncements about halting the "irreversible depletion of resources" or ceasing to "exploit" nature.

As the preceding analysis has shown, it has been men's faulty conception of rights and responsibilities which has led to the present pollution/population/ecology crisis. Technology, to be sure, has provided various tools which men can use, but the existence of technology does not guarantee that men will use it rationally. This is determined by their philosophical premises, particularly their political philosophy.

But technology itself is not neutral; technology is inherently life-supporting in that it seeks to apply man's understanding of the facts of nature, to enable him to live on earth (or in space) more effectively. For most of recorded history men were imprisoned by a subsistence economy in which so much effort was required merely to stay alive that there was little or nothing left over for improving their physical well-being. This was the world described by Malthus, in which the size of the "economic pie" is fixed, such that one man's gain can only be procured by another man's loss. But capitalism, by providing an atmosphere in which technology can flourish, can change all that. The size of the pie increases, such that everyone gains.

Buckminster Fuller is one of the few men alive who seems to fully appreciate the significance of technology. He points out that at the turn of the century, less than 1% of the world's population was participating in the benefits of industrialization; by 1914 this had risen to 6%, by 1940 to 20%, and by the 1960's to 44% of humanity. How has this been possible, given the fixed amount of resources which the eco-fans are worried about "depleting"? Fuller writes;

"As the percentage increased from one to 44, it meant that total organized world tonnage of metallic and metabolic resource utilization was supplying only 1%, then 6%, then 44%. During this half century of industrialization, the world's population has been increasing at a faster rate than additional resources have been discovered. That is, the ratio of world copper, mined or unmined, or of iron, mined or unmined, per capita, has been continually decreasing. Therefore this increase in numbers served has not been the result of the addition of more resources, but the consequence of scientifically-designed multiplication of the performance per unit of invested resource. Transferring communications from wire to wireless is a typical means of doing more with less."23

This is the essential nature of technology—finding ways of doing more with less and less use of resources, per unit of accomplishment. The supply of raw materials on a "space-ship earth" is fixed; true, some can be used up in their present form (such as oil), but the law of conservation of mass states that matter is never "used up" (except in a nuclear reaction)—it merely changes its form. The basic chemical elements remain, available for man's ingenuity to put to better use.

"Science continually does more with less each time it obsoletes and scraps old innovations. Scrap is resolved to some part of the inventory of the 92 regenerative chemical elements. Interim improvement in technical measurement of performance makes possible an ever higher magnitude of new performance by reuse of the same quantity of the original inventory of the chemical elements."24

Nor is there a real need to despair over our use of energy; again, the law of conservation of energy states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed (except by a nuclear reaction, when a quantity of matter is converted completely to energy). At present, the earth is living off of easily obtained stored-up energy ("savings") such as oil and coal; yet the earth also receives daily "income" in the oil form of solar energy, at present virtually untapped. Thermonuclear fusion power is a likely future development, probably before the end of this century, providing virtually unlimited energy from hydrogen, the simplest of all elements.

Thus, far from being a threat to mankind's survival, technology provides the means for enabling all of mankind to enjoy a better life, participating in the "industrial equation," by means of increasing the usefulness of our supply of resources. Technology produces real wealth, in the form of the increased capability of man to do things, per unit of matter or energy expended. Redistributing the existing wealth provides no net gain. Wealth must be produced, and technology is the means by which this is accomplished.

But it is only in an atmosphere of full-liability freedom, true laissez-faire, that mankind can have both ecological awareness and technological progress. Those who cry that we must choose between a technology which destroys the environment or a simplified, static, no-growth society misunderstand both technology and ecology. Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed; to have dominion over the earth, man must command increasing quantities of knowledge and act accordingly. The men of a full-liability society, having learned this lesson, can have their cake and eat it too.

Copyright © 1970 by Robert Poole, Jr.


1 "Must We Breathe Sulfur Oxides?" by Thomas K. Sherwood, Technology Review, January 1970, pp25-31.
2 "Lead Concentration in City Air Increases," Chemical and Engineering News, March 9, 1970, p. 42.
3 Sherwood, op. cit.
4 "Pollution Defies Europe's Borders," New York Times, Jan. 10, 1970, p. 24.
5 "Smog's Four Horsemen," Technology Review, Jan 1970, p.72.
6 "Oil Called Peril to Food Supply in Sea," New York Times, Jan. 16, 1970.
7 "Pesticides Since Silent Spring," Steven H. Wodka, The Environmental Handbook, New York, Ballantine Books, 1970, p.77.
8 "Nixon Plans Massive Attack on Pollution," Chemical & Engineering News, Feb. 2, 1970, p. 24.
9 "Many Assembly Line Auto Flunk Air Pollution Tests," Associated Press, April 3, 1970.
10 "The Crackdown on Water Polluters," Business Week, April 4, 1970, p. 28.
11 "Senator Nelson to Ask for Antipollution Measure," New York Times, Jan 20, 1970.
12 "The Changing Ground Rules of Business Economics," Chemical & Engineering News, Jan 26, 1970, p. 25.
13 "Who Will Foot the Cleanup Bill?" Business Week, Jan 3, 1970, p. 64.
14 "The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth," Kenneth Boulding, in The Environmental Handbook, op. cit., pp. 96-101.
15 "Economic Growth; New Doubts About an Old Ideal," Time, Mar 2, 1970, p. 74.
16 "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Lynn White, Jr., Science, March 20, 1970, pp. 34-35.
18 "The Great Ecology Issue: Conservation and the Free Market," Murray N. Rothbard, The Individualist, Feb. 1970, pp. 1-6.
19 Wodka, op. cit.
20 "The Modification of Planet Earth by Man," Gordon J.F. MacDonald, Technology Review, Oct/Nov. 1969, pp. 27-35.
21 Hay, William W., Introduction to Transportation Engineering, New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1961, pp. 271-279.
22 "The Public Be Damned," Justice William O. Douglas, Playboy, July 1969, p. 143.
23 Fuller, R. Buckminster, Ideas and Integrities, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 251-252.
24 Ibid, p. 142.

Notes on "technology"

The term "technology" can be taken two ways, and it seems to me that this twin use of the same word symbol for two interrelated but separate concepts has helped to cause no small amount of confusion. Technology can refer either to the totality of mankind's information or to the tools of production via which men apply that information towards achieving aims. Perhaps, for clarity's sake, it might be best to refer to the latter as applied technology, and the former as plain old technology. With this distinctive set of definitions in mind, it can easily be seen that technology is never neutral, and assuredly never detrimental, but always beneficial. Greater technology means that men have a greater number of options to choose from, as well as a larger data base with which to develop more data and new options. On the other hand, applied technology, is intrinsically neither good nor bad. While "technology" is a term that refers to a particular state of mind, knowledge that, by definition, is good, "applied technology" refers to physical objects, machines, factories, oil wells, farms, people, animals, etc. in their capacities as tools of production. Rather handsome and useful tools of production can and do fall into the hands of rather ugly men. The atom bomb, radioactive gas flares, and unsafe atomic reactors are in the hands of Tricky Dick and his Congressional cohorts. Millions of dollars are clenched in the fists of Commie-baiting businessmen or revolutionist-sympathizing foundations. There is nothing but the efforts of good men to guarantee that this kind of thing won't happen. Applied technology will work as well for anyone, honest or dishonest, who knows what buttons to push. Technology, of either variety, applied or otherwise, can never be evil; only people can be evil. Thus to condemn technology as the cause of ecological disorder is to betray what amounts to a belief in demonology. Men can never have too much technology (applied or otherwise); they always have too little. If the ecosystem is disintegrating, it isn't because of technological overabundance, but for immense deficit.

Specifically, mankind lacks the technology of ethics, the knowledge of the proper kinds of interrelationships among men. We are not the first to point this out; many have wondered at the spectacle of a civilization that can put men on the moon, but cannot think of a rational reason for wishing to do so, a world that proliferates weapons of mutual destruction under the guise of "deterrence" of mutual destruction, and so on. Physical giants, moral pigmies, are the words one commentator used, I believe. So true.

Sadly, those who speak of the need for an inspection of our culture's ethics almost always make the error of implicitly assuming at least some of the premises of the ethical system they criticize, thus undercutting the usefulness of their observations and their work towards ecological balance.

In only one respect do the problems demand a reduction in technology. Men must discover which of the ethical "truths" they hold are not true at all, but based on erroneous observations or plain craziness. Presently, these "truths" are widely accepted and therefore mentally placed under the data categories of useful information. Thus, what men are prone to call technology (information) is too large. It should be shrunk by ferreting out the mistakes. But even by this analysis, what needs to be accomplished is not in fact a reduction of technology, but the development of philosophical insights that would allow men to properly categorize arguments in favor of cultural coercion as the absurdities that they are—that is, an increase in technology. —Ed.