This is a question about proposals for libertarian or anarcho-capitalist systems that always bothered me. The libertarian system is supposedly based on property rights, but I wonder how absolute those property rights are. For example:

I install a fish pond in my yard and stock it with trout. A corporation builds a coal-fired power plant 100 miles from my house. Because of their activity, traces of mercury show up in my fish. Do my property rights include the right not to have my land contaminated with poison?

My next-door neighbor builds a stadium in his back yard and begins hosting noise concerts at volumes that make it impossible for me to sleep at night. Is this a violation of my property rights?

A nearby airport begins using the airspace over my house as part of its flight path. Do my property rights extend to the atmosphere?

Obviously this node only makes sense if people post other writeups; please comment.

Unfortunately, mat_catastrophe's writeup above rather incorrectly states the position of the USA's Libertarian Party, and in doing so suggests a rather misleading answer to ximenez's question. In the libertarian view, it is just as much a violation of your rights for Boner Chemical to poison you or despoil your crops as it would be for your business rival or the Mafia to do so. Poisoning, after all, is an initiation of violent force; libertarianism opposes initiations of violent force.

The following paragraphs are taken from the section on pollution in the Libertarian Party's platform, available from the L.P. Web site at (Hardlinks added.)

Pollution of other people's property is a violation of individual rights. Present legal principles, particularly the unjust and false concept of "public property," block privatisation of the use of the environment and hence block resolution of controversies over resource use. We support the development of an objective legal system defining property rights to air and water. We call for a modification of the laws governing such torts as trespass and nuisance to cover damages done by air, water, radiation, and noise pollution.

Toxic waste disposal problems have been created by government policies that separate liability from property. Rather than making taxpayers pay for toxic waste clean-ups, individual property owners, or in the case of corporations, the responsible managers and employees, should be held strictly liable for material damage done by their property.

(Note that the word "property" in the second paragraph is referring to the toxic waste itself, not the land polluted by it. The platform goes on to condemn the idea that toxic waste owners can avoid responsibility by abandoning their property.)

As you can see, libertarianism is not only compatible with the protection of the environment, but indeed lends itself to the task. Present United States policy fails to hold polluters responsible for their infringement of others' property rights. A libertarian government of the sort promoted by the L.P. would not, as Democrat and Republican administrations have, let polluters get away with their crimes and leave taxpayers with the clean-up bill.

ximenez, you make a great point!

Many "libertarian" systems proposed are just slight modifications of the current system. At worst, they are just the abolition of the income tax.

The solution to your problems is this: sell it. Ponds and the atmosphere currently belong to "the public", and so are subject to the tragedy of the commons. However, private property does not face this problem.

A (non-libertarian) criticism of my argument is "You CAN'T sell the air!" However, this displays an ignorance of basic economics. Economics is the study of limited resources. We humans are limited in what we can achieve. We have to make trade-offs. The great benefit of a common currency is that these trade-offs can be numerated. Thus, using the principles of economics, we can objectively see what we are gaining and what we are losing.

An example: There are three "users" of a lake

  1. BigEvilCorp - widget maker, polluter
  2. MomAndPopCo - friendly fishermen
  3. The Town of Quantville - local rustics

All of these need to use the pond, whether for dumping, fishing, or beauty. The current statist sollution is to have "the people" (meaning a government) run it, and decide its use based on political power. The libertarian solution would be to privatize it. Call this profit-seeking entity Pond Ltd.

Pond Ltd. wants to make as much money as it can. As such, it requests bids. Assuming MomAndPopCo and Quantville selfishly band together (as they would in a libertarian system) for their own self-benefit, one of two things happens.

  1. BigEvilCorp out-bids MomAndPopCo and Quantville. BigEvilCorp's customers continue to buy whatever the company sells at low-low prices. Fishing drops to nothing. However, because use of the lake is guarenteed, and use doesn't have to be shared, economies of scale can be realized. The low cost of widgetes help society in general (adding to social welfare), and the poor in particular (lower costs work the same as a regressive negative income tax).
  2. BigEvilCorp loses the bid. MomAndPopCo's and Quantville's bid for the pond wins. BigEvilCorp goes out of business. Though production is limited, more fish are available. Because the fishery doesn't have to share the lake with a polluter, economies of scale can be realized. Further, the people of Quantville "consume" the wonderful pond everyday. This increases the social welfare.

"But what about the environment? What if Quantville and MomAndPopCo are poor?" Well, if outsiders actually care, they will prioritize. Groups like the Sierra Club will pay to keep rivers and lakes clean. The only difference from the current regime is that this money would be directly spent on action, instead of lining politicians' pockets.

Other writeups here have covered the basics. However, no one has mentioned the most important aspect of 'true' libertarianism - that in a libertarian system, your power is based on the amount of money you have - nothing else - and any property rights you might want (including the right to air, water, etc.) can be denied you by their owner.

Of course, as far as I know, most libertarians don't take such a strict, Objectivist view, as zeman points out.

So ximenez could buy rights to silence, clean water, air, etc. (Assuming he could afford them.) However, the tragedy of the commons zeman mentions would remain a problem, because water and air, and to some extent noise levels, most be owned in very large units. If zeman wanted clean air, but everyone around him sold their rights to it to a coal-burning power plant, the value of that company's right to pollute becomes extremely high - far beyond what ximenez could afford.

This leads us to the basic problem ximenez is facing - that even in an ideal market, it is inevitable that the market will give disproportionate (non-linearly increasing) power to larger accumulations of property and capital. When corporation A buys the rights to pollute all the air within 500 miles of ximenez's property, the market value of even 1 foot of (nearly) unpolluted air on his property becomes roughly equivalent to the market value of the entire package. This is an 'economy of scale' but it works against individuals in favour of vast corporations, and without the balancing force of government regulation, the tragedy of the commons effect will extend throughout any property type for which economies of scale exist - unless citizens act to secure their desired rights collectively - at which point we have a large corporation indistinguishable from a government, which acts to regulate air quality, or water quality, or whatever properties its citizens have collectively obtained.

A parallel misconception can be seen in the 'selfish gene' theory - there are always cases where larger systems are more efficient, and those systems will always be compelled to increase their own power - regardless of whether they are governments, corporations, or multicelled organisms - independent of the actions of any of the individual components of which they are made. Fortunately, for governments most countries have the checks and balances necessary to give individual goals the power to control the larger system. I hope we can do the same for corporations.

A libertarian system isn't necessarily based on property rights--it's based on individual freedom, and particularly freedom from coercion*. Most libertarians, however, do also believe in strong personal property rights, and it's well arguable that one's ability to exercise one's freedom depends a lot on how much property you have, insofar as property is a determiner of wealth (possibly the determiner of wealth, depending on your definitions).

This brings up another important point- in a libertarian system, your power is determined by your real wealth, not by how much money you have. Money is only one contributor to wealth, although it's a particularly convenient and easy-to-track one, and so often gets mistaken for the real thing. (Of course, even if money were power, it's not necessarily any worse than the current situation.) Other contributions to your net real wealth include property you already own, your time and capacity to perform labor (especially important as it allows you generate more wealth), contracts that give you rights with regard to anyone else's labor or property, even your reputation, etc. It's true that any property rights that you may want but do not currently control can be denied to you by their owner- but that works both ways. It's the basis for negotiation which underlies a market economy.

*C-Dawg tells me that that is based on a property right- the right to control your own body. Not sure what to think about that. It's an interesting point that just might be correct.

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