I. Introduction

Free market environmentalism is a viewpoint that advocates free market fixes for environmental problems. According to free market environmentalists, or green libertarians as they are sometimes called, government is net bad for the environment, as it brings about more environmental costs than it does environmental benefits. There are strong ties between free market environmentalism and left-libertarianism.

II. Utility

Many free market solutions are based on the belief that the environment is valued, not because of its intrinsic worth, but because of its value as a resource. This utility based construction of value accounts for all aspects of the environment, spanning the full range from extraction of resources for economic production to aesthetic beauty for tourist and realist industries or for personal enjoyment; this method of evaluating environmental value includes the values humans derive from economic production, natural resources, recreation, and natural beauty.

III. Free Market Environmentalism and Property Rights

A. Benefits of Ownership

i. Rule of Law

Ownership brings environmental problems under the rule of law; by bringing property into the realm of ownership, owned environment is brought into the realm of jurisprudence where legal justice can be administered. Whereas, unowned lands are free to be destroyed because they bear not relationship to society and are therefore outside of typical, legal jurisdiction, property ownership, in its many forms, makes the owned environment a part of society and thereby law.

ii. Vested Interests

Ownership also provides advocates for the property. Owners are interested in increasing the value of their land and by maintaining an aesthetically appealing piece of property that is sufficiently fertile and requires fewer off-site resources to maintain itself, property owners provide for their own comfort and while increasing the value of their lands, and consequently, the value of surrounding properties.

This is not to suggest that resources will not be harvested under this system, but rather it suggests that consumption will be more moderate when the full range of environmentally externalities are placed, whether naturally or legally, on the producer of these negative effects. For example, a farmer, who owns his own lands, must consider not only the productive yield of his first season's crops, but also the yield of future crops. For this reason, a farmer must use environmentally friendly farming practices to cultivate the sustainable, on-site biodiversity necessary to replenish the soil, water, and other factors of agricultural production.

While some cases of exploitation may occur, such as strip-mining or clear-cutting, even these practices are not sound because, in a system of owned environment under the rule of law, the externalities created by exploitative practices such as pollution, erosion, and run-off are punishable by law. Similarly, these exploitative practices are not sustainable, and when successful forms of property ownership exist, the relocation of these destructive industries becomes increasingly more expensive and impractical.

B. Forms of Ownership


IV. Free market solutions to environmental problems

A. Overexploitation

Overexploitation of environmental resources is a direct result of government interfering in the realm of property and ownership. When massive amounts of property are made communal or state-owned (i.e. national/state parks, highways, urban areas, transportation hubs, etc.) there is no ownership incentive to keep an area clean or use its resources efficiently. Instead, everyone who uses the area operates under the "someone else will take care of it mindset." Often times no one takes care of it, and when someone actually does tend to the state-owned property it is, of course, the state -- and we know how well the state manages its affairs.[1]

B. Pollution

Pollution occurs primarily when a person who has been harmed by an externality of a transaction is not allowed to seek and receive total restitution for the harm done to them. For example, part of the cost of a semi-truck driving down the highway is the pollutants being pumped out into the atmosphere and dirtying the air. However, as there is no mechanism in the governmental model for those who live near highways to seek restitution for such pollution, the cost is paid by those who breathe the air, and not the trucking companies that release the pollutants. In a market system involving property rights, such a mechanism could easily exist.

For example, anyone living near the highway could bring suit against it for air pollution, and the highway would then charge truck drivers extra based on how much pollution a truck emitted, giving the highway company the money to compensate those breathing the polluted air. This is just one way it could possibly happen, the glory of the market is that no one really knows how such a problem would be solved! In other words, if industries had to internalize the costs of negative externalities like pollution, they would have an incentive to reduce them. [2]

C. Clean-up

Clean-up would naturally occur in a market, because it entails a net gain on property values. If I clean up my land, it is now worth more -- I have an incentive to do so. However, with such a massive amount of communal ownership, no one receives the gains from such cleanup, and thus no one has an incentive to carry out the cleanup in the first place.[3] The issue is not necessarily that communal ownership is inherently problematic for the environment, but rather than mandatory communal ownerships leaves large areas of land under the supervision of people who do not have any real stake in ensuring that they remain clean.

D. Overconsumption

Overconsumption (or more accurately put, malconsumption), would not exist in a free market that was absent the distorting taxes and subsidies of the government. For example, a highway is a subsidy to trucking companies, as it allows them to move large amounts of items without having to bear any of the costs of the distribution infrastructure. In a free market, shipping very well might be more expensive, causing more and more local products to be able to compete with competitors based far away. Also, if people began to consume too much of a resource, it would eventually become to expensive to buy, as both its value and its cost would dramatically increase. As prices go up, consumers redirect their purchases to substitute items that entail the use of different, less costly resources, keeping a single resource from being overused.[4]

While this is an oversimplified look at our environmental problems, it's a basic sketch of how the market could easily correct problems that are a direct result of government intervention.
  1. ^ "Environmentalism, Free Market," Richard L. Stroup, The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics: Library of Economics and Liberty.
  2. ^ "Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution," Murray N. Rothbard, Cato Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 1982.
  3. ^ "A Hayekian Defense of Free-Market Environmentalism," Mark Pennington, The Independent Review, Volume X, No. 1, Sumer 2005.
  4. ^ U.S. Farm Bill Causes Health Problems for Citizens, Elliot Engstrom, Rethinking the State, February 2, 2010.