Environmental What Ifs
by Tibor R. Machan
One of the most dangerous trends today, as far as our right to liberty is concerned, is the environmental movement. I am not talking about their worries, of which some are surely justified. But like so many zealous people, environmentalists tend, in the main, to urge greater government powers and invasion of individual rights, especially the right to private property, in support of dealing with their concerns.
But if we think about this a bit, it becomes clear that the greatest friend of the environment, including endangered species, is the principle of private property rights. One way to appreciate this fact is by considering what would have happened if in the past the principle had been firmly adhered to.
For one, road building would have been curtailed. Indeed, all transportation that had expanded by leaps and bounds relied on the taking of private property, something that the U.S. Constitution permits if it concerns some public use. Had it been strictly implemented, the takings clause of the Constitution would never have permitted the violation of the right to private property since "public use," properly understood in a free country, means only whatever is required for the administration of the legal system, such as a court house or police -- or military -- station. Every other purpose would have had to be achieved without violating anyone's property rights.
This constraint would have required virtually all road and rail building, as well as all building of dams, sports stadiums and similar massive projects, to be carried out on a relatively smaller scale than what government sponsored projects that violate private property rights involve. Sure, some of them could have been carried out by the benign means of purchasing land from those who owned them. But the cost in many cases would have been prohibitive and would probably have induced those embarking on these projects to pursue alternatives.
Take, for example, the expansion of the use of the automobile and of airplanes. Without the government's power to take land so as to build, for example, the Interstate Highway system and huge airports, some alternative modes of transportation might have developed because entrepreneurs would have sought out less expensive ways to proceed with their projects.
Counterfactual history is always highly speculative but not impossible. It is often the stuff of science fiction, as when an author imagines what would have happened had Hitler won World War II or had we had to go without penicillin. In one's personal life, too, one can speculate, often enough, about what might have happened had one driven more carefully when one had an accident or stayed in school instead of rushed into family life.
The exercise I am recommending shouldn't be all that different from such "rational reconstruction." In other words, had the political system that held sway in a country been more strictly consistent with the principles of justice, including the principle of private property rights, we would probably not face many of the environmental problems we do face now.
Consider, as another case in point, pollution. One of the main causes of it is dumping -- manufacturing firms or even individuals disposing of their waste without respecting private property rights and legal authorities failing to step in when this happens. Those "negative externalities" that so many refer to as they badmouth capitalism would be, in fact, systematically prohibited in a fully free, capitalist economic system because they involve the violation of private property rights. Instead of reasoning on the basis of some pseudo-utilitarian calculation, according to which it is OK to violate our rights if only some great project is helped by it, a strict adherence to a system of individual rights would have served as a powerful restraint against irrational development, namely, development that encroached upon the rights of people who did not want the kind of development in question.
So what's the lesson here? I suggest that it is "better late than never." If one wishes to organize human communities sensibly and justly, respecting and protecting individual, including private property, rights is still the right approach.