More On Pollution and Global Warming

 Posted by on 14 April 2006 at 10:01 am  Uncategorized
Apr 142006

On the FRODO discussion list, someone raised some good questions about the legitimacy of governmental regulation of pollution and other human industrial activities, and whether any such laws would be consistent with government’s function of protecting individual rights. I thought I would post my response here. It’s a slightly expanded version of what I wrote in the NoodleFood comments section.:

Properly objective pollution laws can be consistent with protecting property rights.

For instance, suppose that my next-door neighbor was generating pollution and it was killing all my crops. If I could objectively *prove* both causation and damages, then I could sue him and have him reduce his pollution generation to a non-harmful level. In this context, yes, the government does have a role in regulating pollution output. But this is just part of the government’s legitimate role of protecting individual rights (in this case, property rights).

Similarly, suppose I could prove that 10 of my neighbors were generating pollutants that in total were causing significant damage to my property, although no single neighbor’s contribution would by itself cause significant harm. My understanding is that I could sue to have them each reduce their pollution output, so that the total was not harmful to me. Lawyers have worked out methods for apportioning responsibilities and remedies in these multiple-defendant cases, and these principles are not new.

Specific issues such as how much harm counts as “significant” (and would therefore be actionable), have also already been worked out by lawyers, and are part of the laws regarding torts such as “nuisance”. Hence, in the context of a residential neighborhood, my neighbor has the right to have an outdoor barbecue in his backyard, and any minor cooking smoke that blows over from his property to my property would be totally legal. On the other hand, he can’t run an amateur chemistry lab in his basement if the fumes from his experiments are toxic and would cause significant damage to my property or my health; those fumes would constitute a rights-violation if they reached my property.

It gets slightly trickier if you cross international boundaries. If some people in Canada are generating pollution that is causing provable significant harm to my property in the US, it might be resolvable within the US or Canadian court systems, or it might need to be resolved by international treaty.

Hence if I owned a nice bed-and-breakfast on coastal property in Maine, and a group of Canadians across the border generated pollution that I could objectively prove directly resulted in flooding of my property, thus destroying its commercial value to me, I should be able to sue them and gain just compensation. If it also turned out that the flooding created new arable land 100 miles away from me and increased that landowner’s property values, that would be a separate and independent issue. The accidental benefit the other landowner received would be irrelevant to the merits of my legal case.

Hence, laws governing international pollution need not necessarily destroy property rights. If those laws are properly formulated and enforced, they protect property rights.

My biggest problem with the “global warming” issue is that neither causation nor damages have been shown, yet huge policy decisions are being made on the basis of grossly inadequate data, and for the wrong reasons. Essentially it’s bad philosophy in action.

But if causation and (significant) damages were objectively provable, then it would be proper for the government to step in, precisely because individual rights would be violated. (I do agree that it’s not appropriate for the government to intervene in the name of something vague like the “public welfare” or “keeping the planet habitable”.)

Rand herself was asked about the pollution issue. From the Ayn Rand Answers book edited by Robert Mayhew, we have the following:

“Q: Should the government control air and water pollution for the sake of public health? “

“A: No. The government’s only proper role is protecting individual rights. That means: the military, the police, the law courts. Problems like pollution can be settled by agreemenet among free individuals. If anyone is demonstrably hurt by pollution, he can appeal to the courts and prove his case. No special laws or government control are required.” (Page 8)

I agree with this view, and I also believe that my position is consistent with the Objectivist position on individual rights.

As usual, I’m glad to receive any thoughtful comments/criticisms of my position.

Update: I’ve updated the original post in response to multiple helpful comments and e-mails I’ve received.

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