[lbo-talk] Libertarian Belief in Absolute Property Rights Leads to Climate Change Denialism

Charles Brown cb31450 at gmail.com
Tue Jul 22 08:05:40 PDT 2014


Libertarian Belief in Absolute Property Rights Leads to Climate Change Denialism

Posted on July 20, 2014 by Lambert Strether

By David Collyer, Policy Director at Prosper Australia. Cross-posted from Macrobusiness.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his government do not believe in climate change. They have erased all of the measures Rudd and Gillard introduced to shift Australia to a low-carbon future.

If they merely doubted climate change, they would simply zero-price the behavior-changing settings and await more information. This is usually what cautious, evidence-based conservatives do. But no, their beliefs trump the science and they are acting boldly to turn those beliefs into law.

Does ignoring science seem as bizarre to you as it does to me?

When anti-abortionists talk of beliefs, they refer to the biblical injunction “thou shalt not kill” and, agree or not, there is a certain logic and coherence to their views. Yet underlying values seem absent from climate change denier rhetoric, or at best remains unexplained.

Matt Bruenig and George Monbiot might have the answer.

The Abbott government is populated with libertarians, sporting its new face: a procedural justice account of the world based heavily on property rights.


“Their property rights are absolute and cannot be intruded upon by the state or by anyone else. Any interference with or damage to the value of their property without their consent – even by taxation – is an unwarranted infringement.

“It is a pitiless, one-sided, mechanical view of the world, which elevates the rights of property over everything else, meaning that those who possess the most property end up with great power over others. Dressed up as freedom, it is a formula for oppression and bondage. It does nothing to address inequality, hardship or social exclusion. A transparently self-serving vision, it seeks to justify the greedy and selfish behaviour of those with wealth and power. But for the sake of argument, Bruenig says, let us accept it.

“Let us accept the idea that damage to the value of property without the owner’s consent is an unwarranted intrusion upon the owner’s freedoms. What this means is that as soon as libertarians encounter environmental issues, they’re stuffed.

“Climate change, industrial pollution, ozone depletion, damage to the physical beauty of the area surrounding people’s homes (and therefore their value), all these, if the libertarians did not possess a shocking set of double standards, would be denounced by them as infringements on other people’s property.

“The owners of coal-burning power stations in the UK have not obtained the consent of everyone who owns a lake or a forest in Sweden to deposit acid rain there. So their emissions, in the libertarian worldview, should be regarded as a form of trespass on the property of Swedish landowners. Nor have they received the consent of the people of this country to allow mercury and other heavy metals to enter our bloodstreams, which means that they are intruding upon our property in the form of our bodies.


“Almost all uses of land will entail some infringement on some other piece of land that is owned by someone else. So how can that ever be permitted? No story about freedom and property rights can ever justify the pollution of the air or the burning of fuels because those things affect the freedom and property rights of others. Those actions ultimately cause damage to surrounding property and people without getting any consent from those affected. They are the ethical equivalent – for honest libertarians – of punching someone in the face or breaking someone else’s window.”


“So here we have a simple and coherent explanation of why libertarianism is so often associated with climate change denial and the playing down or dismissal of other environmental issues. It would be impossible for the owner of a power station, steel plant, quarry, farm or any large enterprise to obtain consent for all the trespasses he commits against other people’s property – including their bodies.

“This is the point at which libertarianism smacks into the wall of gritty reality and crumples like a Coke can. Any honest and thorough application of this philosophy would run counter to its aim: which is to allow the owners of capital to expand their interests without taxation, regulation or recognition of the rights of other people. Libertarianism becomes self-defeating as soon as it recognises the existence of environmental issues. So they must be denied.

The strident polemics have prevented any meaningful shifting of the burden of taxation from labour to pollution via Pigouvian taxes.

As the US economists EK Hunt, Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert have argued for decades, not only do capitalist markets provide no incentive to correct external effects, it provides every incentive to maximise their impost onto others if this increases profit.

Libertarians and conservatives denounce Pigouvian taxation because it would serious decrease profits for those doing the cost externalisation, e.g. the wealthy and big business. Because uncorrected external effects are so rampant and thus a sign of the grave inefficiencies of capitalism, they have to be denied to even exist.

And if the victims of negative externalities claim a proprietary right to compensation, so might the perpetrators of positive externalities – land value capture and all that.

Moreover, excluding others from a parcel of land can be characterised as a negative externality, and the rental value of the land as the measure of the compensation payable, in which case Georgism is but a species of Pigouvianism. Therefore the existence of externalities must be denied.

Climate-change denialism is but a species of externality denialism.

43007420 This entry was posted in Australia, Environment, Guest Post on July 20, 2014 by Lambert Strether.

Subscribe to Post Comments 28 comments

bh2 July 20, 2014 at 1:58 am

This is a complete nonsense, Lambert. Libertarians do not believe property rights convey any privilege to damage property rights of others (individually or collectively). Any representation that this is a “libertarian” idea rests on a logical fallacy obvious even from a trotting horse.

Reply ↓

Keith Ackermann July 20, 2014 at 2:14 am

That’s bull. Go to Mises and you will find endless articles about compensating for damage to property. They think it’s perfectly viable to pollute a river and pay a toll. Read what the wonderful Ayn Rand says about the Indians and their rights? http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Ayn_Rand

How far down does that rabbit hole go?

Reply ↓

hunkerdown July 20, 2014 at 2:25 am

As far as it needs to!

Reply ↓ bh2 July 20, 2014 at 2:57 am

Since my comment does not conflict with the notion of compensation for actual property damages, it’s difficult to imagine what rabbit hole you pulled that from.

You may not have noticed, but it is the state that permits polluting a river and incur only a fine. That would be the same lot who respond to massive criminal activities by banksters with a mild rebuke as they pocket a generous fine to fatten the public purse. These are basically just an ongoing tax having no intention of actually preventing the behavior in the future. Government is just a business, distinctive only because it has a sole legal right to impose violent force on you and your neighbors and a unique privilege to print its own money at will to spend on your behalf. If you find any of that disagreeable, take it up with your Congresscritter. Not that it will do any good, but at least you’ll be focusing your futile angst in the correct general direction.

Ayn Rand was not a libertarian and said so herself. Nor am I a fan. She was more a flavor of anarcho-capitalist, which is something rather different. Her claim that libertarians “stole her ideas” is rather curious given she was born two centuries after Jefferson.

Reply ↓

skippy July 20, 2014 at 4:51 am

Neoliberalism is just the personalization of corporatism, that Gov and corporatist melded to defeat the ev’bal communists and now are stuck together like dogs mating is just absurd metaphysical serendipity.

Skippy… the ***real*** interesting stuff is watching this former mobs participant’s eat their own, hive off into sects over tastes, rewrite – deny their history, convert and then repent as it suits them, all at ever increasing speed.

Reply ↓ Thorstein July 20, 2014 at 9:31 am

This appears to mean that bh2 will be happy to compensate you for any damages to your property that occur 100 years from now, when the climatological effects of his present pollution are fully manifest. Be patient.

Reply ↓

Ben Johannson July 20, 2014 at 5:24 am

Then you didn’t read beyond the headline. As expected.

Reply ↓ Quite Likely July 20, 2014 at 1:02 pm

And yet, this is what libertarians do when they get into office. Or are you claiming that all the supposedly libertarian politicians aren’t ‘real libertarians’?

Reply ↓

John July 20, 2014 at 2:38 am

What readers may not know is Australia is a huge exporter of coal to Asia, primarily to China. What readers may also not know is globalization is having a major affect on C02 emissions. Green house gases are leeching into the atmosphere as a direct result of transportation. So even before China burns a single gram of Australian coal, environmental damage is already done.

What’s all the hubbub about C02 anyway? We know that it is bad for you from school days. It can cause serious harm and death if breathed in larger concentrations. According to NOAA’s June climate report, they recorded C02 levels at 400ppm — the highest ever recorded. Their chart clearly demonstrates atmospheric C02 is linearly going up every year.

Here is the deal on C02 — it will take hundreds of thousands of years for the environment to absorb 100% of the C02 if we were able to shut off the emissions entirely. The oceans do most of the heavy lifting but we pump too much out so it never catches up. We are coming to a point of irreparable harm to the planet at some in the near future if we don’t reverse course — like right now!

I can go on and on. Anyway, politics must be considered when talking about climate change. The challenge now is for countries to impose carbon tariffs on imports. Some countries like Austerlia will always be outliers.

Reply ↓

susan the other July 20, 2014 at 11:29 am

The bundle of property rights associated with land requires the payment of taxes. Similar rights for industries require the payment of taxes. A carbon tax is an admission that carbon is a problem, this is true. But a carbon tax need not be restricted to manufacturing and mineral extraction. It should be extended to the use of carbon-based fuels. You’re right of course. Australia might be doing a George Bush, saying why should we suffer the consequences if China ignores them. Which is a good point. Even China agrees but China and all the rest of us are stuck on this carbon-based treadmill and nobody can get off. What a carbon tax does is actually facilitate the use of carbon-based fuels by allowing those industries to operate if they pay. But there is nothing that those revenues (taxes) can do to mitigate the damage. So taxing those industries just allows them to continue. We obviously need more drastic measures. I always wonder what Drastic is going to look like.

Reply ↓

Leo Cullen July 20, 2014 at 5:02 am

@bh2 The idea that Jefferson was a libertarian is just laughable. Or not, when you consider a person (actually, 3/5ths of a person) could be considered private property to be worked to death, raped, beaten, abused… As for the bs concept of “anarcho-capitalism”: what an oxymoron! The demented world of “libertarians” extends to redefining words and concepts to suit their own perverse ends.

Reply ↓

Moneta July 20, 2014 at 7:41 am

Although some present-day libertarians advocate laissez-faire capitalism and strong private property rights,[3] such as in land, infrastructure and natural resources, others, notably libertarian socialists, seek to abolish capitalism and private ownership of the means of production in favor of their common or cooperative ownership and management.[4][5]


————— The world is very complex today. I have not met many people who share my worldview and I am sure there are millions out there like me who feel they fit nowhere ideologically. The only thing we have in common is our shared humanity.

Reply ↓

ogee July 20, 2014 at 7:42 am

So it seems the world over “libertarian” has been co-opted. In the US, when people say “I am a libertarian”. Right off, you know they are a closet republican. They don’t know it, but they have been swindled by big corporate interests to parrot all of their favorite catch phrases. Thirty years ago ,when people were “libertarian”, at least it meant; “small gov’t”,personal freedom,independence from authoritarian intrusion…. and all that. They were at least portraying a personal preference, that they thought the gov’t ought not intrude on their lives,or others.. But now, libertarians talk of flat taxes,deregulation, of industry/business,ending environmental oversight and protection, the evils of having a minimum wage,gov’t spending their money on welfare recipients(and they always mean a single mom with three kids, and not a multi-billion dollar corporation). Every bit of the libertarian message these days is really just the same thing the republican wing of the establishment bird. They are for anything the biggest businesses want.They want people to have the freedom to work for nothing. They want people to have the freedom, to be oppressed by the economic forces with might..They don’t want any collective power of “the people”, to protect “the people”… who are not rich ; from the people whose wealth and position comes with power. They make ridiculous arguments, like lets stop paying taxes… as if taxes are used to pay for future gov’t obligations only. They always forget the gov’t is running a sheet to pay for everything that has already been done,agreed to, and already exists.Things that if stopped in mid stream would be disaster. The tea party faithful who think you can just stop the world from spinning, while you work out something. They vote for people whose hyperbole promises they will “just vote no”…. This is a childish vision of the world. And like a child, they are being led around by the hand.Told what to believe and what not to believe. Their worldview is based on fairytales.Religion, capitalism,free markets,etc. I would imagine that people who are honest with themselves would still maybe “like” certain ideals of “libertarianism”, but realize the movement and the label has been co-opted and a real person cannot be branded by their owners, to wearing the libertarian brand. Just like any independent minded person couldn’t allow themselves to be branded ,”republican” or “democrat”

Reply ↓

Massinissa July 20, 2014 at 9:37 am

“They always mean a single mom with three kids”

Not in my experience, or at least, not a white mom with three kids.

Welfare bitching is aimed usually at black people in general. This, even though most on welfare are indeed single white women with children.

But either way, its never aimed at corporations who dont pay taxes but get welfare. No sir.

Reply ↓

trish July 20, 2014 at 10:51 am

most on welfare are corporations. not in numbers on perhaps, but in $ amount. easily surpasses social welfare.

but the focus on single mothers, particularly black, has worked.

Reply ↓

James Levy July 20, 2014 at 9:51 am

The best way to say it might be “CATO Institute Libertarians” or “Establishment Libertarians”–these are the people who are pushing absolute property rights like that rancher out West who thinks that its unfair for the government to charge him to graze his cattle and all the land should really belong to him. These are the kind of people like one of the Repubs running for governor of Wyoming who thinks that Yellowstone should be privatized and the land leased to mining and cattle interests and for hunting preserves. That’s the public face of Libertarianism in America. I know that some people are not this way, but like with the Commissars of old being the standard bearers of Communism, the association of Libertarianism with a certain kind of plutocratic ideal is tough to fight.

Reply ↓

Jim Haygood July 20, 2014 at 9:38 am

Global temperature measurements and financial markets both involve the interpretation of time series data. For the latter, after two centuries of steadily rising U.S. stock returns, a broad consensus exists that corporate earnings and stock prices will appreciate at about a six to seven percent annual rate for centuries to come. It’s just the way things are.

Suppose you believe that the dire effects of global warming — water crises, agricultural crises, peak oil, flooding of coastal cities — will stop this two-century economic warming trend in its tracks, and even reverse it. Does that make you an ‘equity premium denialist,’ who should be stripped of professional qualifications and access to journals?

Reply ↓

pretzelattack July 20, 2014 at 11:29 am

economics is not based on physics. in this case, the increase in value is illusory because externalities have been ignored.

Reply ↓

susan the other July 20, 2014 at 11:41 am

Dumb question: Why isn’t capitalism flexible enough to embrace its costs, include the “externalities” and roll it all up together, and find a way to still make a profit by providing solutions to all these awful problems. Real solutions, not management bullshit. Even capitalism (which isn’t really an ism at all) could find a way to incorporate conservation and other efficiencies. It’s almost like we are in the unconscious phase of knowing something has to be done, but we’ve never been there before, like a dream almost – but everyone knows things will begin to get better.

Reply ↓ Jim Haygood July 20, 2014 at 12:10 pm

‘The increase in value is illusory because externalities have been ignored.’

Alright. Evidently you oppose the academic consensus that there is a permanent equity premium, owing to equities having higher risk than bonds. In your view, when externalities (such as climate change) start to bite, investment returns will suffer as our complacent illusions are exposed as false.

If you were pejoratively labeled an ‘equity premium denialist’ for expressing this unpopular theory, it would illustrate an extreme polarization of opinion (which can occur in any field of inquiry). In the case of markets (and by extension, many other noisy time series), the future is unknowable. Castigating those who question the prevailing consensus as willful intellectual saboteurs would be an exercise in hubris.

Reply ↓

tw July 20, 2014 at 10:40 am

Amongst those high poobahs who have it all figured out, perhaps you can tell me what the optimal temperature is, and what the optimal level of carbon dioxide should be. In order to play god and utilize computer modeling to come to the conclusion that something is “catastrophic” it might be more convincing to determine if there is an optimal value for these two numbers that we should be shooting for.

Describing the situation in absolute terms, all the while being unable to provide an absolute final goal seems less than satisfying as an argument.

Reply ↓

pretzelattack July 20, 2014 at 11:31 am

nobody is describing anything in absolute terms. we need carbon dioxide in order not to freeze. maintaining something like the balance that has existed while civilization developed would be desirable. and nobody is claiming that climate change will necessarily be catastrophic, unless of course we don’t do anything about curbing emissions.

Reply ↓

Banger July 20, 2014 at 11:16 am

I think depicting corrupt and greedy f-cks as libertarian is absurd. There is a group that believe that their own interest and desires means liberty for the powerful and slavery for the powerless–these people, like Ayn Rand, are really simply believers in radical evil for its own sake or to put a friendlier term on it they are neo-feudalists.

Libertarian philosophy should not so easily be dismissed on the basis this article dismisses it. Technically, libertarians believe that you make your case about conflicting property claims in a court of law or something like it. In the case of climate change it could consist of a panel of judges and scientists who would make that evaluation and suggest remedies. Libertarians mostly agree that we ought to provide for the common defense and dealing with climate change would exactly qualify.

And why are we criticizing libertarians here? Is any government, other than a few in Europe, really interested in doing anything about climate change? The U.S. government’s has very little interest, other than rhetorical, in dealing with climate change and hasn’t been whether it was and RP or DP Administration. Australia’s mild attempts have been washed away not because of ideology but from sheer greed.

Reply ↓

susan the other July 20, 2014 at 11:51 am

They did imply that the misunderstanding lies in believing property rights are absolute. Of course not even blithering red-neck lunatics believe property rights are absolute – that’s why most of them blither. Property rights are obligations, first and foremost. So why not turn this argument on it’s head? Let us all begin to talk about our obligations.

Reply ↓ Jackrabbit July 20, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Banger, you are putting lipstick on a pig. The harshness of the libertarian philosophy can not be wished away or excused with: “but in practice . . .”.

I sympathize with the frustrations of changing a dysfunctional democratic system. How do you get root and branch reform without essentially starting over? Yet libertarianism seems to be a step leap in the wrong direction.

= = = H O P

Reply ↓

impermanence July 20, 2014 at 11:16 am

Libertarians, like all political people, desire their cake and eat it too. In the same moment the state is born, the individual ceases to exist. You are born a slave [to the state], and die the very same. What happens in-between, is a matter of pure intellectual speculation, little more.

Money is the perfect example of this transformation. Individuals are such because they own their labor-power 100%. Introduce the state [and its money], and that very very thing that defines you is abstracted in its money-form, and so goes your individuality, right out the window.

Reply ↓ docg July 20, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Climate change hysteria is NOT science. While there seems no doubt that things are getting warmer, and it also seems likely that this is due at least in part to the burning of fossil fuels, the notion that “global warming” is and will be responsible for extreme events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, forest fires, or even sea level rise, is NOT science. For the simple reason that such predictions are un-falsifiable. And an un-falsifiable theory is, very simply, NOT a scientific theory.

Are such projections worth considering? Yes. And we would be foolish to ignore them. But as far as “the science” is concerned: climate science is science, yes; hysteria about the “disastrous effects” of climate change is NOT science. What should equally concern us is the disastrous effects of over-reacting, because there can be no question that the serious curtailment of fossil fuel usage WILL be disastrous. That IS a falsifiable prediction — which cannot be falsified, because we know all too well what the results will be.

There is NO science that enables us to test any of the theories linking climate change with all these predicted disasters. Disasters of this kind have happened too many times in the past. The worst droughts, floods, hurricanes, etc. took place long before the heavy use of fossil fuels. Two of the most horrific events in all of history took place very recently, in the form of two disastrous tsunamis. Those tsunamis were caused by earthquakes deep beneath the ocean, which could not possibly be related to climate change. If they could, we can be sure “the science” would be pinning all the blame on global warming.

Sea levels have been rising ever since they’ve been systematically monitored, back in the 19th century. All indications are that they will continue to rise, regardless of anything we do or don’t do. The notion that we can prevent sea level rise by taking drastic steps that would ruin the world economy and destroy the lives of literally hundreds of millions or billions of people is sheer folly.

Reply ↓

afisher July 20, 2014 at 1:54 pm

That is an interesting but false argument. The claim: Climate Change is not Science. A number of changes to the environment, that 1) warming of seas, 2) increase CO2 which is translated into the actual H2CO3 levels: aka acidification of the oceans, 3) increase in intensity of storms 4) increase in global drought, etc…are all measurable events. A number of actual scientific studies and modeling constucts are combined to make a descriptive term: Climate Change. In the world of medicine – a high WBC count is not a diagnosis for appendicitis – but that measurable item, coupled with other diagnostic measures / observations lead a Physician to conclude that a group of symptoms usually mean Appendicitis.

If you have a problem with one of the studies – speak to how it doesn’t fit into the group of studies that don’t support the descriptive term – otherwise – this sounds like a baffle with bs argument. “I don’t like the term Climate Change”…would you be happier with Plan C?

Choice of words to argue is always weird – it may make the argument fun – but it does nothing to change the “diagnosis”

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list