Libertarianism and Pollution


Matt Zwolinski

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Because of its support for strong rights of private property and relatively unregulated capitalism, libertarianism is often perceived as being fundamentally incompatible with the kinds of policy goals demanded by a thoroughgoing commitment to environmentalism. But, this paper argues, taking property rights seriously means taking pollution seriously. And indeed, given the stringency with which libertarians support the right of private property, it may mean taking the problem of pollution far more seriously than most of us would or should be willing to accept. This paper explores the radical implications of rights-based libertarianism for the problem of pollution, surveys some attempts by Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, and Eric Mack to avoid the most implausible of those radical conclusions. It concludes that none of these attempts are entirely successful, but notes that they exhibit a surprising degree of consensus on the ultimate goal: a principle of "live and let live." Future research in this area should be directed toward further developing the theoretical foundation of this goal and its ramifications for various questions of environmental policy.