Ed Dolan's Econ Blog

Krugman vs. the Libertarians on Phosphorus and Freedom

Paul Krugman is at it again with a stunningly ignorant NYT op-ed on libertarians and the environment, “Phosphorus and Freedom.” As the author of a book on the libertarian perspective on environmental policy, I would like to respond.

Phosphorus comes into the picture in the form of agricultural runoff that pollutes Lake Erie, recently making the Toledo water supply temporarily undrinkable. Krugman blames this kind of thing on libertarians, who, he says, endorse an idea of freedom that includes the freedom to pollute one’s neighbor’s water supply.

Sadly, Krugman’s knowledge of the libertarian position on environmental economics seems to be limited to what he hears on talk radio and what he reads on conservative web sites like Red State. That is problem No. 1: Krugman pretends not to understand the difference between conservatism and libertarianism. He should start by reading Friedrich Hayek’s classic essay “Why I am Not a Conservative,” but maybe he can’t tear himself away from Red State.

According to Krugman, libertarians believe that “anyone who worries about the environment is engaged in scare tactics to further a big-government agenda.” In truth, real libertarians care very much about environmental issues. They just see them through a different lens than Krugman does.

Libertarians view pollution and other environmental harms as violations of property rights. Dumping phosphorus in your neighbor’s drinking water, they say, is no different than dumping a can of garbage on her lawn. As libertarian writer Roy Cordato puts it, environmental issues are “not about harming the environment, but about human conflict over the use of physical resources . . . It is logical that both the origin and the solution of the problem is to be found in a lack of clearly defined or enforced property rights.” That theme is developed at great length by libertarian environmentalists such as those at the Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC). And by the way, when libertarians talk of “property rights,” they include the rights to protect one’s own lungs and blood stream from pollution and other harms, on the principle that we are all “owners” of our own bodies.

Just how do libertarian environmentalists propose that we protect ourselves and our property from polluters? Surprise, surprise! Libertarians do not all agree, just as Krugman and his liberal friends do not all see eye-to-eye on, say, how best to implement healthcare reform.

Some libertarian writers emphasize the use of tort law to sue polluters for damages or to obtain cease-and-desist orders. As Krugman notes, many of them advocate tort reform—but not, as he would have it, reforms that weaken tort law. Instead, they want reforms that would make it easier for pollution victims to prevail in court.

Others favor the use of market-based mechanisms like pollution taxes and cap-and-trade mechanisms. Libertarians who advocate these approaches to protecting the rights of pollution victims find many allies among liberal environmentalists like Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund, author of the book “But Will the Planet Notice.” Many of my earlier posts, most recently this series, have explored the pros and cons of the differing approaches that libertarians propose for protection of the environment.

The bottom line: Anti-environmentalist rants like those found on conservative talk radio and web sites like “Red State” are not representative of libertarian thinking on the environment. The sad truth is that Paul Krugman is probably not really ignorant of that fact. It’s just that he can’t avoid the temptation to take a cheap shot.



15 Responses to “Krugman vs. the Libertarians on Phosphorus and Freedom”

burkbraunAugust 12th, 2014 at 12:44 pm

That answers half the question, maybe. But how about environmental degradation that is not a matter of direct harm or property rights? How about general values like preserving species and habitats in far-away places from permanent extinction and destruction? What do libertarians think about that, or do they ignore it? How about races to the bottom of values and common goods? The question is whether we as communities should have community / state-level values, or whether market conceptions and mechanisms are the only ones to be allowed for better.. or for worse? At some point, libertarians, if they are going to deal with countless market failures and have basic humane values, will end up reconstituting states and state functions.

Ed Dolan EdDolanAugust 12th, 2014 at 1:26 pm

You raise a good point. The source I cite at PERC has written quite a bit about land use, wild species, and so on. So the answer is, yes, libertarians care about these issues, too

BryanWillmanAugust 12th, 2014 at 1:25 pm

No real libertarian argues for no state and no state function. Rather, they argue for emergent solutions like markets rather than meddlesome structures imposed by statists. As for such things as "habitat in far-away places" – why are you at all confident such a thing will be achieved in any way in the current world arrangement? Why are you at all confident that the real expressed will of the population will choose such protections in distant places over the long term, when the real costs are known? Given a real informed vote on the real likely costs of say AGW versus the real costs of avoiding it, it seems quite certain to me that the population would vote to do next to nothing…

As with all statist arguments, good or bad, you are arguing that some set of "rulers" selected by some process will do a better job protecting what YOU want, and that this is somehow better than would the population in local or on the whole want.

I invite you to think about whether a world full of competing states largely known for ignoring invdividual rights has really, or ever can plausibly, achieve any of the goals you seem to support.

BryanWillmanAugust 12th, 2014 at 1:47 pm

But seriously Ed – how has the current arrangement of many countries, all with varying degreess of "statist" structure, avoided the planet going to hell?
Is war ever good for the environment?
In the current model, the citizens of Mexico cannot actually bring effective suit against the businesses of China for spewing vast amounts of CO2.
So yes, these are all real issues, but I am not at all persuaded that the Nation-State is really the solution – it's just what actually exists.

Mazer01August 19th, 2014 at 2:36 pm

I think a solution would be for a community to have the trump card if they are against the will of either a corporation or government action. As in the power of revoking a corporate charter if they are found to be poisoning the community. There needs to be a real threat of a penalty of death for corporate actions otherwise their fiduciary duty will always come first. (The same goes for government action against the will of the people like military equipment going to the police without community consent.) So will implementing a proper cost to pollution, prevent it? Not likely. But bring change to our current system is one which I don't have a easy answer to nor any idea how to implement it. Too often we get blinded by the patriotic enthusiasm in cheering for the Red or Blue team when the balance of power needs to go back to the people rather than a need for more Red or Blue.

BryanWillmanAugust 12th, 2014 at 1:28 pm

burkbraun also worries about the quite sensible issue of "race ot the bottom" – I do not dispute that is a real issue – but tell me, what claim is there that China, or Russia, or India, or anyplace in Africa, have not and will not engage in exactly that?
And given the economic disaster of the ex-coal mining regions of the US, has the end result actually been any better?

So yes, "race to the bottom" can indeed be very real. But I do not see any particular reason to think that a world made of meddling nation states has produced a good solution to this, or ever will.

ThomasGrennesAugust 12th, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Krugman presumes that more government intervention will improve the quality of the water and the general environment. Is it possible that government activity has worsened the quality of the environment.? Military bases and city government treatment of sewage are some of the worst sources of pollution in the United States. The "people's" government of the Soviet Union produced some of the worst cases of pollution in the history of the world. The communist government of Poland created a model steel mill, Nova Huta, that was an extreme polluter for years. China today with its heavy government involvement in the economy has some of the most polluted air, water, and soil in the world. How can this experience lead an objective observer to expect governments to be sources of a cleaner environment?

BryanWillmanAugust 12th, 2014 at 2:30 pm

+1 ThomasGreenes, one last comment, and then I shall shut up since this is not my blog.

When we consider the NET effects (freedom, social welfare, envrionmental results) of a particular regime, and consider the broad universe of such regimes, are we at all confident that freedom, welfare, or environmental results are better served by a statist structure than other sorts of structures?

People tend to list various successes (the banning of lead in gasoline) without considering "how is it that the same ruling structure allowed that in the first place?"

Or that the same ruling structure (decades later) has insisted that some large amount of corn shall be processed into ethanol which shall be put into gasoline. Is that actually an environmental win?

Arguing that it would all be better if your party, or people who think like you, controlled congress (or China or Russia or Kenya …) is a mistake – that never happens. So in a world of real politicians and real voters with real rent seeking, are we to be so sure that statist mechanisms are better for the environment?????

[People also tend to list daft consequences of environmental rules without considering the totality of that either. I don't find that particularly helpful.]

cowboyctAugust 13th, 2014 at 1:39 am

I found Krugman's article vapid. I have always considered myself a "conservative" on most issues with some libertarian leanings. I thought his article say poorly represented even the conservative type of view point. With a situation like environmental issues, I believe social groups could affect the change necessary in a market. Essentially a group of people gets fed up with Company A doing X and protests, boycotts, and rallies to get customers to stop buying from Company A. While not perfect, it is a free market solution to having a company exploit small children in Whatcha-ma-call-it-stan. If the customers don't care, they won't stop; which by the way makes the customers immoral. I thought this post was a great response to Krugman's straw-man and seems like a reasonable solution to me (in combination with the above).

muirgeo1August 13th, 2014 at 10:24 am

The solutions you outline that libertarians suggest seem to be the same ones as liberals. Libertarians I speak to suggest the issues would be solved in the courts which IS bad policy because the solutions come after the damage is done and big money corporations are hard to defeat in courts and that is why you need agencies like the EPA with regulatory oversight.