When people list reasons for having a strong central government, one of the reasons they most frequently give is the need for environmental protections. Air and water pollution frequently effect huge numbers of people across large geographic areas (in the case of greenhouse gasses, the entire world) and so, it is thought, we must have a strong central government that can regulate emissions and such.
A typical libertarian response to the 'what about the environment?' question is to argue that there should be unlimited civil liability for environmental damage. The current system isn't working particularly well and, libertarians are always repeating, there has been great success in decreasing water pollution in the UK by class action suits from fishermens' groups against polluters. (I can't personally vouch for the veracity of this claim, but my fellow libertarians are always repeating it.) Furthermore, this system ought theoretically (in an idealized free market) to make the cost of pollution to polluters equal to the social cost of the damage they are doing: in order to avoid a lawsuit, they will need to get the consent of all affected parties. If they succeed in buying off all the parties, they do so because each affected party thinks that her life is all-things-considered better living in a polluted area with the cash (she might spend some of it to clean up the pollution, of course) than without it. If someone pollutes without getting advanced permission from all the affected parties, punitive damages could also be levied for purposes of deterrence.
There are two problems with applying this model to the case of greenhouse gas emissions: (1) the whole world is effected, and (2) nearly everyone in our country contributes. An obvious solution to problem (1) is to have a class action suit filed by the attorney-general on behalf of the whole country. The money would be collected and used to do whatever is possible to reduce the effects, as well as to compensate those most effected (e.g. farmers whose land becomes unusable; one might also subsidize food, etc., that becomes more expensive as a result). Such a lawsuit would have to name nearly everyone in the country and divide responsibility between them. Furthermore, lawsuits would have to be filed year after year as polluting activities continued. As a result, this would amount to a horribly inefficient way of levying a carbon tax. Why not skip the lawsuit, and just have a carbon tax in the first place?
From this line of reasoning, I conclude that libertarians who believe the basic claims of the standard scientific view on global warming should support a policy in which the government attempts to quantify the damage done by carbon emissions and determine what can be done to mitigate or reverse it (perhaps getting their figures approved by a court to help prevent abuse) and then divides this cost between individuals and corporations in proportion to their greenhouse emissions by means of a tax on all forms of fossil fuel.Posted by Kenny at July 19, 2009 8:49 PM
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