The Tragedy of the Commons
The concepts of a “Free Market” and the idea of an unregulated market producing whatever gains an advocate is looking for, or advancing a policy that liberals or conservatives (depending on the argument in question) ought to agree with, has come from my Libertarian friends a lot lately.
After one of my friends claimed a “properly functioning, unregulated free market” ought to produce responsible economic stewardship, I had to question the logic.
“Pollution of other people’s property is a violation of individual rights. Strict liability, not arbitrary government standards, should regulate pollution. We demand the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency. Rather than making taxpayers pay for toxic waste clean-ups, the responsible managers and employees, should be held strictly liable for material damage done by their property. Claiming that one has abandoned a piece of property does not absolve one of the responsibility.“
Much of the problem I have with this idea comes from the issues it doesn’t address. In many cases where damage is high value, the “liable” party may be effectively judgement proof; a company that is trying to get a leg up on a competitor entrenched in a certain field, or a company that is seeing economic distress and looking to cut corners, may very well engage in ecologically destructive activity while still going bankrupt. In other cases where the environment is concerned, it may not be possible at all to truly repair or clean up the damage caused after the fact. In either case, “strict liability” is insufficient to provide appropriate relief to the Commons.
The Libertarian Party’s position also contains the following argument:
“Obviously, owners make better environmental guardians than renters. If the government sold its acreage to private ranchers, the new owners would make sure that they grazed the land sustainably to maximize profit and yield.”
This completely ignores – or considers impossible – the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons. Upon challenge to this point, I brought up historical evidence. During the most laissez-faire times in US history, rampant overfarming and ecological blindness by farmers led to the Dust Bowl, even though each farmer was acting in their own perceived economic interest. According to the US National Marine Fisheries Service, there are a large number of species in US coastal waters that are overfished to dangerous levels today. Again, each of the individual fishermen and companies act in their own economic self-interest to produce catches, but the net effect is a tragedy of the commons.
The libertarian’s response to this was that fault lies with the consumer. That if consumers took the time to be “more informed’, “more knowledgeable”, or properly investigated every product they bought and at the same time considered the environment important enough to protect, that the forces of the free market would force companies to be environmentally conscious by economic means, and that eventually companies who “cheated” or engaged in false advertising about the subject would be found out and shut down either by liability law or loss of business.
The problem with this, as I am finding in a recent examination of most “free market” libertarian ideas, is that it relies on a mythical “well informed consumer” that sits around all day investigating companies, finding out their business practices, finding out their history. It’s a load of work to determine the difference between the $0.45 and $0.60 can of green beans on the store shelf. I started taking a look and to investigate all the companies I interact with in the course of a week – the ones who produce my groceries, the ones I buy my gas from, the ones I get clothes from when I need to buy clothing, the department stores, the fast food restaurants and their suppliers and connections (we all remember the Chick-Fil-A thing, right?) and my determination is that to be truly an “informed consumer” in the sense that my Libertarian friend means, I’d pretty much have to quit my day job and devote 60 hours a week just to investigating companies.
Thus I submit that this is a failing of Libertarianism that tends to invalidate it. The “free market” justifications claimed by libertarianism as to why economic interest ought to produce responsible use of the commons or even of private property and its effect on the commons (such as environmental damage) rely on the existence of a “well informed consumer”, a creature that in modern times constitutes a form of rehetorical unobtainium and thus, Libertarian thought simply fails to have relation to the realities that exist today.