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Free-market environmentalism


Free-market environmentalism

Free-market environmentalism is the political position that argues that the free market, property rights, and tort law provide the best means of preserving the environment, internalising pollution costs, and conserving resources.

While environmental problems may be viewed as market failures, free market environmentalists argue that environmental problems arise because:

  1. The state encodes, provides and enforces laws which override or obscure property rights and thus fail to protect them adequately.
  2. Laws governing class or individual tort claims provide polluters with immunity from tort claims, or interfere with those claims in such a way as to make it difficult to legally sustain them.

Free-market environmentalists therefore argue that the best way to protect the environment is to use tort and contract laws governing and protecting property rights and tort claims to protect the environment. They believe that if affected parties can compel polluters to compensate them they will reduce or eliminate the externality. Market proponents advocate changes to the legal system that empower affected parties to obtain such compensation. They further claim that governments have limited affected parties' ability to do so by complicating the tort system to benefit producers over others.

Free-market environmentalists assert that economics is a branch of ecology. Both study complex interdependent systems science.[1] The fundamental problem for economists is scarcity.


  • Government Failure 1
  • Market Tools 2
  • Issues 3
    • Coase Theorem 3.1
    • Geolibertarianism 3.2
    • Anarcho-Capitalism 3.3
    • Markets and Ecosystems as Spontaneous Orders 3.4
    • Others 3.5
  • Notable free-market environmentalists 4
  • Notable free-market environmentalist groups 5
  • Criticisms 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • Bibliography 9
  • External links 10

Government Failure

Though many environmentalists blame markets for many of today's environmental problems, free-market environmentalists blame many of these problems on distortions of the market and the lack of markets. Government actions are blamed for a number of environmental detriments.

  • Tragedy of the Commons is seen as a fundamental problem for the environment. When land is held in common, anybody may use it. Since resources are consumable, this creates the incentive for entrepreneurs to use common resources before somebody else does. Many environmental resources are held by the government or in common, such as air, water, forests. The problem with regulation is that it puts property into a political commons, where individuals try to appropriate public resources for their own gain, a phenomenon called rent-seeking.
  • Tenure - Renters do not benefit from value accrued during their tenure and thus face an incentive to extract as much value as possible without conservation.
  • Political Allocation - Political information does not have the incentives that markets do to seek superior information (profit and loss). Though many participants provide input to governments, they can only make one decision. This means that governments create rules that are not well crafted for local situations. The government's strategy is that of anticipation, to hide from danger through regulations. A healthier society would use resilience, facing and overcoming risks.[2]
  • Perverse Subsidies - Governments offer cross subsidies that distort price systems. This means that underconsumers and overconsumers are paying the same rates, so the underconsumer is overpaying and the overconsumer is underpaying. The incentive leads to more overconsumers and fewer underconsumers.

Market Tools

Markets are not perfect, and free-market environmentalists assert that market-based solutions will have their mistakes. Through strong feedback mechanisms such as risk, profit and loss, market-driven have strong incentives to learn from mistakes.

  • Individual Choice - Consumers have the incentive to maximize their satisfaction and try to find low cost, high value options. Markets allocate resources to the highest bidder. Producers make purchases on behalf of the consumer. Due to many actors in the market, there is no one-size-fits-all solution and entrepreneurs will seek to fulfill many values of society, including conservation.
  • Entrepreneurship - Entrepreneurs seek value, problem-solve, and coordinate resources.
  • Price System - When resources become scarce, prices rise. Rising prices incentivize entrepreneurs to find substitutions for these resources. These resources are often conserved. E.g. As prices for coal rise, consumers will use less and higher prices will drive substitution for different energy sources.
  • Property Rights - Owners face a strong incentive to take care of and protect their property. They must decide how much to use today and how much to use tomorrow. Everybody is trying to grow value. Corporate value and share price is based on their anticipated future profits. Owners with the possibility of transferring their property, either to and heir or through sale want their property to grow in value. Property rights encourage conservation and defend resources against depletion, since there is a strong incentive to maximize the value of the resource for the future.
  • Common Law - In order to have working property rights, you need a good system to defend them. When rights are weak, people will violate them. By creating a strong system, where common resources can be homesteaded, transferred, and defended against harm, resources can be protected, managed, allocated with the results that aggregate and balance humanity's needs and wants.

The market is a non-political allocation device. Many environmentalists proposals call to return resources from markets to become political problems.


Coase Theorem

Some economists argue from the Coase Theorem that, if industries internalized the costs of negative externalities they would face an incentive to reduce them, perhaps even becoming enthusiastic about taking advantage of opportunities to improve profitability through lower costs. Moreover, economists claim this would lead to the optimal balance between the marginal benefits of pursuing an activity and the marginal cost of its environmental consequences. One well-known means of internalizing a negative consequence is to establish a property right over some phenomenon formerly in the public domain. This requires a little abstract thinking in the case of environmental problems as these Coasians are talking about a grant to pollute or to exploit some limited natural phenomenon. This is a sophisticated variant of the polluter pays principle. However, critics have charged that the "theorem" attributed to Coase is of extremely limited practicability because of assumptions, including that it was theorized to account for adjacent effects where transaction costs for bargaining agents are typically small, but is ill-suited to real world externalities which have high bargaining costs due to many factors.[3]


Libertarian Geolibertarians) maintain a strong essential commitment to free markets but reject the Coasian solution in favor of land value taxation, wherein the economic rent of land is collected by the community and either equally distributed to adult residents in the form of universal basic income, called the Citizen's Dividend, or used to fund necessary functions of a minimal government. Under the LVT system, only landholders are taxed and on the basis of the market value of the earth in its unimproved state, that is to say, apart from the value of any structures or products of human labor. Geolibertarians regard the LVT as just compensation for a legal land title granting exclusive access to that which logically precedes and generates private capital, whose supply is inelastic, which properly belongs to all, and to which all have an equal right because it is vital to human existence and economic activity—the ground itself—and thus consider land value capture both morally imperative and a natural source of revenue.

Taxation of land values has been advocated by many classical economists and theorists of Pigouvian taxes on pollution and fees as compensation for natural resource extraction, negative externalities which adversely affect land values in particular. Many argue the monopolization of land promotes idle land speculation, real estate bubbles, urban sprawl and artificially severe wealth inequality, while violating the Lockean proviso and denying others rightful access to the earth.[4]


Rothbardians also reject the proposed Coasian solution as making invalid assumptions about the purely subjective notion of costs being measurable in monetary terms, and also of making unexamined and invalid value judgments (i.e., ethical judgments). ([1] PDF) The Rothbardians' solution is to recognize individuals' Lockean property rights, of which the Rothbardians maintain that Wertfreiheit (i.e., value-free) economic analysis demonstrates that this arrangement necessarily maximizes social utility. ([2] PDF) Rothbard himself however believed the term free-market environmentalism to be oxymoronic, because the environment, being undeveloped and unowned, is in itself not truly property until it is transformed via the Lockean proviso. On environmentalism Rothbard said: "The problem is that environmentalists are not interested in efficiency or preserving private property....The environmentalists are acolytes and prisoners of a monstrous literally anti-human philosophy. They despise and condemn the human race, which by its very nature and in contrast to other creatures, changes and transforms the environment instead of being passively subjected to it....I have come to the conclusion that a 'free-market environmentalist' is an oxymoron. Scratch one and you environmentalist."[5]

Markets and Ecosystems as Spontaneous Orders

Recent arguments in the academic literature have used Friedrich Hayek’s concept of a spontaneous order to defend a broadly non-interventionist environmental policy.[6] Hayek originally used the concept of a spontaneous order to argue against government intervention in the market.[7] Like the market, ecosystems contain complex networks of information, involve an ongoing dynamic process, contain orders within orders, and the entire system operates without being directed by a conscious mind.[8] On this analysis, species takes the place of price as a visible element of the system formed by a complex set of largely unknowable elements. Human ignorance about the countless interactions between the organisms of an ecosystem limits our ability to manipulate nature. Since humans rely on the ecosystem to sustain themselves, it is argued that we have an obligation to not disrupt such systems. This analysis of ecosystems as spontaneous orders does not rely on markets qualifying as spontaneous orders. As such, one need not endorse Hayek’s analysis of markets to endorse ecosystems as spontaneous orders.


Proponents of free-market environmentalism use the example of the recent destruction of the once prosperous Grand Banks fishery off Newfoundland. Once one of the world's most abundant fisheries, it has been almost completely depleted of fish. Those primarily responsible were large "factory-fishing" enterprises driven by the imperative to realize profits in a competitive global market.[9] It is contended that if the fishery had been owned by a single entity, the owner would have had an interest in keeping a renewable supply of fish to maintain profits over the long term. The owner would thus have charged high fees to fish in the area, sharply reducing how many fish were caught. The owner also would have closely enforced rules on not catching young fish. Instead commercial ships from around the world raced to get the fish out of the water before competitors could, including catching fish that had not yet reproduced.

Another example is in the 19th century early gold miners in California developed a trade in rights to draw from water courses based on the doctrine of prior appropriation. This was curtailed in 1902 by the Newlands Reclamation Act which introduced subsidies for irrigation projects. This had the effect of sending a signal to farmers that water was inexpensive and abundant, leading to uneconomic use of a scarce resource. Increasing difficulties in meeting demand for water in the western United States have been blamed on the continuing establishment of governmental control and a return to tradable property rights has been proposed.

According to Richard L. Stroup, markets in the environmental field, in order to function well, require "3-D" property rights to each important resource — i.e., rights that are clearly defined, easily defended against invasion, and divestible (transferable) by owners on terms agreeable to buyer and seller. The first two rights prevent property owners from being forced to accept pollution, and the third right provides an incentive for owners to be good stewards.[10]

Notable free-market environmentalists

Notable free-market environmentalist groups

Political parties that have supported free-market environmentalism:


Some critics argue that free-market environmentalists have no method of dealing with collective problems like environmental degradation and natural resource depletion because of their rejection of collective regulation and control.[13] They see natural resources as too difficult to privatize, as well as legal responsibility for pollution and degrading biodiversity as too hard to trace.[14]

See also


  1. ^  
  2. ^  
  3. ^ Mamlyuk, Boris. "Analyzing the Polluter Pays Principle Through Law and Economics". 
  4. ^ David Estlund (19 July 2012). The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press. p. 164.  
  5. ^
  6. ^ Lamey, Andy (2014-09-24). "Ecosystems as Spontaneous Orders". Rochester, NY. 
  7. ^ "Hayek, The Use of Knowledge in Society | Library of Economics and Liberty". Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  8. ^ Lamey, Andy (2014-09-24). "Ecosystems as Spontaneous Orders". Rochester, NY. pp. 6–11. 
  9. ^
  10. ^  
  11. ^ Environment – Liberal Democratic Party. Retrieved 24 August 2013.
  12. ^ "Libertarian Party 2010 Platform". May 2010. Retrieved 23 April 2011 
  13. ^ Friedman, Jeffrey, "Politics or Scholarship?", Critical Review, Vol. 6, No. 2-3, 1993. pp. 429–45.
  14. ^ Partridge, Ernest. "With Liberty and Justice for Some." Environmental Philosophy edited by Michael Zimmerman, Baird Callicott, Karen Warren, Irene Klaver, and John Clark, 2004. [3]


  • Anderson, T L & Leal, D R (1991) Free-market environmentalism ISBN 0-8133-1101-2
  • Grundfest, J.A. (1992). "The limited future of unlimited liability: a capital markets perspective". Yale Law Journal (The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 102, No. 2) 102 (2): 387–425.  
  • Hansmann, H. & Kraakman, R. (1991). "Toward unlimited shareholder liability for corporate torts". Yale Law Journal (The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 100, No. 7) 100 (7): 1879–1934.  
  • Stroup, Richard L. (2003) Eco-nomics: What Everyone Should Know About Economics and the Environment ISBN 1-930865-44-9
  • Krugman, Paul (1999) "Earth in the balance sheet: economists go for the green" and "Taxes and traffic jams" reprinted in The Accidental Theorist ISBN 0-14-028686-1
  • Ridley, M & Low, B S (1993) "Can selfishness save the environment?", The Atlantic Monthly vol. 272, pp. 76–86
  • Simon, Julian (1998) The Ultimate Resource 2 ISBN 0-691-00381-5

External links

  • "Plants, Animals and Climate Change: Some Ruminations on the Environment," 199.16 KB PDF Joe Peacott, "Libertarian Alliance", Scientific Notes No. 15 (2006), pp. 1–7.
  • Walter Block – Free Market Economics and the Environment: A Reconciliation
  • Tony Smith – The Case Against Free Market Environmentalism
  • "Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution," 1.8 MB PDF Murray N. Rothbard, Cato Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 1982), pp. 55–100.
  • "Resolving the Tragedy of the Commons by Creating Private Property Rights in Wildlife," Robert J. Smith, Cato Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Fall 1981), pp. 439–468.
  • "Environmentalism, Free-Market," Richard L. Stroup, The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics: Library of Economics and Liberty
  • A Hayekian Defense of Free-Market Environmentalism
  • The sale of trees for profit, Trees Instead
  • The Thoreau Institute – a pro-free market environmentalism group
  • The Nature Conservancy has posted much information on conservation easements and other tools pertaining to free-market environmentalism
  • Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (AERE).
  • JEEM: Journal of Environmental Economics and Management (AERE's official "technical" journal).
  • REEP: Review of Environmental Economics and Policy (AERE's official "accessible" journal).
  • free-market Environmentalism Bibliography on The Commons Blog
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