Why some libertarians pollute (their name)

By Babak Moussavi

Think-tanks often get a bad reputation, for being overtly ideological, and pushing an agenda dictated by their rich, often right-wing, benefactors. Occasionally, think-tanks have been criticised as being part of a left-wing plot too. In many, if not most, cases, this may be unfair, and some think-tanks are committed to objective, academic research. The Heartland Institute does not appear to be one of them.

What's the agenda?

The apparent leak of an internal policy document at the Heartland Institute suggests that rich benefactors, including the Koch brothers, and big corporations such as RJR Tobacco, have been using the think-tank as a front to provide ‘research’ and other policy output that discredits climate science. Heartland apparently funds well-known climate deniers who are able to play a part in shifting the debate, and has even considered offering a former US Energy Department employee a large amount of funding to write a curriculum textbook that casts doubt on climate science.

The details in this case are still emerging, and the veracity of the document will need to be clarified, but this is not the first time a think-tank has been accused of being motivated by the ideology of its backers. The question I consider here, is why extreme free-marketeers, or ‘libertarians’, would engage in such activities.

While scepticism is in general a healthy thing, this is not it. This is the result of a corrupted form of libertarianism, struggling to reconcile the problem of environmental degradation with its core principles, and thus attempting to wish it away.

Libertarianism is a philosophy that holds individual liberty to be sacrosanct. In very rare instances can liberty be infringed, and this only when harm is done. Harm, for libertarians is a necessary (though not always sufficient) condition for intervention, so the role of the state is minimal, limited merely to the protection of property rights, through the functions of the courts, police and army (don’t ask how the taxes to pay for these are justified). The idea of property rights derives from the notion of self-ownership, a concept that goes back to John Locke. As Robert Nozick, perhaps the most articulate proponent of libertarianism, put it: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” Government regulations and intervention in the workings of the free-market are therefore held to be fundamentally wrong.

What happens when harm to others does occur? In theory, the perpetrator would be punished, or would have to pay adequate compensation to rectify the damage. But what if the harm is not visible, not intended, and will mainly affect future generations? In principle, this should not matter. The harm resulting from a negative externality, where a third-party is adversely affected but not compensated, is still harm. If the harm were proven, even the libertarian would agree to compensate.

So, rather than stick to consistent libertarian principles and pay up for the damage wrought by pollution, a genius solution from modern-day libertarians is to deny that there is any harm at all. If this involves attempting to cast doubt on the objectivity of the scientific research, or even rewriting the textbooks, then so be it. The Heartland Institute affair appears to show that this is a path some rich, polluting, self-interested organisations are willing to take. If the free-market cannot correct this problem, pretend the problem does not exist. Certainly don’t consider the alternative: that, just maybe, the idea that the free-market is perfect is a myth.

The reason libertarians are against environmental protection regulation cannot be simply put down to a principled objection to state involvement in the economy. After all, in many Western states, including the USA, government expenditure accounts for more than nearly half of GDP. Do these people really believe a little more involvement for the purpose of protecting the environment will lead to the totalitarianism that Friedrich Hayek warned about (in a totally different context, it must be added)?

If NGOs, think-tanks, pressure groups, and other bodies that stake a claim to represent ‘civil society’ wish to be seen as impartial, they should be willing to disclose their funding sources. After all, if such groups’ activities and output are heavily influence by the beliefs of the benefactors that fund them, then presumably this would contradict their claim to objectivity. They would merely be seen as fronts for peddling a political agenda. Their intellectual dishonesty would be exposed for what it is.

Imagine for a moment what the effect would be if such privately-funded bodies that push an ideological agenda transparently released details of their funding sources. When it comes to the loudest deniers of climate change, it might be a bit of a give-away.

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