Libertarianism doesn’t mean a free-for-all

Matthew Yglesias usefully rips into the wilfully dumb kind of “libertarian”:

It’s worth going back to first principles on markets, property rights, and air pollution. To have a functioning market, you need to have property rights. And property rights need to be defined in some way or other. This includes taking some view of the relationship between property rights and particulate emissions into the air. On one conceivable conception of property rights, the Sierra Club could buy up a field somewhere and then assert that its property rights over the field give it the right to exclude any form of air pollution from wafting into its field. On that definition of property rights, which is the one “the Greens” would favor if we really wanted Stone Age economic conditions, industrial production would swiftly become impossible. You couldn’t so much as warm yourself with a fire before neighbors were accusing you of tresspassing for depositing microscopic soot particles in their lawns.


3 responses to “Libertarianism doesn’t mean a free-for-all

  1. We should think about the environment in making decisions, but we can’t claim every draft of air that floats above our land. Property rights basically make innovation and production worthwhile, as far as I understand.

  2. Is not one condition of having property rights the ability to legitimately claim and control the property being claimed? For instance, international law has recognized national sovereignty to an extent 3 miles from any coastline because this was the distance a cannon could be fired. In this case, no one can claim any air as long as the wind is allowed to blow.

  3. I guess that’s true- if somebody “owns” something but has no real or enforceable control over it, then they would have a hard time objecting if their property is breached… unless some court somehow sides with them against humanity for polluting air or water or whatever.
    But in the example above, the interpretation of property rights is only borderline libertarian since it favors more government involvement to prosecute the “trespassing”, and if there is no legitimate harm a libertarian would favor staying out of the matter altogether.

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