An ethical critique of pollution as a right

From the distributist author John Medaille:


“Capitalism itself is being proposed as the solution, through the means of establishing pollution as a property right. This is the meaning of the “cap and trade” system. Government will give the biggest polluters the biggest rights to pollute, and then slowly withdraw the rights, leading to a market in pollution rights. And since the market knows all things, sees all things, the market will solve the problem without any further government involvement.

It is hard for me to imagine a worse solution than making a pollution a “right,” essentially a legal right to poison your neighbor. When you create such rights, you are likely to get more of a thing, not less. And since there are such huge measurement problems, not to mention a host of loopholes, cap and trade will create a vast and profitable market without materially reducing pollution. Indeed, creating a property right in pollution creates a constituency to continue that right, and extend it. The “trade” part of cap and trade will be real enough; the “cap” part is likely to be ephemeral. (For a good left-wing analysis of this program, see Annie Leonard’s The Story of Cap and Trade; while you are at her site, see The Story of Stuff.)
Distributist Solutions

The proper answer to bad solutions is not no solutions; it is better solutions. Nor is denial an answer. Even if we are in a “natural” warming period, unrestrained industrial action can only make it worse. Distributism is capable of providing these better solutions, and recognizing the reality of pollution, for distributism itself is an exercise in realism. And distributist solutions are rooted in two sound principles: proper cost accounting and community rights.

Pollution is an “externality.” An externality is the cost of a transaction that is borne by someone not a party to the transaction. When a company dumps mercury into the river, there will be health problems downstream, a real cost. The price of a product should reflect all the costs, but this cost will not show up in the price. The people downstream of the plant will subsidize the company through increased birth defects; the company will get the benefits of using the river as a sewer, and the downstream babies will get the cost of a lifetime of problems. By definition, an externality cannot be handled by the market; it is external to the market. To ask the market to handle the problem is asking it to do something it cannot do, and that is asking for trouble.

The first step in any solution is not to see pollution as a right, but as a wrong. And the nature of that wrong is that it appropriates a community resource (such as the air, the river, the ground) as a private property, and does so without any compensation to the community. The community has every natural right to forbid this, or at least to charge for the use of these resources, up to their full value.

Proper cost accounting insures that all costs show up in the price of a product. In the case of externalities, the market cannot do this; it is up to the community. The community must put a price on its resources, just like any other owner of a resource must do. Some resources cannot be assigned any cost. In the case of mercury poisoning, it can only be forbidden. Other things can be priced, even at a price that restricts their use. Carbon outputs can be priced, and ought to be; the community ought to recover something for the use of its resources, and the overuse of certain things ought to be discouraged. Only proper cost accounting and the proper recognition of community rights can do this. It is amazing, by the way, just how many questions of social justice come down to questions of proper cost accounting. Indeed, one of the great uses of distributism is to ensure that costs are properly charged to cost causers.

Distributists should be leaders, not laggards, in dealing with these questions. Aside from the economic issues, distributism is rooted in Christian principles which dictate a reverence for nature. This reverence is not a worship of nature in the raw, but a proper respect for the created order over which man has proper dominion. This dominion is not a tyranny which allows us to abuse nature, but rather to care for it. We make nature serve human ends; this is right and proper. But in doing so, we do not violate its “natural” status; we do not convert the river into an open sewer, the ground into a cesspit. At that point, it is not natural, and quickly ceases to serve any human purpose, other than the purpose of letting a few humans get rich at the expense of their brothers.”

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