“Free-market Environmentalism” – these words are rarely found together, and if they are, they’re usually contrived as polar opposite solutions. Supporters of free-markets hold economic regulations in high disdain as another vehicle through which government can exert its force to rob productive businesses and industries of their profits. On the other hand, most environmentalist actions, including the ones that the Democratic Party has been advocating for the past few years, achieve nothing more than the creation of a standard of unnecessary government intrusion. However, to discount all environment-protective action by the government as statism would to be ignore a crucial feature of the free market system: the elimination of the tragedy of the commons.
The tragedy of the commons, in short, is the gaping hole in collectivist theory. It’s effect originated in medieval English towns and villages, which, while sustaining private ownership of land, also held land that belonged to the public – the “commons”. Historians, through research, have demonstrated that the commons were some of the worst-kept lands in the region: overgrazed, filthy, and and undeveloped. This all contributed to the decline of the commons in the centuries-long privatization of these regions. The reason seems simple – the land belonged to everyone, and therefore to no one. The entire community used it for their advantage, but there was no purpose for anyone to maintain the land since such an action would benefit others at the expense of that individual’s time and effort.
Now we can transplant this problem into the modern day and the types of commons that we have today – most significantly, our air and water. Both of these resources are not privately held by anyone – our streams, rivers, oceans, and air are all public goods, so to speak. Wells and springs can be privately owned, but most water, if not held by the government as an absentee owner, is public. If it rains, one can collect rainwater without it being considered theft. Environmentalists understand that the tragedy of the commons is a very real threat to our environment, and so they argue that government regulation can prevent the destruction of these resources. Supporters of free-markets have to understand the tragedy as well and propose market-driven solutions. Unfortunately, the only solution provided so far is to allow the commons to continue to exist, unregulated and abused, ultimately strengthening the arguments of environmentalists.
However, environmental regulation, done properly, is as much of a free-market practice as trading. One of the ways that this regulation can be handled effectively is through carbon credits. Whether one believes in global warming or not, it is undeniable that carbon emissions pollute our air and can lead to diseases in plants, animals, and humans in high concentrations – diseases that cost money and effort to treat. In effect, a factory emitting CO2 is laying an additional cost on the surrounding population and may be currently held unaccountable for it. In a purely free-market system, however, that pollutant would have to pay for any damages it causes. Just like if a heavy piece of machinery fell and injured somebody and the factory has to pay damages, so too would they have to pay for damaging the environment. Through the issuance of carbon credits, businesses can be held accountable for their pollution to the public. For every certain amount of pollution that they emit, those businesses would have to pay a certain cost to revitalize the environment. Depending on local contracts, this could include paying for clean-up crews, replacing lost crops, and healthcare for those who get diseases, such as asthma and other lung-related issues, that can be attributed to higher carbon levels. Surely, more research must be done into the effects of carbon pollution, but the framework for the free-market to care for the environment has been, and always will be there.
Ivan Glinski is a We Are 1776 contributor.