Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tyler Cowen Finds a Problem With Pure Libertarianism

George Mason University's Tyler Cowen writes (emphasis in original):
The main problem with classical libertarianism is that it doesn’t allow enough pollution.  Under libertarian theory, pollution is a form of violent aggression that should be banned, as Murray Rothbard insisted numerous times.  OK, but what about actual practice, once all those special interest groups start having their say? 

Say what?

How would special interests have influence in a Rothbardian libertarian society? This contradicts the very essence of Rothbardian libertarianism.

Tyler tries to work around this by then writing:
 Historically, under the more limited government of the 19th century, it was big business that wanted to move away from unpredictable local and litigation-driven methods of control, and toward a more systematic regulatory approach at the national level.
But what he is really saying here is that it was 19th century big business that wanted to move away from classical libertarianism.

You can't argue classical libertarianism has failed by pointing to a governmental structure that isn't classical libertarian.

Further, Cowen takes on the role of a central planner when he suggests that a classical libertarian society wouldn't allow enough pollution. Just who is he to determine how much pollution should exist in a society, any more than, say, how many cell phones? Rothbard's position correctly starts from the position that non-aggressive exchange can occur only when those involved in an exchange agree to it. This is different from the central planner who imposes exchange. In other words, from a libertarian perspective the only pollution that would be allowed is when those who are experiencing the pollution agree to such for monetary compensation or for other reasons.

There is no such thing as enough pollution in a free society other than that which occurs with respect for the non-aggression principle. Cowen is being Trumpian here.



  1. why i do not read cowen or take him seriously.

  2. Even if it were true that classical liberalism would have slowed the industrial revolution, so what? Why does Cowen assume that the rate of development we experienced was ideal? Could it be any more obvious that he's grabbing onto anything he can find to bash libertarians over the head.

    1. Cowen's argument seems to be in opposition to the ideal of the "noble savage" which progressives are fond to promote.

  3. Think of the amount of press the word is getting of late. My journey began because of a RP reading list in 2007. The genie is out of the bottle.

  4. More garbage. According to our "opponents", AnCap is either too strict or Mad Max chaotic, often simultaneously. Or a population that has managed to abolish the initiation of violence will naturally become fussbudget jerks and shoot anyone that steps on their lawn. While simultaneously being meth users.

    Same old same old. "The Incredible Bread Machine" from the early 1970s:

    Price too high?
    Or price too low?
    Now, which charge did they make?
    Well, they weren't loath to charging both
    With Public Good at stake!
    In fact, they went one better –
    They charged "monopoly!"
    No muss, no fuss, oh woe is us,
    Egad, they charged all three!

  5. Also, victims of pollution could be paid to endure some pollution. It might be worth it. It might not be worth it. Individual preferences and value scales always differ.

  6. Krugman's approach is the typical one, big business would foul the earth if it wasn't for government. Of course Krugman ignores the fact that people did sue early on and the government's courts sided with big business instead of with property rights and individual rights. They always ignore that the courts are owned and run by the state and thus its failures are the government's failures.

    The in practice issue that Cowen brings up is an issue. He is seeing it correctly however. Driving pollution to zero is exceedingly difficult in a number of instances but not fouling the water, land, and air is relatively easy. There may be some role here for a management body to decide what is a practicable level to achieve. This can be accomplished by private standards. Much of the technological world is governed by private standards bodies and many government standards started by government taking over the already existing private standards. The early FMVSS was copy and paste of SAE standards that already existed.

    Private standards are used in court cases to determine if a manufacturer has liability. It's not an absolute because there are some times good reasons to substitute a higher or different company standard. However it sets an independent bar to achieve that is legally recognized.

  7. This is an excellent response by Robert Wenzel.

  8. It's breathtaking in its daftness. Basically what he is saying that if a business can not be allowed to not respect property rights (i.e. not being able to despoil my water, land, air, etc), one of the pillars of libertarianism and the free market, that there would be no growth!?! Amazing how these clowns are considered as part of the intelligencia.