Thursday, August 27, 2009

Subsidizing the Common Good I: Pollution

King Midas found out the hard way that getting what he wanted didn’t take him where he wanted to go. Like Midas, supporters of government subsidies see a desirable end, providing for the common good. And their means to that end is expropriating (literally, taking from the proper owner) the fruits of other people’s labor. I will show in this series that even if ends could justify means, the true end of the government subsidy process is always a flesh-and-blood daughter turned to gold.

Most people consider roads second only to law enforcement as the most essential provision of government: only the government can build roads (also rail lines, airports, etc.) to serve the common need for transportation. Without government, specifically its ability to force recalcitrant citizens off their property through eminent domain, the road system would be much smaller than it is.

While roads enable inexpensive and convenient transportation, they also require vehicles, which consume resources and pollute, not only directly on the job but also when they and their fuels are being produced and waste products disposed of.

Cheap and flexible transportation allows people to travel farther and more frequently, which increases the incentive for governors to build more and wider roads. This has snowballed so that today life in urban areas is practically impossible without cars: even people who bicycle whenever possible need cars. And any threat to the supply of raw materials is a threat to the society itself, hence the incentive to invade faraway countries—war is yet another source of pollution—to keep the supplies flowing.

Another “necessary” government service is garbage and sewage disposal, which makes the production of both less expensive, thus facilitating the throwaway lifestyle. If people had to pay the true, higher cost of sewage disposal, they would have less money to spend on things they eventually throw away. If they had to pay the true cost of garbage disposal, they would be looking for ways to cut down on single-use items and packaging, and they would factor disposal into their purchase costs. They would avoid early obsolescence and look for ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle—not because the long nose of the law was poking into their private lives but because they would have more money for what they really valued if they produced less garbage. The market would give farmers and gardeners more incentive to compost and to buy pure food garbage and processed sewage instead of chemical fertilizers.

What about the capitalists who dump as much pollution in an hour as most people do in a year? Here again we see subsidies at work. The capitalists dump pollution in places that “everybody owns,” bodies of water and the air. Because what everyone owns no one owns, the pollution level will always be what the politically powerful deem expedient, and we can expect those who profit from the polluting enterprise to subsidize it by looking the other way.

And big government’s record regarding pollution enforcement is hardly stellar, as exemplified by the Chernobyl and Bhopal disasters. Each directly killed thousands of people, but those responsible suffered no drastic consequences.

Human life produces waste and garbage that have to go somewhere. In a private property and contract order, if I want to dump chemicals on your land or in your river—yes, rivers should be owned—I need your prior permission or it’s no deal. The same with the air. Your property is yours, and only you can decide how much pollution you will tolerate. You can decide whether you will serve yourself and your neighbors better by maintaining a pristine wilderness or a waste disposal facility.

What a society without government-subsidized roads and waste disposal would look like, I don’t know. But I think eight billion people treating each other as equals can produce a better one than can a few thousand politicians and bureaucrats acting with impunity.

1 comment:

  1. As always Henry, an interesting perspective. You have an amazing knack for stating things in ways few others have thought of. I take it this is your way of stating you don’t want government involved in your health care decisions or many other things for that matter? By the way, I enjoyed your musings on the guy walking naked in the woods. Its amazing how people get involved in each others business, for the good of all, right?
    So, here’s a word I’d enjoy your take on: Compassion