I’ve been asked this question more than once over the years, as an environmental engineer: “If business is not regulated by government, wouldn’t the environment be destroyed?”
Here is a compendium of my answers, over time.
Here in the Fifty States, our greatest polluter is the US Government, not corporate America.
Therefore, putting government in charge of protecting the environment is like asking the fox to guard the hen house.
Indeed, the most polluted countries in the world were those where government had total control of the environment, such as the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This is still true today, as we can see in China and Vietnam, among others. Government is just as dangerous to our environment as it is to the wealth of our nation — it is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Here in the Fifty States, various Federal agencies have and continue to pollute our air, waters, and land. They used taxpayer money to cause the problems, and now use it to try and fix them. These include the Department of Defense, Tennessee Valley Authority, and even the Bureau of Land Management, Environmental Protection Agency, and many others, Many of the private businesses that have caused (and still do) massive pollution have done so as contractors for federal and state agencies. Billions and billions of dollars of damage has been done.
Even worse, much of the regulation currently in force by the Federal government and state governments is in the form of permits and licenses which often give the permit-holder a legal privilege (“right”) to pollute: just subject to limits. Limits which are often set by political actions and frequently using bad science.
If a neighbor dumps garbage on your yard, we understand they should clean it up and compensate you for any damages. Similarly, if a business or government agency causes harm, they should make it right again. Today, restitution rarely happens. Usually, businesses pay fines to the government, not to the victim. Sometimes one government agency pays a fine to another government agency! At the same time, many government polluters simply claim sovereign immunity and walk away. Polluters with influence often get away with many things. Our regulation system isn’t working — we need to replace it with *restitution.*
The only reason for government to exist is to protect our persons and our property from those who would harm us. (Or so we are told by many, even libertarians who are “minarchists” – they believe in the minimum possible government.)
Regulation is an attempt to prevent harm, but it’s extremely costly and often fails. Although most businesses must obey the regulations, government agencies do not. And in many cases, political decisions exempt certain types of businesses from regulations. For example, there are many exemptions for agricultural operations. Another example is school-owned bus barns and parking, which do not have to meet many obligations and report the way that a privately-owned bus or truck company does. Therefore, regulation is corrupt and inefficient. If government focused on making ALL polluters right their wrongs, businesses, individuals, and public officials would make cost-effective behavioral changes. We’d get more environmental protection for less! However, this would require political decisions which government will not and likely cannot make.
Most people who have studied government understand that one of the methods a limited government uses to protect property rights is *restitution.* Regulation where there is punishment (such as fines paid to the government or jail time) does more harm than good by shifting resources away from victims and towards policing. Arguing that restitution, as both a preventive and curative, should be substituted for traditional regulation makes sense if you believe that government has any role at all — and is accurate from a libertarian standpoint of government limited to protection of people and property.
Beyond that, in a more free society, restitution (including repair, replacement, or payments) to the victims of environmental damage, by those responsible, can be done through insurance and court systems that are fair and honest brokers between two separate sides, rather than actually working for the government.
Libertarians believe that people (and businesses and governments) should right their wrongs by restoring, as much as possible, what they’ve damaged. Today, instead of making polluters pay, our government makes the taxpayers shoulder the burden. Sometimes governments require whoever buys a polluted property to bear the cost of the clean-up. If polluters don’t pay for the damage they do, why should they stop polluting?
While there is some liability built into some regulatory systems at the federal and state level (such as some Superfund sites and modern mining operations), the greater cost still falls on taxpayers and on owners who often had nothing to do with the problem.