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Eco-Libertarian Policies (A Sketch)

by Ben Sharvy

"Property is theft, but some property is more theft than others."

Generally, public policy characteristic of eco-libertarian philosophy will aim to protect opportunity rights to natural resources rather than property rights, and property rights to one's self and one's creations. In practice, however, these rights are interdependent: all of one's creations, including one's self, require use (perhaps destruction) of natural resources to some degree. A good place to start a consideration of eco-libertarian types of policy is the subject of taxation.

Consider two people, each with the same net income. One earned the income by clear-cutting old growth forest and selling it; the other, by composing and singing songs. Since gender stereotyping is always a good idea, we'll make the earth-pillager male--call him "Paul Bunyon"--and the singer/songwriter female--call her "Calliope" (after the Greek muse of poetry). Generally, under traditional systems of taxation Bunyon and Calliope will pay the same amount of tax, since they have the same income. But most libertarian systems will yield a different result, because libertarians make taxes act as user-fees whenever possible, and an eco-libertarian regards consumption of natural resources as taking value from the public. So in an eco-libertarian tax scheme, Bunyon would typically pay more in taxes: he is costing the world more. The ratio of what he pays to what Calliope pays would (in theory) be the ratio of the value of the natural resources he takes to the value of the resources Calliope takes.

The comparison between Bunyon and Calliope brings out the distinction between eco-libertarian socialism and traditional socialism. Traditional socialists, to varying degrees, conclude that "The Wealth" is a big pie in the sky that belongs to everybody; on that basis they justify various mechanisms for wealth redistribution. An eco-libertarian agrees that there is a big pie in the sky that belongs to everyone, but thinks that it is just the earth, so that what requires _regulated_ distribution is access to, and use of, nature. Private ownership, in principle, begins with what one creates, and nature, by definition, is not what one creates. There is, then, a degree to which wealth-distribution may need to be regulated, but that degree is merely the degree to which the wealth results from treating nature as private property. To the extent that wealth comes to one purely in return for one's labor or creativity, its proper distribution is the free-market distribution, and no forced redistribution is justified. So, very little redistribution of Calliope's wealth is justified, but a whole lot of Paul Bunyon's is: property is theft, but some property is more theft than others. This is not to say that Paul Bunyon can clearcut as much as he wants as long as he pays tax: the point is that what is redistributed should have something to do with what is taken. Calliope takes very little (e.g., the wood in her guitar), and what she takes isn't determined by what she earns.

Once one starts thinking of taxation this way, all sorts of policy shifts begin popping up. Consider my property tax bill, for example. It is based on the assessed value of my property, and that assessment is broken into two categories: the value of the unimproved portion (i.e., the lot) and the improved portion (the house). Property tax is highly eco-libertarian when it is applied to the unimproved portion, i.e., land that is taken from the public domain and owned. It is less eco-libertarian when applied to the improved portion, because then it is a tax on creativity (the lumber in the house should be subject to a tax passed on to the consumer, but that differs from a tax on the value of the house as a whole). A house's value is a function of the intelligence and aesthetics of its design, and brains and beauty should not be taxed. It does not take more of any communal resource to put together some lumber in a brilliant way than to put the lumber together in a crappy way, and therefore no greater tax-burden on the brilliant house is justified, despite the greater amount of wealth it is likely to represent.

The preceding discussion is a general illustration of how eco-libertarian principles might be applied; it is not necessarily the precise form of something that should go on a ballot. Various modifications might be in order. Restrictions and limitations on ownership of natural resources need to be balanced by the individual's opportunity right to live and work in the world; high property taxes might violate the opportunity right of the poor and people on fixed incomes. A progressive property tax is probably in order. Independent self-sufficiency for a family requires about five acres of arable land (less for cooperative self-sufficiency), so a tax-rate increase at the five acre mark seems progressive in an eco-libertarian (albeit heavily theoretical) way. Or the rate might be pegged to global population, or to the amount of wilderness left in the world, or all of these things. There are many possibilities, depending on how reformist or radical one's goals are, whether one takes a biocentric view of environmental politics, and so on.

Tax schemes are an example of one way an individual's opportunity right to natural resources may be regulated and balanced against the rights of others. They raise some interesting policy questions, such as: how are opportunity rights to be implemented in law, and to what degree may they be traded or "cornered," as in a free-market. It seems logical to implement opportunity rights with a system of property rights, recognizing that "property rights" are just public policy and not fundamental rights in themselves. "Property license" would be a more accurate term than "property right." A property license would need to specify such things as scope, manner, and alienability of property use. By scope, I mean the kinds of property that could be owned, and in what amounts; by manner I mean what could be done to owned property, and by alienability I mean whether the property could be transfered or sold to another. The underlying principles that should guide a definition of property license are that:

(1) natural resources are inherently communal,
(2) community members have equal initial right to access communal sources,
(3) population and constituency of a community is dynamic, due to birth (and death and migration).

(2) and (3) imply that population is a factor in the scope of property licenses, and therefore that the scope is dynamic and may require periodic adjustment. If there is a finite amount of communal land subject to private use, then the scope of that use will differ when there are one million community members than when there are two million, given that all members have equal rights to the land. Additionally, if all available land is under license at a certain time, at a later time some redistribution will be required even if the population size has remained stable because children will have entered the community possessing an opportunity right to its resources. So both the scope and the distribution of property licenses require periodic adjustment according to the size and constituency of the community. A natural way to implement this principle would be at death, in inheritance laws. (1) and (2) imply that the manner of use granted by a property license be non-destructive to some degree (precisely what degree depends on associated philosophies; for example, is air pollution--degradation of a communal resource--due to private use of, say, the automobile justified? does it matter whether the auto-use is selfish, e.g. driving to the bank to deposit a check, or community-minded, e.g. driving to volunteer at a service for homeless youth?) Do these rules imply that nobody may cut down old-growth forest, ever? Probably not, but they do they seem to imply nobody may destroy or significantly threaten an ecosystem or species, or any unique _kind_ of resource ("resource" isn't meant in an economic sense). You can shoot a deer, but you can't shoot the last deer, or so many deer that the deer population can't sustain itself.

Given that natural resources are communal, the question arises whether licenses to them can be bought, sold or even monopolized. Since such transfers don't entail altering the scope of the licenses, they don't entail violation of any one's opportunity rights, and there is no basis for restricting them. However, the resulting free-market distribution of opportunity rights is still subject to the following rule of distributive justice:

   A distribution of an inherently communal resource can be proper 
   only as long as the people subject to the distribution participated
   in the distributive process (e.g., free trade). Note that this is
   rarely the case in reality, due to the phenomenon of birth. 

So, for example, the concept of "monopoly" must be extended and transformed into the concept of a "monopoly _relative_ to certain others" in order to make sense. One can be entitled to a monopoly relative to one's trading partners (and their trading partners) only; if someone enters the community possessing opportunity rights, a redistribution would be justified since it would necessary for the exercise of the individual's opportunity right to natural resources. Again, inheritance laws seem like the natural place to locate these redistributive policies. These considerations only apply to monopolies of natural resources; there is nothing contrary to eco-libertarian philosophy in the monopolization of a service. In fact, it is impossible for a company to give itself a monopoly of a service: that feat can only be performed by the consumers who *choose* one company's service over all others, on an ongoing, sustained basis, a point which is not true in the case of monopoly over a resource.

Certain kinds of natural resource are currently managed in more eco-libertarian ways than others, e.g., air and water policies tend to be more eco-libertarian than land and timber policies. Many details, while theoretically interesting, are best left for after the revolution.

[Immigration and the concept of citizenship and borders.]

I've focussed on policies which seem to be unique results of an eco-libertarian system; there are many other implied policies which are equally controversial, but less unique. For example, nothing in the "eco" or socialist aspect of eco-libertarianism compromises such standard libertarian causes as the legalization of all "consensual" crimes (recreational drug use, prostitution, gambling, polygamy, interesting sex, etc.) or the abolition of welfare and all state-forced social engineering schemes (minimum wage laws, government welfare programs, public libraries and schools, etc.) or the elimination of income (especially "progressive") taxes. Regarding the latter two, it is interesting to consider whether the "socialist" eco-libertarian policies regarding natural resources will mitigate the (alleged) dire social consequences of abolishing government social programs.

[This work is in progress.]

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