At any rate, it makes sense that conserving and protecting the environment should be a collective responsibility -- something worked out through the democratic process with an eye toward fairness and effectiveness. And while it might be true that "free markets" are occasionally quite good at providing certain goods at a low price (iPods and blue jeans and whatnot), there's no reason to think that a healthy environment is one of them.
But of course, conservatives and libertarians don't really truck with the whole idea of "common" goods, instead preferring to talk about private property rights. Indeed the typical conservative response to the tragedy of the commons is to say that the commons should simply be privatized. Voilá! Tragedy solved! However, we don't actually need to invoke the idea of the commons to see that environmental degradation is harmful. For one, pollution directly harms the health and private property of people who live downstream or downwind.
In the language of economics, pollution is a negative externality. If pollution only affected the buyer or the seller in an economic transaction, it wouldn't be as big a deal since the seller would decide if the environmental risk was worth the price she was paying. But of course, pollution affects third-parties too, people living half a world away who had no involvement with whatever that factory was selling anyway. To give just one example, read this article about the outrageous harm done to our health and economy by coal power alone.
So you might think that the property rights issue might attract the attention of at least a few C/Ls, right? Don't Bangladeshi farmers have property rights too? Don't they deserve compensation when their land gets submerged? Or home-owners living next to the oil refinerey? Or is it just rich, politically-connected capitalists who get property rights? (Don't answer that one.)
As it turns out, the vast majority of conservative opinion on the subject is focused on minimizing and downplaying the problem, if not outright denying its existence. Which is kind of weird. Libertarians who think all taxes are a form of theft (or even partial slavery) should really be up in arms about this sort of thing. Past libertarian thinkers like Hayek understood that this was a problem that required government intervention, but it doesn't seem to be much on the radar these days.
Actually there is a traditional libertarian answer to these sort of questions, but it's not very good. The idea is that, instead of "burdensome" government regulation, people harmed by pollution should sue polluters in the court system ("courts and torts"). This makes a certain sort of sense until you think about it in detail. For one thing, the harm from pollution is usually statistical. We may know that exposure to, say, a carcinogen causes an excess of 100 cancer deaths in a population in a year, but cancer has a lot of different causes and it is well-nigh impossible to win a tort claim that cancer Y is directly caused by chemical X.
Even harder are situations like automobile pollution or electricity generation where we are all polluting and all suffering the consequences. Are we then all financially liable for the harm done (to ourselves)? What does that mean? Our clean, elegant solution has turned into a horrible mess. Why not just have the government set some science-based limits and be done with it?
All of which is an overly-long introduction to this post by James K over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. He makes the case that libertarians should care about the environment and even advocate for (limited) government action (see also here and here for similar thoughts):
"In many ways environmental issues are “ideologically inconvenient” for libertarians – life would be easier if they didn’t exist. Of course that’s not sufficient reason to actually act as if they didn’t exist, something I don’t think enough libertarians are willing to recognise."After a brief discussion, James winds-up proposing a tax on pollution "equal to the marginal cost to society of the pollution." So, on the one hand it's bold of him to use the t-word and it's great that he's even talking about the subject. On the other it's interesting that he's come around to an idea (a pollution tax) that progressives and environmentalists have been pushing for several decades now.
I think it goes to show that some form of government regulation or taxation is really the only way of dealing with the problem of pollution. Sure it would be nice if some less intrusive fix was available, but it doesn't seem to be. It's worth the effort to make these regulations as simple as possible and its worth asking what the balance of costs and benefits might be. But it's always going to be cheaper to dump waste on your neighbor than to dispose of it properly, so there will basically always have to be some sort of cop there to prevent that.