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Politicians Can Pollute Too

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Politicians use language differently from the rest of us. Take the expression “Big Polluters.” Apparently there are entire industries that do nothing but pollute. Big Oil produces oil. Big Pharmaceuticals produce medicines. So Big Polluters presumably produce air and water pollution.

What’s more, they somehow make big profits doing so. How this works I’m not sure. After all, no one would pay for air and water pollution. So where do the polluters’ profits come from?

In the real world there can be no businesses that make profits by producing nothing but pollution. The politicians don’t really believe it either, but that fantasy serves a purpose. It is much easier for politicians to denounce Big Polluters if they can make people believe they are an unmitigated evil. Allow for a moment that those companies produce something that people value and the politicians’ case is considerably weakened. If the devil has some genuine virtue, he is much less demonic.

Let’s establish some basics: To live, man must produce. Production is the transformation of a combination of things (inputs) into something new (output). In the production process, waste byproducts inevitably result. There is nothing sinful in generating waste. On the contrary, since production makes life — an increasingly better life — possible, the production process is virtuous. (It’s a myth, of course, that waste is unique to industrial societies. Pre-industrial societies generated waste — a much more lethal kind than ours does.)

There’s more to the story. Waste is not a fixed concept. What is a useless byproduct one day is a useful product the next. Before the mid nineteenth century, finding crude oil under one’s farmland was no blessed event. The farmer had to pay to have it removed. It was pollution. But in the 1850s that changed. Finding oil on one’s land suddenly elicited the Jed Clampett response. What changed? A chemist at Yale University discovered that kerosene, an efficient illuminant, could be distilled from crude oil. Almost instantaneously, oil went from pollutant to asset. Human intelligence brought about the transformation.

Thar’s potential gold in them thar hills of waste. Entrepreneurs make extraordinary profits by finding value in what everyone else thinks is valueless. This point might be granted with respect to solid waste, but what about air pollution? Who would have an incentive to look for value in that?

As Jane Shaw and Michael Sanera note in their excellent book on the environment, Facts without Fear, industrial air pollution is largely unburned fuel. Fuel being costly, pollution is wealth going up the chimney. That’s inefficient. You might think that anyone who “puts profits before people” would hate sending wealth into the atmosphere.

There’s an intrinsic problem with the demagogue’s model of the businessman. If he is profit- hungry, he would not behave as he is accused of behaving. He would, for example, have no interest in using any more inputs than necessary to satisfy consumers. His profit is derived from minimizing inputs and maximizing the value of his output. That sounds like conservation, doesn’t it?

Of course, the idea of putting profits before people is absurd. Businesspeople earn profits by thinking up ways to make people’s lives better. In the free market, people generally have a harmony of interests. “People before profits” is a vestige of Marx’s discredited philosophy of class warfare.

The upshot is that no factory is a mere polluter. If it didn’t produce things people value, it would close. This is not to deny that some factories pollute. At a given time, it may not be possible or economical to use the waste byproducts going up the smokestack. In that case, pollution is a trespass onto the property (including the lungs) of other people.

Thus the right way to address any pollution problem is to identify and enforce property rights. The wrong way is to give Washington bureaucrats carte blanche to regulate business. Since they see only pollution and no value in production, they will surely throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.