A response[1] to “Libertarianism and pollution: the limits of absolutist moralism”[2]

J C Lester

We are first told that

of the currently most popular forms of libertarian thought are defined
by a commitment to the “non-aggression principle” – a principle which
holds that it is always wrong to initiate physical force against other
human beings.”

Although “popular”, this is a poor
expression of libertarianism. “Aggression” is problematic as being what
libertarians are against. For one thing, it is rarely explained exactly
how non-aggression is supposed to relate to a theory of interpersonal
liberty. For another, “non-aggression”, in plain English, is no more up
to the task than “non-coercion” (another libertarian favourite, although
less popular of late)—not without charitable interpretation, at least.
As glossed in the above quotation, “aggression” clearly does not work
for two main reasons. 1) Theft and fraud don’t need to involve anyone
having to “initiate physical force against other human beings”: you
don’t need to initiate physical force against me in order to steal my
money or cheat me out of it. 2) Consequently, it will sometimes be
necessary to “initiate physical force” against thieves and fraudsters:
to arrest them and bring them to trial, for instance.

said, we can try to make a little more sense of the “non-aggression
principle” (NAP); partly because many libertarians use it, and partly in
order to move towards something clearer. Therefore, we might, as above
suggested, provide a charitable interpretation of “aggression”, e.g.,
‘the proactive interference with the bodies and external property of
other people (where that property is itself not acquired by proactive
interference)’. And if we do that, then it begins to make sense that the
absence of such “aggression” is what interpersonal liberty is (although
this sets aside various precise philosophical problems with this
account). For such “aggression” against us would be other people
initiating constraints on us. And we can then make sense of
interpersonal liberty as the absence of such initiated constraints.
(However, it ought at least to be mentioned that what liberty is—as a
theory and as social phenomena—is a factual matter that is completely
separate from the moral issue of whether breaching such liberty is
“always wrong”. Conflating the two issues, as the article does, is a
major source of confusion.)

Having rectified that
account of the “non-aggression principle” sufficiently for our current
purposes, we can now proceed to the second major error in the article:

problem is that libertarianism seems to imply that environmental
pollution, insofar as it constitutes or involves aggression against
other human beings, is morally impermissible. Not just a bad thing, mind
you, but absolutely morally impermissible in the same way that theft,
assault, and murder are.”

The error here is easily
explained. The “non-aggression principle”—as interpreted here, at
least—is best seen as being what observing liberty fully or absolutely
would require. That is, full liberty is the absence of any “aggression”
(i.e, proactive interference with people and their—non-proactively
interfering—property). Now, it is true that pollution will be
“aggressive”. But that is only half of the story. Because to prohibit
the activities that are causing the pollution will also be “aggressive”.
Consider a simple example. If I have a fire for warmth and cooking,
then you might suffer some minor pollution as a result. But if you can
force me not to have a fire, then you have deprived me of warmth and
cooking. Both the allowance and the prohibition of pollution will be
“aggressions” (although ‘proactive impositions’ seems to be a clearer
expression). Whichever one is preferred, or however they are balanced,
there will be some “aggression”. Therefore, it is impossible to
implement the non-aggression principle in the event of such clashes. So
what is the libertarian solution? It is surely libertarian to maximise
liberty. That means adopting a minimum-aggression principle (or MAP).
And that probably involves compromise and possibly compensation. How are
minimum aggressions to be determined? They can often best be measured,
traded, and compensated for by assigning market—or, at least,
reasonable—monetary values to the gains and losses involved. In any
event, the general solution to the problem is to see the NAP as
referring to observing liberty when matters are one-sided. But the MAP
applies when there are clashes.

Note that this proffered
solution is not, as the article suggests, restricted to “discrete
interactions between identifiable individuals”. It applies just as much
to “a world increasingly characterised by the complexly interrelated
activities of large numbers of dispersed individuals”. But to engage in,
say, class actions (as the legal term has it) over “contemporary
environmental problems such as automobile pollution, acid rain, and
global climate change” is not in any anti-libertarian sense to be “less
individualistic in identifying perpetrators and victims”. However, there
is an important equivocation here. In one sense, rules that are
intended to protect the general public (rather than any individuals in
particular) are thereby, ipso facto, not “individualistic”. But they can
remain individualistic in the libertarian sense that is opposed to
collectivism (whereby individuals cease to have claims to liberty
because of the greater good of the majority). Such
individualism-in-principle is not abandoned just because there are lot
of indeterminate people involved. Neither is the MAP in principle “less
absolutist”. This is because liberty remains the thing that must
absolutely be maximised. Consequently, it is clearly possible to “keep
the individualism and absolutism where it makes sense” because, as
interpreted here, it makes sense everywhere.

Then we are asked this question:

can libertarians still maintain that it is wrong to impose a small tax
on the wealthy, even if the social benefits would be enormous, while
allowing that drivers are entitled to send small amounts of toxins into
other people’s lungs since, after all, the social benefits of driving
are enormous?”

The question is confused in two main ways.
First, no libertarian need concede that it is even practical “to impose
a small tax on the wealthy” such that “the social benefits would be
enormous”. This mere logical possibility flies in the face of the
deleterious unintended consequences of tax-transfers. In an imaginary
world, the state might be a welfare boon. In reality, it is a welfare
bane. There is no sound reason to suppose that “utilitarianism” must in
practice “countenance violations of individual rights”. Second, it is,
at best, a muddle to describe the libertarian case for allowing the
“toxins” caused by driving as being because “the social benefits are
enormous”. It is, again, necessary to look at both sides before applying
the MAP. 1) Allowing driving despite its toxins: this will proactively
impose (“aggress”) to a minuscule degree on people (probably too small
to make compensation claims economic); and this has to include a
deduction to the extent that any particular individuals also engage in
driving, or benefit from the consequences of driving (such as the
delivery of goods to their area, etc.), or chose to move into an area
where driving is allowed, etc. 2) Banning driving because of its toxins:
this would proactively impose huge costs, in one way or another, on
almost everyone. Hence, 1 is the liberty-maximising option.

the foregoing analysis is roughly correct, then the answer is not
“waiting to be discovered by future libertarian philosophers”.[3] And it
is more mere fantasy and confusion to suppose that any solution must
ultimately mean “pushing libertarians back … toward the more moderate
classical liberalism of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Friedrich Hayek”.

Clarificatory conclusion

of the way that the problem was originally framed, it is easy to misinterpret
the above response. In particular, it might look as though it amounts to a
moral advocacy of a sort of consequentialist libertarianism to replace
deontological libertarianism. It does not. And such an interpretation
would be to miss the crucial main point in a typical way. For the response is
not really about libertarian morals. It is about what interpersonal liberty is
(in abstract theory) and what applying it objectively entails (in normal
practice). Most self-identified libertarians unwittingly have a moral muddle without
a central factual theory of liberty. They cannot yet see that they first need
to sort out what liberty is, and therefore entails if instantiated, and only after
that can moral questions about it be coherently raised and tackled. An
analogical error would be utilitarians who could not even give an account of


[1] The article in question repeats a criticism of libertarianism that was one of those raised (http://www.libertarianism.org/blog/libertarianism-pollution) and briefly answered (http://www.libertarianism.org/blog/pollution-minimizing-aggression)
on libertarianism.org. The revised replies to those criticisms are now
available in a book chapter (Lester 2014, Ch. 5). But as the new article is
somewhat different, and the audience different, a reconsideration of these
important issues seems merited.

[2] IEA Blog, 20 February 2015: http://www.iea.org.uk/blog/libertarianism-and-pollution-the-limits-of-absolutist-moralism

It ought to be noted that any attempt to refute this overall
theoretical approach that is based on criticisms in Gordon and Modugno
2003 or Frederick 2013, ought at least to be aware of the replies to
those criticisms: chapters 9 and 10 in Lester 2014.


David and Modugno, Roberta A. 2003. “Review of J.C. Lester’s Escape
from Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare, and Anarchy Reconciled.” Journal of
Libertarian Studies
17, 4: 101–109.

Frederick, Danny. 2013. “A Critique of Lester’s Account of Liberty.” Libertarian Papers 5, 1: 45-66. Online here: http://libertarianpapers.org/article/2-frederick-critique-of-lesters-account/.

Lester, J. C. 2011. Arguments for Liberty: a Libertarian Miscellany. Buckingham: The University of Buckingham Press.

—— [2000] 2012. Escape from Leviathan: Libertarianism Without Justificationism. Buckingham: The University of Buckingham Press.

—— 2014. Explaining Libertarianism: Some Philosophical Arguments. Buckingham: The University of Buckingham Press.

Matt. 2015. “Libertarianism and pollution: the limits of absolutist
moralism”, Institute of Economic Affairs, Blog, 20 February. Online here: http://www.iea.org.uk/blog/libertarianism-and-pollution-the-limits-of-absolutist-moralism