Can Torts Police All Negative Externalities?

The standard radical libertarian answer for pollution is to leave it to the civil law of tort and trespass. But of the myriad kinds of pollution, none have EVER been successfully addressed by liability rules, despite there being no apparent obstacle to the kind of torts that zero-aggression absolutists claim would ALWAYS handle these problems. A partial list of these kinds of pollution would include:

  • air pollution via
    • automobile emissions,
    • smoke and soot from wood-burning appliances,
    • chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigerants;
  • water pollution (in groundwater, streams, lakes, and oceans) via
    • herbicides and pesticides,
    • fecal contamination,
    • silting,
    • litter,
    • leakage from pleasure craft, and
    • improper disposal of hazardous substances.

This partial list only covers literal pollution, and doesn't include the cumulative and cascading ecological effects of pollution on the food chain, pollinators, etc.. Other forms of negative externalities caused by non-excludability include

  • depletion of shared freshwater sources;
  • land subsidence due to aquifer depletion;
  • depletion of fish and game stocks;
  • increased microbial resistance due to overuse of antibiotics;
  • ozone layer depletion;
  • electromagnetic noise pollution; and
  • light and heat pollution.

I've never heard of liability rules being able to address ANY of the above kinds of negative externalities in ANY jurisdiction at ANY time in human history. There is zero prospect of technological advances that will magically make all currently non-excludable resources suddenly excludable.

Rothbard's discussion of this issue (in Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution) is self-consciously embarrassing:

While the situation for plaintiffs against auto emissions might seem hopeless under libertarian law, there is a partial way out. In a libertarian society, the roads would be privately owned. This means that the auto emissions would be emanating from the road of the road owner into the lungs or airspace of other citizens, so that the road owner would be liable for pollution damage to the surrounding inhabitants. Suing the road owner is much more feasible than suing each individual car owner for the minute amount of pollutants he might be responsible for. In order to protect himself from these suits, or even from possible injunctions, the road owner would then have the economic incentive to issue anti-pollution regulations for all cars that wish to ride on his road.

Thus for each of the dozen or so private roads I would need to use to get from my house to Yahoo's campus in Sunnyvale, I would not only have to have a toll-paying arrangements with each one, but I'd also have to have an anti-pollution certification arrangement with each one. As comical as this scenario may be, it gets even funnier when you consider who would be filing the tort claims in court. Anarcholibertarians hand-wave about class-action lawsuits at this point, but since so many externalities have many victims and many victimizers, these class action suits would have to be "bilateral" ones, which are even clumsier than regular class actions. Micro-polluters could just opt out of every defendant class, and force plaintiff classes to target each of them with millions of individual non-bilateral class actions. I know of nothing in current law that stops environmental groups from today attempting the sort of bilateral class actions that Rothbardians think could handle negative externalities. And yet no court system has ever produced the outcomes they advertise — just as mafia families have never behaved like anarchocapitalist protection agencies. Auto emissions aren't even the hardest case for the micro-tort theorist, as other forms of micro-pollution do not have roads as a hypothetical legal aggregator for them. Air and water pollution from individual land holdings would be an even harder case.

If anarcholibertarians claim that micro-torts could efficiently police micro-pollution, then it should be possible to allow a micro-protest system to let people challenge how the default rules (e.g. pollution taxes) treat their behavior. If you plan to burn your gallon of gasoline in an extremely clean way, it should be just as efficient for you to file for an exemption as it would be for you to be sued for burning it in a dirty way. In fact, it would be orders of magnitude more efficient, because the default pollution tax would be calibrated to the average polluting behavior, and there would be no need for a magical mechanism to aggregate into a class-action suit the complaints of all the people that your pollution would harm.

As with every other solution to textbook market failures I've heard proposed by anarcholibertarians, their tort-based approach to negative externalities would be either laughably inefficient or would reduce in practice to the pretty much the same rules that a minarchist state would enforce. Even 2004 LP presidential contender Aaron Russo, a conspiracy theorist who claims the Rothschild family controls the Federal Reserve, recognized the kookiness of the LP dogma on pollution: "I think the Libertarian Party has never had a good policy on the environment. I've never heard a good one, and I've been looking for one for months, and I'm hoping to find new ideas on how we can handle the environment. On this issue, to tell you the truth, there's a bit of confusion in my mind. But the stock answer that I've been hearing about the environment is not good in my view. Sue your neighbor, sue this one, sue that one, those aren't good answers for me."

Saying micro-aggression should only be covered by civil torts is nothing less than saying that aggression is permitted if defending against it costs an individual more than the harm it causes her. That's not a very libertarian position.

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