Environmentalism & Freedom

by | Dec 22, 2011

Often, environmentalist’s sense of triumph belies their actual intellectual reach. George Monbiot calls himself the winner of a debate with director of the Institute of Ideas, Claire Fox,

Last week, on an internet radio channel called The Fifth Column, I debated climate change with Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, one of the rightwing libertarian groups that rose from the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist party. Fox is a feared interrogator on the BBC show The Moral Maze. Yet when I asked her a simple question – “do you accept that some people’s freedoms intrude upon other people’s freedoms?” – I saw an ideology shatter like a windscreen. I used the example of a Romanian lead-smelting plant I had visited in 2000, whose freedom to pollute is shortening the lives of its neighbours. Surely the plant should be regulated in order to enhance the negative freedoms – freedom from pollution, freedom from poisoning – of its neighbours? She tried several times to answer it, but nothing coherent emerged which would not send her crashing through the mirror of her philosophy.

The debate is available here. George opens with the classic litany of ecological alarmism, concluding that the ‘vast majority of climate scientists believe that climate change is happening’. The mistake, of course, is to forget that many — perhaps even the majority of — climate sceptics believe that ‘climate change is happening’, too. What is at issue is the degree to which it is happening, and what kind of a problem climate change is. ‘Climate change is happening’ doesn’t mean anything by itself; it’s an entirely empty claim. Complex debates, presuppositions, prejudice and claims are collapsed into one neat axiom, and allowed only to be ‘true or false’. George looks at the ‘opinion of the majority of scientists’ and ‘the weight of scientific evidence’, but is unable to discuss the object of all that ‘science’ and scientific opinion. It means whatever he wants it to mean.

Given that the substance of arguments like Monbiot’s are put beyond reach — in to the hands of some scientists, somewhere, according to him — it is inevitable that any attempt at reasoned discussion will end in an impasse. And so it was, really, with the debate between Monbiot and Claire Fox. Here’s how it continued…

Monbiot: Do you accept that some people’s freedoms intrude upon other people’s freedoms?
Fox: Um. Rarely.
Monbiot: So what about the situation for instance that I witnessed in Romania, where lead smelting plants, because they’re not properly regulated, are free to produced toxic fumes which are greatly shortening the lives of peope who live nearby? That’s one type of freedom intruding on another, is it not?

Impasses such as these are often more interesting than arguments that reach a resolution. ‘Freedom’ is of course a much contested concept. And it is telling that ‘freedom’ in Monbiot’s argument is an essentially problematic thing in itself. Monbiot is convinced that Fox — a libertarian — will want to defend merely the freedom to pollute. But Fox has a more sophisticated understanding of freedom:

Fox: Well, I don’t think it’s freedom. I mean, I think there’s problems of pollution. I think no doubt that behaviour of certain big, industrial, corporate organisations is not beneficial to people.
Monbiot: I’m talking about a clear case where regulation would be reduced in the name of freedom that you’re discussing, where industries are less regulated and so more able to produce pollutants, like the lead smelters I saw in Romania. Do you not accept that those enhanced corporate freedoms to do as they wish, or enhanced freedoms of the rich people who run those plants, limit the freedom of the people who live nearby?
Fox: It’s very interesting because you said ‘those enhanced freedoms’. Freedom is not about enhancing or not; freedom by the way is a political freedom, and political freedom is not divisible. I want people to be free. And that, by the way, means …
Monbiot: [Interrupring] You’re talking about being free to pollute in this case…
Fox: Yeah… In that instance…
Monbiot: [interrupting] You want people to be free to pollute.
Fox: I want freedom. You’re… I appreciate that you are keen to get me to say that I am on the side of the nasty polluters…
Monbiot: [Interrupting] No no no no. I’m just trying to persue this question with you…

This ‘clear case…’, it seems, is a reflection on experiences that Monbiot had in Romania, in 2000. Let us put ourselves in Romania in 2000. What would we be interested in? Ever the environmentalist, rather than heading for the huge expanses of wilderness — apparently the largest and least ‘disturbed’ in Europe — he heads for the environmental disaster: people living near lead smelting plants. My question would probably be: why are people forced to live in such proximity to this kind of industry; it’s not as if there’s no space in Romania. But if we really wanted to understand the condition of Romanians in 2000, wouldn’t the events of just a decade earlier provide a better account of them?

Just ten years before Monbiot’s visit, Romania was ruled by one of the most brutal regimes in the Soviet Bloc. The context of people being exposed to fumes from lead smelting then, is a nascent democracy in the aftermath of decades of oppression. The legacy of Ceausescu’s tyranny is not the subject of the discussion, however. But shouldn’t that be the discussion? If we want to understand why there are smelting works next to human dwellings, and why people are unable to either move, or force a change of practice at the factory, we surely have to understand the political and historical situation in Romania. But George — like most environmentalists — prefers a much more simple model of the problem. The case is not as clear as Monbiot wanted us to believe.

Fox: What I’d like to then persue back to you, as you were good on asking that, is, you see regulation then, constantly, top-down, regulation, limits and so on as the way to free society. Is that right? You think that will ‘enhance’ freedom? That will allow people in Romania to have a freer society?
Monbiot: I think that if the lead smelters that I saw in Romania were less free and more regulated, then the people living around them would be more free of the horrible diseases and shortened life expectancy which they currently face. Now, I’ve answered your question, in a very straightforward way, you still have not answered mine.
Fox: They wouldn’t be less free by the smelters being regulated, because freedom is not the same as, in the way that you’re describing. Freedom is political rights question…
Monbiot: [Interrupting] Yes, and at the moment the political rights of the smelters is to be able to produce these fumes which are doing other people in.
Fox: Yes, but I’m actually talking about… I mean if you want to talk about the political freedoms of the people in Romania, what you need is actually a sense of freedom in Romania, to fight for your rights, equally. And you might then go out and fight the smelters, as it happens…
Monbiot: [Interrupting] Wait a minute, you’re dodging the question again. OK. You say…
Fox: Listen, George, I’m answering it in a way that you don’t find satisfactory. That is not quite the same as dodging it…

Fox is about to answer Monbiot’s question. Sensing progress, Monbiot interrupts. As Fox explains — or tries to — people in Romania should be free to challenge the polluting effects of lead smelting.

George’s sense of triumph was misplaced. Fox had not argued that people should be free to pollute others. But in Monbiot’s head, that was what she had been arguing for. It’s what he came prepared for. Monbiot had imagined that libertarianism stood for nothing more than simply being ‘against regulation‘, rather than an idea about what constitutes political freedom. Again, ‘freedom’ is a contested idea, but in Fox’s argument it was that a free society creates the possibility of autonomous citizens challenging polluting industry. Fox was not against ‘regulation’ after all.

This speaks about the very narrow conception of ‘freedom’ in environmentalism in general, and in Monbiot’s perspective in particular. He simply doesn’t understand the concept of political freedom, let alone the nuanced discussions about it. On that eco-centric perspective, ‘freedom’ is understood merely in terms of metabolic function: your freedom to emit substances interferes with my biological processes. Metabolic freedom, not political freedom. Absent from this view is the possibility that lead smelting can become a mutually-rewarding enterprise. No. Lead smelters can only be greedy bastards, and can only be stopped by regulation. Never mind that lead has utility in a free society, as do many other materials.

Monbiot: I don’t find it satisfactory becuase you’re not answering it. And in this particular case, what people… The very people I met… were doing were demanding that the factories should be restricted, through regulations imposed by the government. Were they wrong to do so?
Fox: I would disagree with them as that being the priority. Let’s bring it closer to home, because you will know that one of the things that happens here is that whenever there’s a dicussion for example about climate change, or the environment in this country, one of the things that is constantly urged is that people, for example, curtail their use of energy, change their behaviour, and the government are asked to impose those changes because you can’t trust the democracy to do it themselves. Now do you think that what we should do is actually have no regulations about energy use in this country — we should be able to be free to use whatever energy they want. You can try to persuade them something, but we should get rid of all green regulations, from this country, ‘cos that would be free wouldn’t it. They would be free then to make decision based on genuine political choices, rather than having it dictated by a government.
Monbiot: You precisely illustrate my point. We would be free to limit other people’s freedoms in that case, because we would be to reduce the quality of life of people who are much poorer than ourselves, who have much less agency than ourselves…
Fox: [Interrupting] No, I’ll tell you what you need for cleaner technologies, you need to actually argue for greater investment in R&D, actually have a vision that is not about limits, and natures revenege and worrying about cutting down CO2 emissions, a vibrant, healthy, future-oriented society that says the way forward is to develop lots of new technologies, to industrialise everything.
Monbiot: But let’s look at what’s going on in the UK for a moment, where we’ve got a situation right now, where we’re faced with a very clear choice. We either go down the fossil fuels route, and replace current generating capacity with gas and coal. Or we go down the low-carbon route and go to a mixture of renewables and nuclear technologies such as integral fast breed reactors and so on. Route two is not gonna happen unless route one is regulated away, because at the moment the cheapest option is to go for gas and coal.

Monbiot, the new advocate of nuclear power, argues as if he’s the first person to have ever thought of it, not as the person who campaigned against it for years. And even now he has no insight into what drove his anti-nuclear impulse. The same arguments persist in his claims about climate change that characterise the anti-nuclear argument: that it is too dangerous, that it allows profit to be made at the expense of safety, that it was being undemocratically foisted on a population that were lied to about the risks. The idea that he should have convince people of the merits of nuclear, or even the dangers of climate change, is lost on him.

Back to George’s Guardian article — an attack on Libertarianism…

Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation. Throughout the rightwing press and blogosphere, among thinktanks and governments, the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?

It’s an interesting reflection on his failure to move past his impasse with Claire Fox. The notion of political freedom lost on Monbiot, he now considers himself the saviour of the poor.

In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

And this is a point answered well by Dr Sean Gabb, director of the Libertarian Alliance in a letter to the Guardian.

[Monbiot] claims we “pretend … that only the state intrudes on our liberties. [We] ignore … the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free.” Not quite. We do believe that the state is the foremost violator of our right to life, liberty and property. But we also observe that banks are licensed and regulated creatures of the state, and that big business in general is only big because of state-granted privileges like limited liability, infrastructure subsidies, and tax and regulatory systems that cartellise costs and flatten competition from outside the magic circle. There is a difference between believing in free markets and supporting actually existing capitalism.

Monbiot has been banging on about ‘libertarians’ for years. And yet had he seen just one interview with Ron Paul, for instance — not that I am his biggest fan — on the subject of the economy, he would know that conservative libertarians are fiercely critical of the extant relationships between governments and banks, even in the United States of America! To criticise libertarians for ignoring the relationship between the state and banks would be not unlike criticising environmentalists for not ‘caring about nature’.

How can a man who purports to have an expert grasp on the world and its politics, fail so comprehensively to understand the very terms of the arguments he is taking issue with?

To make matters worse, Monbiot now turns to Isiah Berlin’s ‘two concepts of liberty’ essay.

So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty? I believe that one of the reasons is as follows. The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side, and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other – has been mischaracterised as a clash between negative and positive freedoms. These freedoms were most clearly defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay of 1958, Two Concepts of Liberty. It is a work of beauty: reading it is like listening to a gloriously crafted piece of music. I will try not to mangle it too badly.

It is something of an irony that Monbiot — who, as we have seen, has barely more than an idiot’s grasp of the terms of the debate — complains about the misconception of ‘The great political conflict of our age’. He flatters himself with the claim that ‘social justice campaigners and environmentalists’ exist on one side of a historical battle, pitched against phantom ‘neocons, millionaires, and corporations’. ‘In reality’, claims Monbiot, ‘the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms’.

This much is plagiarised from Adam Curtis’ trilogy, The Trap: Whatever happened to our dream of freedom.

But while what Curtis’s excellent films show is a complex world without straight lines and full of paradoxes, Monbiot’s fantasy depicts just two sides: goodies (hooray!) and baddies (boo!). In article after article after article, the recurring theme is a shrill attempt to reduce the world’s complexities to simple moral coordinates: cave in to the conception of liberty peddled by the libertarians, and Africa will be scorched by drought and heat, the waves will inundate the reminder of the third world, and Romainian workers will be forced to inhale lead. This cartoonish perspective on the world reveals Monbiot’s absolute failure to see any depth in it.

The claim that ‘the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms’ is true, but prosaic. There is no ‘great political conflict of our age’. What defines this age is not some battle between One Concept of Liberty, but a dearth of political conflict — of ideas, or concepts — of any meaningful kind. The millionaires, corporations and even neocons (whoever they’re supposed to be when they’re not a figment of Monbiot’s imagination) are as likely as not to be doing all that they can to demonstrate their ‘ethical’ credentials, to be showing themselves to be ‘caring about the environment’, and the ‘social justice campaigners and environmentalists’ only too keen to help them. You cannot move in this world without bumping into eco-marketing. There are even ‘ethical banks’. There are billionaire philanthropists, who donate vast sums to environmental organisations. NGOs are given priviliged access to policy-making processes at national and supranational political institutions. There are no straight lines. There are no simple moral categories. Monbiot concludes…

Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned “freedom” into an instrument of oppression.

In real reality, however, libertarianism — of either the kind espoused by Claire Fox or more conservative libertarians — is not a political force. Yet. The idea that it is powerful, or has been able to assert itself is a fantasy. It is an illusion that is owed to Monbiot’s failure to grasp the world, and to understand the claims libertarians make, and thus to identify ‘libertarianism’ or its influence in the real world. Libertarians are perhaps environmentalism’s (and Monbiot’s) most coherent and vociferous critics, and hence they appear to him as the harbingers of doom: like a spoilt infant, he can’t tell the difference between the end of the world and a challenge to his will, or criticism of his argument. ‘Libertarianism’ becomes an encompassing explanation of his own sense of inertia, just as ‘the climate’ serves as an encompassing account of all that is wrong with the world.


  1. James Heartfield

    On Isaiah Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’

    Berlin was First Secretary in the British Embassy in Washington during the Second World War, when Britain was under significant pressure to withdraw from the colonies. At the Foreign Office a desperate campaign to forestall these attacks was drafted. The weight of the argument the FO put up was that though the British were not yet ready to grant freedom to the colonial peoples, that was less important than the welfare work on behalf of these natives tha the Empire undertook. In a ‘British Colonial Charter’ the FO argued that the Americans idea of decolonisation was less important than the positive work that the British were doing for the natives. As Embassy representative, Berlin was in the forefront of that argument that was raging in Washington at the time (see William Louis, Imperialism at Bay, 1977; and Suke Wolton, Lord Hailey, the Colonial Office and the Politics of Race and Empire, 1996). Plainly the argument lodged because the ‘British Colonial Charter’ is the same structure as the Two Concepts of Liberty.

    The Two Concepts of Liberty is flawed logically because it presents itself as a *distinction* between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty, but actually it is a blurring of the lines between two very different things, one is a right, the other is a welfare policy. By putting both under the heading of ‘liberty’, Berlin confuses the very distinctive concept of right, which is essentially what he calls ‘negative liberty’, namely, to rule oneself, without hindrance from the state. What he falsely calls ‘positive liberty’ is not liberty at all, but a welfare provision. Welfare is a very good thing. But it is not a right. There is no necessary trade-off between the two. Calling welfare a ‘right’ is a common expression, but it confuses two very different things, leading to a diminution of the claim of liberty proper.

    Liberty is not absolute, of course, because civil liberty, liberty in civil society, is very different from natural liberty, the liberty of people outside of civilisation. Governments can of course put limits on the self-government of individuals, and do all the time, by outlawing murder, or by settign taxes. The authority for this apparent limitation of individual liberty is not strange at all, where it derives from the self-government of the Constituent Assembly. So the law is itself an exercise of liberty, collectively, the liberty of the people, to decide for itself, what stands outside of civilised life, such as killing people, or failing to support the state in keeping with rules on taxation.

  2. James Heartfield

    … and as it happens, Monbiot’s invoking Berlin is entirely perfunctory, since he aims to put environmental policy under the heading of ‘negative liberty’, not positive liberty. That would be analagous to putting it under common law rather than statute law. But the attempt to situate ‘freedom from pollution’ under negative liberty makes no sense. The air does not belong to anyone – it is commons, and not regulated by individual property rights. The Clean Air Act was a wholly positive exercise of positive liberty. It was an act of the General Will, through parliament. To get it passed, there had to be some kind of consensus won in society to get it through.

    But Lord Monbiot does not want to leave his hobby horse at the mercy of the general public, suspecting – rightly – that they do not really give a rat’s ass about ‘the biosphere’. So, instead, he hopes to achieve rhetorically what he cannot in fact, to make protection of the environment a question of common law, to be decided by a judge, without reference to the people.

    So all that guff about Berlin was just him preening himself – strangely ignorant of the status that Berlin actually occupies in contemporary writing on rights and political science, namely, quaint, out-dated (not always for the right reasons), old-hat.

  3. CountingCats


    All that Ms Fox needed to do was go back to first principles and she could have been all over George.

    An invocation of the basic philosophy of many libertarians, the non aggression principle, would have guided her out of the trap.

    “Thou shalt not initiate the use of violence.” Using that, and taking the view that polluting fumes that damage my health and / or interfere with my right to enjoy my property – my house next door – are an aggression against me, I would have the right to take action to eliminate the fumes. Regulation would be unnecessary, legal action would suffice.

    George defeated, fumes eliminated, freedom upheld.

  4. Paper Moon

    “Thou shalt not initiate the use of violence.” Using that, and taking the view that polluting fumes that damage my health and / or interfere with my right to enjoy my property – my house next door – are an aggression against me, I would have the right to take action to eliminate the fumes. Regulation would be unnecessary, legal action would suffice.

    Thats a pretty terrifying oversimplification. It would be incredibly easy to define everything as having some effect on everyone else and thereby everything should be shut down. Not to mention running everything by legal action after the fact.

    Simply applying the idea of freedom to a lead smelting organisation is absurd. Organisations are artificial constructs, created and maintained by society to achieve some purpose or other (in this case the refinement of lead). Giving it freedoms or even taking them away is just as stupid as giving my computer freedoms, or taking away freedoms from a screwdriver. It makes no sense.

    Society needs lead, it also needs to avoid harmful consequences. So drop the illusion that organisations are independent from society and simply enforce accountability. Not only will the organisation’s profits be available to deal with any negative consequences but peoples tolerance of risk will be much higher, they are after all in control.

    To give Monbiot some credit, i think he is correctly tackling the incoherent way that libertarianism. The problem is -just- that he’s set everything up as liberals against libertarians. Which is of course his job. They are after all advertising for the same status quo, they’re just marketed to different demographics.

    I know it’s easy to give liberals a hard time because they’re a bunch of sermonising miserable assholes. And libertarians are actually capable of optimism. But libertarians are not a coherent critic of anything.

  5. Ben Pile

    Paper Moon – To give Monbiot some credit, i think he is correctly tackling the incoherent way that libertarianism…

    I disagree here. I take your point that ‘libertarianism’ is incoherent, but would say rather that it’s incomplete, and in much the same way as environmentalism, is a constellation of ideas, rather than one. Fox attempts to expand on it, to explain political freedom from her perspective, but Monbiot interrupts. Monbiot needs an incomplete/incoherent, or not fully-formulated ‘libertarianism’. And in his wider attack on libertarianism in general, if he’s attacking it’s incoherence/incompleteness, he get’s it completely wrong in imagining libertarians to be uncritical of the extant relationships between government and banks. Libertarians have been especially vocal in this regard.

  6. Peter S

    George Monbiot might make a more coherent argument if he was able to distinguish between the two types of ‘freedom’ humans have as an option. But in reaching that position, he could find he has sabotaged his own campaign.

    The allure of a primitive freedom – we might here call ‘feral’ – has long been the hallmark of the Environmentalist movement… with its privileging of the wild and its harking back to a heavily romanticised pastoral of mankind’s benign interaction with the natural world. This ‘freedom’ – from real obstacles – is one we have all experienced in very early childhood and, although largely unconcsious, it remains a powerful and ‘historical’ draw throughout the rest of life (as we can see).

    It is this feral freedom which most people eventually surrender in exchange for being at liberty in a civilised world. This new freedom is conditional upon an acceptance of the world containing obstacles (and, indeed, that one’s own presence and actions might present an obstacle to others). The feral response of fighting or fleeing, to get rid of obstacles, is replaced with a recognition of their intrinsic usefulness. Negotiation with the things (and ideas and people) that stand in the way opens up a broad range of new possibilities and directions available to the civilised individual. Obstacles (and the frustrations they bring) are relied upon to extend and develop a human resourcefulness which would have otherwise remained dormant and unexploited.

    George, of course, is simply pitching one representation of feral-freedom against another – ‘his’ against its hated ‘obstacle’. In George’s world, the idyllised feral-freedom of a poor, Romanian community is crushed by the unconcerned, obstacle-free actions of the lead factory-owner. Weighing up the economic and social benefits the factory brings to the area with the need for its local workforce to negotiate an exchange which leaves them in good-enough health, never enters George’s conception of what ‘freedom’ might be.

    One recourse left to those adults still hankering after feral-freedom (where the wish itself is felt as an insurmountable obstacle to their getting on with life), is to collude in establishing positions of political power within the apparatus of the civilised world – from where they can legislate and regulate all the real obstacles it contains into oblivion. It is this, perhaps, that libertarians of all shades must be most on-guard for.

  7. Alex Cull

    “The legacy of Ceausescu’s tyranny is not the subject of the discussion, however. But shouldn’t that be the discussion?”

    Exactly. There’s an article written in 2005, which describes the town of Copsa Mica, which is where I think George would have visited, and which, if accurate, depicts a complicated and dismal legacy of authoritarianism, corruption and neglect, compounded by a current desperate lack of employment and modernisation.

    The article mentions “forced industrialization” and “Stalinist-type industrialization goals focused on heavy industry and short-term production quotas”.

    During Ceausescu’s rule, industrial units were situated in such a way as to concentrate pollution from industry in a few small areas, leaving the rest of the country relatively pristine. Copsa Mica had the misfortune of being designated as one of these locations, in spite of the fact that the orographical and meteorological positioning of Copsa Mica is not favorable for polluting industries.

    The plant at Copsa Mica was part of Ceausescu’s drive to drag Romania into a major industrial role. Plants fell to disrepair under Ceausescu who, unwilling to take on more foreign debt, refused to replace failing parts and filters, causing plant managers to sacrifice worker health and safety as well as environmental concerns in the interest of meeting short-term production quotas.

    In Romania, compliance and enforcement of pollution regulations are limited by a multitude of factors, including: a lack of incentives, difficulties with public participation, a lack of technology, financial limitations, and most of all, the slow process of privatization and corruption at all levels.

    Where is George Monbiot’s simple model of corporate baddies vs victims, in all of that?

    My understanding is that (at least since the end of the Ceausescu era) there have been environmental laws and regulations that would apply in Romania, just as there are environmental laws and regulations that would apply in South Australia, which has the world’s largest lead-smelting plant, at Port Pirie. So why, and in what ways, is Copsa Mica not like Port Pirie? An answer to that question requires, I think, a look at in what ways Romania is different from Australia, and part of that complex answer would have to involve the history of the two countries, their political traditions and yes, the matter of political freedom – or the lack, thereof.

  8. James Heartfield

    Sorry to take a thrid bite at this cherry, but Alex Cull’s post reminds me of a curious encounted that sheds some light on Rumania’s pollutionb policy. Some years ago I was visiting Brussels as minder to a group of American exchange students, and the University of Delaware London Programme’s director had arranged for the students to talk to some Brussels bureaucrats. We met with a woman who must have been all of 26, who was in charge of Rumania’s joining the EU. Candidate countries have to adopt the extant EU legislation (known as the acquis communitaire) into their own law. Having read Joan Phillips’s excellent reports from Rumania in Living Marxism, I did know that they had a particularly bad pollution problem, built up in the many years of Stalinist dictatorship. I took the opportunity of asking the woman what would happen to Rumania’s industry when it applied the German-modelled, and very strict, pollution rules. Oh yes, she said, of course, we understand that though the Rumanian parliament must vote EU law in as a display of its commitment, it would be destructive of its industry if it were acted upon, so we give them special derogations, allowing them to emit much more lead etc than the standard.

    In short the Rumanian people had been handed over from one set of unelected bureaucrats, Comecon, to another, the EU, both of which treated their democratic voice as a sham, under which they felt that they could pursue any industrial policy they liked. The Rumanians problem was unfreedom, not freedom.

  9. srp

    It’s depressing that people still haven’t caught up to Ronald Coase’s 1960 analysis in The Problem of Social Cost (one of two articles for which he received his economics Nobel Memorial prize).

    Point 1: The harm caused by the lead smelter to its neighbors is somewhat offset by the benefit to the customers, suppliers, and owners of the lead smelter. The question of what to do about the smelter depends on the relative costs and benefits of cleaning it up/shutting it down, having the residents adjust/live with it.

    Point 2: The physical “invasion” of one space by the activities of another is irrelevant to deciding what maximizes social welfare. The concept of “externality” or “spillover” therefore has no normative purchase on which party should make the adjustment. For example, if the smelter was there first and then the residents moved in nearby, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that it was best to let the smelter keep on belching (although it would be evidence, since the residents would likely have had some idea of the smelter’s noisome output and some freedom to choose where to live). Likewise, if the smelter moved in second, that wouldn’t prove that letting it pollute wasn’t the right thing.

    Point 3: IF, COUNTERFACTUALLY, there were no transactions costs in bargaining among the smelter’s owners and the neighboring residents, then which party were given property rights over the pollution would NOT affect whether or not the smelter were cleaned up. (This is the so-called Coase Theorem.) If a) the residents had the rights and b) the smelter’s output was worth more to its owners than the harm cost the residents, then the smelter owners would pay the residents for the right to pollute. If a) held but not b), then the residents would shut down the smelter. If c) the smelter owned the rights and d) the cost to the residents was greater than the benefit to the smelter owners, then the residents would pay the smelter to clean up or shut down. If c) held but not d) then the smelter would run undisturbed.

    Point 4: In the real world, there are significant transactions costs that limit efficient bargaining. (Gary Libecap has done important empirical work studying this in the context of oil field unitization, and there is other interesting research as well.) Therefore the initial assignment of property rights DOES MATTER for the outcome in the real world. Specifically, transactions costs make it harder to agree to compensation deals, so the effect on the other party is less likely to be taken into consideration than in the zero-transaction-cost case of the Coase Theorem. It therefore becomes important to assign the rights to the party who, ON AVERAGE, is likely to be creating the larger total social benefit.

    Point 5: Law professor Richard Epstein has tried to rehabilitate the common law doctrines dealing with nuisance and “invasion” by arguing that they are indeed more likely to get this ON AVERAGE calculation right than a case-by-case detailed analysis of costs and benefits. These rules look at such things as whose space is being invaded, who was there first, and so on. Monbiot’s attempt at undermining definitions of freedom is tantamount to asserting that libertarians must oppose the common law. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    This education provided free of charge to the diligent. If you understand this framework you will be miles ahead of most of the people who pontificate about these issues.

    Subversive study question: Why aren’t the spillover effects of individuals’ speech or individuals’ appearance rightly treated as externalities and regulated as environmental hazards?

  10. Michael Cunningham

    Coase’s seminal paper referred to by srp was concerned with those actions of business firms which have harmful effects on others (sometimes referred to as “negative externalities”). However, the analysis can be extended: I drew on it in a 1999 paper on the economics of compensation.

    Most economists had thought of the question as one in which A inflicts harm on B, and what is to be decided is how A should be restrained. Coase pointed out that this is wrong – we are dealing with a problem of a reciprocal nature. To avoid the harm to A would be to inflict harm on A. The real question is to avoid the more serious harm, so as to maximize social welfare. Coase demonstrated that where parties have conflicting interests which occasion an adverse impact on one party, the most economically efficient outcome will arise from a negotiated outcome. An approach of determining fault, damage and appropriate compensation will generally produce a sub-optimal outcome. When the question of compensation arises, the economic efficiency issue is not “Who has been harmed?” but “What arrangement is most efficient from a social perspective?’

    Coase stressed the need to take account of opportunity costs and to compare the returns from a given combination of factors with alternative arrangements. Using the pricing system to allocate resources to their highest value use can leave both parties and society better off, and does so at less cost than alternative systems.

    In case srp’s point 4 gives a wrong impression, Coase was of course a leader in recognising and taking account of the impact of transaction costs. Monbiot (and others) would do well to read his work.

    I’m happy to find this interesting discussion via a link at Climate Etc.

  11. arp


    I got here from Climate, Etc. as well.

    My Point 4 was there to be true to Coase’s intent. He has written that his paper was misinterpreted by many as being about the zero-transactions-cost case, when in fact he introduced it more as a reductio ad absurdum to convince economists to pay attention to transactions costs. In other words, Coase thought of the “Coase Theorem” as a wake-up call: “If you think transactions costs are a minor friction, look how unrealistic things get when you ignore them.”

    Otherwise we seem to be on the same page.

  12. Lewis Deane

    No one can win against Claire Fox, or, at least, no one ought to, least of all…

    ‘one of the rightwing libertarian groups that rose from the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist party’

    Ouch! Like a handbag from thirty paces! Monbiot should really learn when not to speak!

  13. Mooloo

    What gets me about Carrington’s “jury for the future”, was that Britain had one.

    The point of the House of Lords was that it was filled with people who had every reason to take the long view. Men who were wealthy and powerful enough that short term advantage should have been above them.

    So how did that work out for you Mr Carrington?

  14. Alex Cull

    Further to that Fifth Column debate, another episode of ITMA got under way last week over at the Graun, with George explaining: “Why libertarians must deny climate change, in one short take”. Some of the comments are, for a change, quite edifying. Among all the usual sorts of remarks you’d expect about polluters’ “flagrant theft and abuse of everyone elses environment”, libertarianism being “an intellectually worthless piece of self-delusion” (this from the lovely “onthefence”) and “Rightwing libertarians would remove the laws protecting the environment” (this from GM himself), there are contributions by commentator “LeLibre” which appear to show some erudition and actual knowledge of libertarianism, thus putting him (?) ahead of 90% of the other commentators, including George. Worth a look, I think:

  15. jamspid

    To understand freedom you may may need a Star Trek metaphor


    To understand George Monibot you need a James Delingpole metaphor
    Hes a Melon Green on the Outside and Red on the Inside
    Look where he came from George”meow” Galloway Respect party
    Tony Blair and Mandelson get rid of Clause 4 The Berlin Wall comes down
    Every Red Socalist Trotsky Wolfie Smiths all left out in the cold nowhere to go
    So they join the wolly hat sandle wearing Enviromentalist brigade
    Except the people at Spiked who are still doing basically the same thing but now in the opinion colums
    of the right wing broadsheets (They just put ordinary people first everytime enough respect)
    Then Climate Change comes rolling by
    “Bersinger” as Sheldon Cooper would say
    Climate Change some urban myth disguised as mumbo jumbo scientific theory
    The next End of The World story with absolutley no chance of any of it coming true
    Because it is only a theory
    Climate Change for them its better than SEX
    It ticks every box get to have a go at “greedy” consumerism and get to censor defiant opinions
    They even get to prosecute if you dont recycle
    For celebrities or politicians best thing is they get to act concerned
    A massive ECO EGO BOOST

    But in the End its all about the one usual thing “whose making out it”
    Who get to be in charge “power”

    Its Darth Sidious The evil emporor in Star Wars plotting a coup

    They get to stay in 5 star posh hotels in Durban driven around in limousine Mercs and BMWs surrounded by heavily armed security (fresh from Bagdad) food drink hot tubs all on expences
    In Armani suits big Conferance deciding the fate of the world wow

    But yet they would nt dare walk half a mile outside their luxary hotels into the shanty towns
    made of cardboard and congregated iron
    Meet the real stars of the Oxfam adverts who really do walk 2 miles with a rusty tin can to collect contaminated water
    The real prolateriate and this is 2012 not 1912 or 1812

    Mr Monibot i was rubbish at school (this laptop has fortunatley got spell checker)
    as everybody on here well knows
    but i did get to read one book who ironically the authors last name was Blair

    The Melons just like the pigs in Animal Farm the book by George Orwell (not the vhs cassette)
    you really have turned into the farmer

    Happy New Year Ben and everybody

    PS Happy Birthday David Bowie


  16. Ben Pile

    Jamspid:- Look where he came from George”meow” Galloway Respect party

    I think he left the Respect coalition before it had even launched, in spite of being a founding member. Monbiot said that they shouldn’t challenge the Green Party at the elections. Imagine… setting up a political party, and then abandoning it because it would challenge other parties. Talk about naive…

    His leaving on that basis might suggest that rather than being a watermelon, he’s red on the outside, and green on the inside. Though the truth of the matter is that Respect weren’t up to all that much anyway, nor are the greens, and that, ultimately, the only party that Monbiot is interested in is the Monbiot party.

    You see, for all his loyalty to the Green Party, he now finds himself at odds with it, over nuclear power. And then there was that stuff about the other activists at climate camp. And Monbiot ends up even disagreeing with himself. http://www.climate-resistance.org/2008/08/identity-crisis-politics.html

  17. Wojciech_M

    I think Mr. Ben Pile (19) is right – GM has one party – it is the GM party.

    Somehow energy reality starts to down onto Europe and US, and gas (shale, natural) together with fussion/fission will be the solution for growing energy prices. So smart guys have to align with this reality, if they want to use their media position for continuing inflow of income. So, the smartest “unexplicitely” abandon renewables :) :) :), mone is in the change not in status-quo.

    As for the freedom and opinion on it, i think that some guys consider themselves as an Establishment. Which gives them the freedom to craft the other people life and lifestyles.They consider themselves as leaders (maybe self-nominated :-) ), which – in their eyes – makes them always right and forces them to win (impose their opinions) on anyone trying to discuss with them (as alfa-males). It makes them quite insensitive to other people feelings and opinions. But what is leadership without a herd? A erd, not a community of people. Therefore I think such guys dress themselves as “protectors of the underdog”, implying other people need to be herded/guided/lead by self-nominated shepherds… In the process they put the underdogs really down. Happened in past – in Romania, in Eastern Europe, in colonies (Sven Lindqvist “exterminate all the brutes”). Pure champagne socialism.



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