This paper follows Prof. Stella
Capek's "The Environmental Justice Frame..." in the Winter/Spring,
1996 issue of Human Ecology
Review. In her paper, Prof. Capek studies "the
emergence and application" of the concept of "environmental
justice" in the Carver Terrace community of Texarkana, Texas -- an
African-American neighborhood contaminated by toxic waste left by
a creosote and lumber facility. The particulars of the Carver
Terrace case, which are very similar to the Times Beach and Love
Canal cases, are not essential to this paper, which stands alone
independently of Capek's paper.
In my Abstract to the published
paper, I note that "Prof. Capek's paper ..., is an insightful
account of the emergence of a collective conception of
environmental injustice in the Carver Terrace community. It
further describes how this sense of injustice focused a successful
effort to obtain compensation for damages. Missing from this
account (and appropriately so) is the question of whether that
claim for compensation was ethically justifiable. That latter
question is the concern, not of sociology but of moral and
political philosophy. This essay affirms that the residents' claim
for compensation was in fact justifiable. In making this case,
this paper critically examines the "free-market libertarian"
argument against compensation -- an argument that is influential
in current American political debate and policy. According to the
libertarian position, the residents were victims, not of
injustice, but of misfortune. To the contrary, I argue on the
grounds of social contract theory that the Carver Terrace
Community suffered an injustice, and was due compensation from the
I am grateful to the Society for
Human Ecology, and to the Co-Editor of the Human
Ecology Review for permission to use this essay.
Prof. Capek has given us a sociology paper that a
non-sociologist (such as myself) can admire and enjoy. It is
engaging, fluent, clear, and refreshingly free of the quantification
and jargon that bedevils sociological discourse... [However],
the work leaves unaddressed (as it should) some fundamental
questions: Were the complaints of "environmental injustice" raised by
the residents of Carver Terrace, morally defensible? Were the
residents, in fact, treated unfairly? If so, then by whom? Did the
remedies, namely suits against the successor corporation and federal
government for compensation, only transfer the injustice to other
unconsenting, innocent parties -- notably, current stockholders and
the taxpayers? Though Prof. Capek's sympathies (and mine) are clearly
with the residents, the case for compensation is neither self-evident
nor without a contrary argument. The case for no compensation, far
from being insignificant, utilizes ethical and political theories
which have come to dominate contemporary political rhetoric and
practice. Accordingly, this case must be taken very seriously.
The Libertarian Case Against Compensation.
Perhaps the most significant philosophical argument against
compensation of the Carver Terrace residents may be found in the
moral-political theory of libertarianism. It is significant,
both for the thoroughness and clarity of its argument, and for the
fact that it is widely accepted and cited by the resurgent
"conservatism" that so dominates our media and politics today.
Because "libertarianism" is a school of thought, it is
impossible to summarize the theory in a manner that does justice to
the varieties, nuances, and qualifications of its many adherents.
Moreover, there are significant differences between the scholarly
"theoreticians" and the political and journalistic
Mindful of these limitations, I believe that it is possible to
state the fundamental tenets of the theory.
To the libertarian, the Lockean rights of the individual to
life, liberty, and property are fundamental. Because these
rights reside in the individual, the only legitimate function of
government is to protect these rights from usurpation by other
individuals or institutions -- especially the government itself
which, according to John Hospers, is "the most dangerous institution
known to man." (Hospers, 1974). Accordingly, the scope of government
must be scrupulously confined to the protection of life, liberty and
property from foreign enemies (through the military), from domestic
enemies (through the police and criminal courts), and from the
private activities of others (through the civil courts). This last
function of government is justified by the maxim that each individual
is entitled to maximum liberty consistent with "like liberty" of
others -- i.e., that I am forbidden only to constrain the liberty of
my fellow citizens.
Thus Libertarians stress so-called negative rights (or
"liberty rights") which entail duties of forbearance on the
part of others. For example, my right to free speech entails your
duty not to prevent that speech. However, to the libertarian, there
are no "positive" or "welfare rights" -- which entail the duty of
individuals or of government to positively provide benefits or
sustenance to others.
William Bayes expresses the essence of libertarianism with
The freedom to engage in any type of enterprise, to
produce, to own and control property, to buy and sell on the free
market, is derived from the rights to life, liberty, and property
... [but] when a government guarantees a "right" to an
education or parity on farm products or a guaranteed annual
income, it is staking a claim on the property of one group of
citizens for the sake of another group. In short, it is violating
one of the fundamental rights it was instituted to protect...
All that which an individual possesses by right (including his
life and property) are morally his to use, dispose of and even
destroy, as he sees fit....
Where do my rights end? Where yours begin. I may do anything I
wish with my own life, liberty and property without your consent;
but I may do nothing with your life, liberty an property without
your consent.... (Bayes, 1970).
The preceding quotation indicates the libertarian's objection to
compensation to the Carver Terrace residents. By petitioning the
stockholders of Beazer East, Inc., and then the Federal Government
for compensation, the residents were illegitimately "staking a claim
on the property of one group of citizens for the sake of another
Yet there seems to be something intuitively wrong with "sticking"
the residents of Carver Terrace with the costs brought on by the
criminal neglect of the now-defunct Koppers Corporation. As
clarification of the libertarian's case against compensation, imagine
the following dialogue between "Adam," a free-market libertarian, and
"Raul," a "welfare liberal."
Adam: Granted, it is, in a sense,
"unfair" that the Carver Terrace residents should suffer from the
health effects of their polluted neighborhood. But "life is
unfair," and often the unfairness of life simply cannot be justly
compensated. If there is an identifiable culprit responsible for
another's misfortune, then legal and moral redress may be in
order. But this is not so in the Carver Terrace case. And with no
identifiable culprit, the so-called "injustice" of their plight
can only be transferred to other unconsenting innocent victims;
namely, the stockholders or the taxpayers. And this would be a
genuine injustice. So, absent an identifiable culprit, rather than
call the plight of the residents an "injustice," I'd prefer to
call it a "misfortune."
Raul: But isn't the Koppers Corporation, or
its successor, Beaser East, Inc., responsible?
Adam: Not at all. To begin with, you are
casually accepting the "legal fiction" that a corporation is a
"jural person." In point of fact, a "corporation" is an
abstraction -- a legal entity, without flesh, blood, nerve-endings
or emotions. True, managerial decisions are made in behalf of
corporations (or more correctly, their stockholders, employees and
customers). If an identifiable manager knowingly injures an
innocent party, then that party is entitled to compensation. But
what if the injury is not, and cannot be, anticipated? More to the
point, what if the decision that leads to the injury is so far
removed in time that the guilty executive is deceased? What if the
offending corporation is defunct or, as in this case, absorbed by
another? Then who is to be held responsible? The current
stockholders of Beaser East, who had no part in the decision? The
innocent customers of Beaser East, who will bear part of the
burden of the compensation, through higher prices?
Raul: As it turned out, most of the burden of
compensation was assumed, not by the corporation, but by the
federal government. After all, the damages far exceeded the
resources of those responsible.
Adam: What you mean, of course, is that the
burden was assumed by the American taxpayers. What is the justice
in this decision? Surely those taxpayers are in no way responsible
for the misfortunes of the Carver Terrace residents. Why then
should they be charged compensation? In fact, as you acknowledge,
there are no identifiable culprits who could justly be held
responsible to the victims.
Raul: But surely someone should pay!
Adam: And someone does: the unfortunate
residents. With no responsible party in sight, they are stuck with
their problem -- like victims of a plague, or a tornado, or an
earthquake. That's just too bad, but as we said, "life is
Raul: But don't you see? The victims got into
their bind because they were poor: the only property they could
buy turned out to be built over a toxic waste dump. The so-called
"environmental injustice" turns out to be the result of economic
Adam: Of course, the wealth is unevenly
distributed. We all know that. But unjustly so? I don't think so.
This so-called "maldistribution of wealth" is the result of the
free market -- what Robert Nozick has cleverly characterized as
"capitalistic acts between consenting adults." (Nozick, 1974)
Accordingly, if no unjust action has led to the current
distribution of wealth, that distribution can not itself be
characterized as unjust.(2)
Returning to the case in point, if no unjust transaction has led
to the poverty which brought the Carver Terrace residents to their
polluted neighborhood, then they have no valid claims on any
person or corporation, and surely no claims on the taxpayers.
Raul: Aren't we then piling misfortune on the
poor, who cannot escape from their plight?
Adam: But they can escape, as many do. So long
as we have a free economy, many of these alleged "victims" have
the opportunity, through their own initiative, to work and "buy"
themselves out of their difficulties -- again, as many have! Now
if those opportunities are not equal, then it is arguably the
function of the state to secure these opportunities. But now we
are talking about discrimination, not economic injustice. And that
is a separate issue.
Raul: Have you no pity for these unfortunate
Adam: Oh, I have pity, all right! And it would
be a good thing if they received relief from their losses. Perhaps
we should set up a private fund, and solicit donations. All those
who contributed would deserve our admiration for their compassion
and generousness. They would be so admired because they freely
gave of their own property. But because it is their
property, they must not be compelled to give it to the
victims. In short, what's mine is mine! I earned it. I can give it
away, but you can't take it from me!
Within the lifetime of most of us, "Adam's" views have migrated in
the political spectrum from the "fringes" to the center of
respectable debate. Claiming the justification of such arguments as
these, the 104th Congress has voted to drastically cut the budget and
curtail the enforcement of the Environmental Protection Agency.
A Critique of Libertarianism:
Thus presented, with stark simplicity and brevity, the libertarian
view seems very attractive -- and it has proven to be so in
contemporary political and economic debate. That very simplicity, I
submit, is the undoing of the libertarian doctrine. For like the
economic theory which supports much of it, the libertarian view is
based upon an abstract model which excludes essential conditions and
pre-requisites of human society. A comment of unknown origin sums it
up: "the theory is beautiful -- it's reality that I can't figure
A refutation of free-market libertarianism requires a lengthy book
of argumentation, at the very least. However, I believe that the most
salient components of that argument might be identified.
1. First and foremost, the Libertarian regards a morally
well-ordered society as a free gift, to which nothing is owed for its
maintenance. Thus redistribution of wealth, care for the weak and
unfortunate, support of education, the arts and the environment, the
promotion of civic pride -- none of these are required of the
citizen. True, private donations to these amenities and charities are
morally praiseworthy, but they cannot legitimately be supported by
required tax assessments. To do so, they argue, would constitute
involuntary appropriation of private property.
Central to our criticism of libertarianism is John Rawls's concept
of the "well-ordered society. A society is "well-ordered," he
when it is not only designed to advance the good of its
members but when it is also effectively regulated by a public
conception of justice. That is, it is a society in which (1)
everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same
principles of justice, and (2) the basic social institutions
generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these
principles... Among individuals with disparate aims and purposes a
shared conception of justice establishes the bonds of civic
friendship..." (Rawls, 1971, 4-5. See also pp. 453-462).
In fact, every citizen of a well-ordered society, without
exception and whatever his accomplishment, bears an enormous burden
of moral debt to both his predecessors and his contemporaries. In a
democratic society, the appropriate institution for the payment of
that debt is the government. The British sociologist, L. T. Hobhouse,
made the point supremely well, when he wrote:
The organizer of industry who thinks he has 'made'
himself and his business has found a whole social system ready to
his hand in skilled workers, machinery, a market, peace and order
-- a vast apparatus and a pervasive atmosphere, the joint creation
of millions of men and scores of generations. Take away the whole
social factor, and we have not Robinson Crusoe with his salvage
from the wreck and his acquired knowledge, but the native savage
living on roots, berries and vermin. (Hobhouse, 1974)
To appreciate the scope of this
"debt," imagine an entrepreneur, characteristically "fed up with big
government interference," who calls his travel agent to book a flight
to a business meeting on the opposite coast. That simple transaction
would have been impossible without the "interference" (in part) of
the National Weather Service, the Air Traffic Control system, the
Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Reserve System, and
countless additional "government bureaucracies." Because these
agencies oversee the public "commons" and serve as referees of
private commerce, they can not be privatized -- any more than courts
can be privatized.
Equally significant as these public
agencies is the "moral tone" of the "well ordered society;" the sense
of safety and well-being which accompanies the implicit and
widespread expectation among the citizenry of fair-play,
trustworthiness, and empathy -- a condition founded upon the general
acknowledgment that all citizens "have a stake in" the existing
politico-economic order. It is not a mere accident of good fortune
that America is not Lebanon, or Northern Ireland, or Bosnia. It is
not without reason that we enjoy, by contrast, the benefits of what
Rawls calls "civic friendship." These benefits have been and must
forever be purchased, in part, through the support of public
institutions that support education, culture, popular government, and
publicly owned natural areas. And as Aldo Leopold taught us, in such
a society, "land" must be regarded, not as a commodity and an
aggregate of private holdings, but as a "community" to which the
populace "belongs." Probably no pre-supposition of libertarianism is
more misguided and more dangerous than the assumption of the "free
gift of the well-ordered society."
2. The "free market" of "capitalist
acts by consenting adults" is not a natural and inherently stable
state of affairs. On the contrary, it is an inherently unstable
condition containing the seeds of its own destruction -- a "positive
feedback system" wherein the race goes to the advantaged, and the
predestined result of laissez faire competition is monopoly
and the destruction of competition. (The history of cartels and the
necessity of countervailing anti-trust legislation testify to this
fact). Accordingly, "free markets" must be regulated and maintained
by "referees" -- external agencies that enforce competition and
frustrate tendencies toward monopolies. That external agency,
necessary for the maintenance of the market is, of course, the
"government" so despised by "free market libertarians."
3. "Free market theory" is based on
an ideal-type theoretical "model" ("the perfect market") which has
never existed, because it can never exist. The "perfect market" is
comprised of transactions by "economic men" (purely egoistic
"utility-maximizers" which, fortunately, also do not exist). The
"perfect market" hypothesizes (a) perfect information by buyer and
seller (impossible, especially in the age of advertisement), (b) no
transaction costs, (c) free entry and open competition by a virtually
infinite number of buyers and sellers, (d) no externalities -- i.e.,
no positive or negative effects upon unconsenting "third parties."
(VandDeVeer and Peirce, 1986; Freeman, 1986) None of these conditions
in fact obtain in "the real world" in which we all live. (Sagoff,
4. Nozick and other libertarians are
what philosophers call "radical reductionists," as they proclaim that
the sum of isolated, morally permissible private acts necessarily
results in a condition (e.g., income distribution) which is likewise
morally innocent. Thus, by this account, an economic distribution
resulting from uncoerced private acts cannot, in principle, be
unjust. Only a few uncompromising free-market libertarian ideologues,
and apparently more than a few conservative congressmen, can
seriously believe this doctrine.(3)
In point of fact, social and economic
reality, not to mention practical life, totally refutes this strange
notion of "radical reductionism." Free-market libertarians are
themselves fundamentally inconsistent about this dogma, as they
proclaim, with Adam Smith, that "economic man" who "intends only his
own gain [is] led by an invisible hand to promote the public
interest." (Smith. 1937). Of course, Adam Smith's "invisible hand,"
contrary to libertarian reductionism, gives rise to "positive
externalities" -- "public goods" additional to and emergent from the
sum of private economic acts. However, the libertarians routinely
fail to acknowledge that there is a "back of the invisible hand,"
namely "negative externalities" currently known as "tragedies of the
commons," whereby, in Garrett Hardin's memorable words, "ruin is the
destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best
interest..." (Hardin, 1968) "Negative externalities" such as
pollution and urban decay are compellingly obvious in practical
experience and environmental policy-making. Indeed, political
philosophers from Aristotle on have cited the necessity to manage and
mitigate "negative externalities" as the essential justification of
5. To the Libertarians, the only
legitimate function of government is to protect life, liberty and
property -- which is to say, the only legitimate public institutions
are the military, the police, and the courts. But the boundaries of
even these functions are not clearly defined, nor do the full
implications of these "rights" end where the libertarians might
expect. Arguably, the maintenance of "civic friendship" and the "well
ordered society," promoted by such contractarian theorists as Rawls,
falls under the libertarian criteria. For it may be the case that
"life, liberty and property," can only be secured only if society is
"well-ordered," and "civic friendship" obtains -- that is, when the
critical mass of citizens recognize their common stake in a "shared
fate," when, in a word, they have a well-founded loyalty to their
contract-state. But such a society must be a community, and not the
aggregate of "utility maximizing egoists," envisioned by the
free-market libertarians. Again, we ask, how secure are "life,
liberty and property" in the failed communities of Bosnia and Ulster?
Wealth can be acquired and maintained only in a system wherein the
most and the least advantaged share a communal loyalty to the system
under which that wealth was acquired. But once the least advantaged
no longer feel that they have a stake in the system, then the wealth
of the advantaged becomes vulnerable to revolution. In short, it is
not at all clear that the "minimal state" required to secure the
libertarian rights to life, liberty and property is all that
The thoughtful libertarian scholar
will object, with some justification, that I have simplified and
distorted his theory in order to concoct an outrageous "target of
critical convenience." Apart from the expected excuse of space
constraints, I would reply that the "caricature" that I have
attacked, while arguably unfair to thoughtful libertarians, is not
far removed from the ideal "minimalist state" that we hear of in
congressional debate, political campaign rhetoric, and the popular
media. If so, then it is an idea of enormous practical significance
and thus deserving of our critical attention.
There is a radically different view
which rejects the fundamental assumptions of the libertarian
free-market position. This view, "contract theory," also seems
implicit in the demands of the Carver Terrace community for
"environmental justice." When closely examined, I submit that
"contract theory" provides valid moral justification for the claims
of that community for just compensation.
"Contract theory" regards society as
a "plus sum game" -- a "cooperative venture for mutual advantage"
(Rawls, 1971) -- whereby each individual gains far more in community
than he would in isolation.(4)
By this account, governmental
activity is justified when it facilitates and enhances this "mutual
advantage." When government fails to thus serve its citizens, its
has, in effect, "voided its contract" and the citizens are entitled
to revision or replacement of that government. Modern contract theory
goes beyond this Lockean-Jeffersonian justification of government, to
validate the principles of justice that underlie popular
This "contract" is "hypothetical"
since we can not opt out of the contract. Once we as individuals have
achieved self-consciousness and have acquired the necessary
advantages of social life and culture (which are absolute
pre-requisites to becoming, for example, libertarian entrepreneurs),
we are already beneficiaries with a debt owed to that society and our
fellow citizens -- i.e., we are contractors. Though
"hypothetical," the contract is not irrevocable or pre-rational. For
while we inevitably find ourselves in some society, we can
nonetheless identify and articulate the principles of justice that a
government should exhibit and sustain -- which is exactly what
Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Jefferson, and most recently, John
Rawls have done.
In the words of its foremost
contemporary exponent, John Rawls, this "hypothetical contractarian"
theory asserts, that . . . "[A] society is a more or less
self-sufficient association of persons who in their relations to one
another recognize certain rules of conduct as binding and who for the
most part act in accordance with them. . . . [T]hese rules
specify a system of cooperation designed to advance the good of those
taking part in it." (Rawls, 1971) Furthermore, Rawls argues, these
are principles of justice that a hypothetical rational individual
would choose, if he were apprized of the fundamental requirements of
human satisfaction and the general facts about possible and actual
social arrangements, while ignorant of the peculiar conditions of his
personal life. Thus, in choosing rules of justice for himself, he
would be choosing for all members of society. Accordingly, this
theory of "Justice as Fairness," as Rawls calls it, accords equal
weight to the demands for justice of each citizen, and holds that no
one deserves the advantages or disadvantages into which he is born.
Unequal distributions of income are justifiable only if this
inequality benefits both the most and the least advantaged members of
society. In a Rawlsian society, justice requires that to some degree,
each member of society "shares the fate" of the others, while, at the
same time, the freedom, dignity and autonomy of each individual is
It follows that the residents of
Carver Terrace are due compensation according to basic principles of
justice which, Rawls argues, the bold Libertarian would himself
adopt, if he no longer knew of his privileged station in society, and
were he to realize that he might well find himself, not a
beneficiary, but a victim of the sort of radically individualistic
order that he defends. He would himself demand compensation, that is,
were he to find that his humble residence (his primary personal
investment), was situated upon an industrial toxic dump site, and
that he was thus obliged without warning or consent to pay the
"externalized" cost of distant private corporate transactions by
individuals too anonymous to be held to account. And if the
libertarian believes otherwise (as he manifestly does), then this is
only because he draws his theories from his perspective of personal
advantage, and with the false belief that these advantages are
completely of his own making, with nothing whatever owed to the
individuals and institutions that in fact made these advantages
The claims of the Carver Terrace residents exhibit a particular
interpretation of the "social contract" -- what we might call "the
insurance policy model." By this account, government compensation
might be regarded as a kind of insurance payment, the "premiums" of
which are paid in taxes by all, including those fortunate individuals
who have benefited from an economy which has "externalized" the
costs of growth and prosperity upon the weak and the poor, who are
most likely to be victims of environmental injustice.(6)
This "insurance policy" further
stipulates that "insurance claims" may be made by, and compensatory
payments disbursed to, those "policy holders" who have fallen victim
to unforeseen misfortune.
The "public premiums" (i.e., taxes)
support much more, of course; in particular, they support and assure
the benefits of political union enumerated in the Preamble of our
Constitution, and the rights secured by the first Ten Amendments to
that Constitution. The public "insurance policy" is explicated by our
founding documents. The "by laws" of the contract are enacted by our
state legislatures and the Congress.
As we are daily reminded, much of our government's tax revenues is
lost to "waste, fraud and abuse," against which we must be constantly
vigilant. But no human institution is perfect, thus some losses must
be expected. Despite these manifest imperfections, the advantages of
this contract, and the economic prosperity made possible by the
sustenance of the "well-ordered society" which it secures, far
outweigh the personal costs in tax payments to the state. We gain far
more than we give.
If this account correctly describes
and validates our social contract, it follows that the residents of
Carver Terrace are entitled to federal compensation, as
"policy-holders" in the insurance contract that is our body-politic.
But if this is no longer the case --
if we are now to replace these established political beliefs with a
radical, "look out for Number One," individualism -- then such
victims of injustice as the residents of Carver Terrace must
conclude, at long last, that their contract has been voided and that
they may thus no longer expect protection and compensation from
injustice. It follows that they can no longer regard this new
political order as "their government," and that the common communal
bond which has sustained communal peace in our society has been
forfeited. Ahead lies our own Bosnia, Lebanon and
Toward an Accommodation
Between Environmentalism and Racial Justice:
The civil rights activists have not
been enthusiastic and early supporters of broader environmental
concerns. This is understandable, as we recall the histories of both
the civil rights and the environmental movements. The sixties were
the defining decade of the civil rights movement. And yet, as the
sixties closed with urgent matters of racial and economic justice
unresolved, and just two years after the murder of Martin Luther
King, the first "Earth Day" was celebrated in April, 1970, and public
attention was drawn to a new issue: the environment.
The consternation that this caused in the civil rights community
was typified in Robert Chrisman's 1970 essay, "Ecology is a Racist
The ecology movement has provided Americans a diversion
from ... the black liberation struggle ... [T]he
establishment has skillfully manipulated the movement....
... The national liberation
struggles of black and Third World peoples throughout the United
States and the world have exerted tremendous pressure upon the
economic, political and cultural conditions of white America, and
the ecology movement has emerged as a conservative reaction to
those struggles.... (Chrisman, 1970)
The primary complaints of the civil
rights activists are, first, that the preservationist concerns of the
Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society are derived from interest of
elites to protect their playgrounds. Second, ecologists' concerns
about population growth are focused on the third world -- the world
of color. Thus, it is argued, "Zero Population Growth" is an
ill-disguised manifestation of racism. Moreover, the critics point
out, environmentalists seem much more concerned about the increase in
Third-World population than they do about the exponential rise in
"First-World" resource consumption and pollution. The
counter-complaints against the resource-appetite of the "North" and
the population growth of the "South" have been voiced in numerous
international environmental conferences -- recently and significantly
at the Rio de Janeiro "Earth Summit" in 1972.
While the hypothetical contract
theory justifies the claim of the Carver Terrace residents against
the corporate polluters and the government agencies, it does not
justify the belated and partial attention of the disadvantaged
minorities to the larger environmental issues, though it does justify
their complaint that the affluent societies give inadequate attention
to their profligate waste of global resources, and that in that
wasteful "First World," it is more often the poor that are most
seriously affected by environmental pollution. The same principles of
environmental justice which require that the victims of Carver
Terrace be compensated, require that the affluent nations curb their
appetite for non-renewable resources and that they invest in
ecologically benign technologies, and furthermore that the poor
nations control their fertility with the objective of bringing their
populations to stable and sustainable levels. All the various nations
of this single planet must protect this planet's biodiversity and
Accordingly, a continuation of the rivalry between the civil
rights and environmental movements can only harm both and work to the
advantage of their common adversaries. The fact is that both rivals
are correct: both resource greed and population growth threaten the
planetary life-support system, upon which all people and nations,
rich and poor, depend. That is reason enough for accommodation. For
we all "share our fate," not only as members of separate societies,
but also as members of a single species occupying a single planet
with a common atmosphere, ocean, and biotic inheritance. Furthermore,
we are a species united in time in what Edmund Burke called "a
partnership not only between those who are living, but between those
who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born." Or,
to quote a proverb popular among environmentalists: "we have not
inherited the world from our parents, we are borrowing it from our
Why, in this time of common global
threat and "shared fate," has politico-economic individualism and
privatism become the prominent public ideology? That is a serious
question for the historian and the sociologist. If we find a
plausible answer, we will be better equipped to deal with this dogma.
It has been this moral philosopher's task to demonstrate that
free-market libertarianism is both morally indefensible and
practically inappropriate for the conditions of contemporary life --
if not, indeed, for all modes of social life.
To Sum Up: The fundamental
weakness of libertarianism lies, not in its precepts, but in its
simplicity. The libertarian's celebration of the rights of life,
liberty and property, is both attractive and, on its face,
admirable. But it is fatally superficial, for missing from this moral
platform is the sense of balance and of paradox, and an
acknowledgment of prerequisites, that characterizes a well-considered
moral theory. As Spinoza observed, "freedom is the recognition of
necessity." Moreover, personal liberty and privacy
are most secure in a community of shared ideals and shared
fate. And finally, personal rights logically entail
duties and responsibilities. As the "communitarian"
Amatai Etzioni observes, those who demand their "right" to a jury
trial, are in no position to refuse jury duty.
Free trade and open markets have unquestionably produced untold
benefits to modern society. But a well-ordered community, necessary
for the sustenance of flourishing free-markets, is not achieved and
sustained without persistent care -- it is not a free gift. We have
learned through practical experience that the complexities of modern
industrial society can not be maintained without regulation, and that
"market failures" (i.e., "negative externalities") must be corrected
by non-market agencies, through compensations and redistributions
that are just and fair. We have also learned that simple formulas at
the extremes are unworkable: The attempt to operate a modern economy
by "command" and without markets ended in spectacular failure with
the collapse of Communism. An attempt to accomplish the opposite
extreme: a modern economy without plan or regulation -- as the simple
summation of all private free market transactions -- has never
succeeded, and not without reason. We may be facing anew a costly
demonstration of the inadequacies of unconstrained free-markets,
having failed to learn from the previous experiment in the 1920s.
The residents of Carver Terrace
acquired their property according to the laws of their state and
country -- the "clauses" of their "contract." Presumably, they paid
their taxes, voted in their elections, and, when called upon, their
sons went to war to defend their country. They were thus bonafide
"policy-holders" in the "insurance policy" of federal protection.
When disaster relief went to victims of Florida hurricanes and
California earthquakes, the Carver Terrace residents did not complain
that their fellow citizens were illegitimately "staking a claim on
[their] property." (Cf. Bayles, above) And when it came their
turn to seek relief, they were entitled to claim payment from their
"policy" with full justification and without
How strange it is, that some
prominent political voices seem to be telling us
Copyright, 1996, by Ernest Partridge
1. Perhaps the
most conspicuous difference between the scholars and the politicians
concerns matters of private conduct. While libertarian economic
doctrine is enthusiastically embraced by the platforms of the
Republican Party, those same platforms are in fundamental
disagreement with libertarian views regarding censorship, abortion,
sexual preference, free expression (e.g., flag burning), and
religious practice (e.g., school prayer). The libertarian position
regarding these latter issues is much more in harmony with the
"ultra-liberal" Civil Liberties Union than the "conservative"
Republican Party. For this reason (and others), I am very suspicious
of the word "conservative" as it is used in contemporary political
rhetoric. That suspicion will be manifest in this paper by the use of
quotation marks and such qualifications as "so-called ..."
argument for this conclusion is justly celebrated: Suppose Wilt
Chamberlain (more currently, Michael Jordan) signed a contract
whereby each purchaser of a ticket to his games paid a quarter
directly to Chamberlain. If, at the end of the season, a million
patrons did so, Chamberlain would receive $250,000. This is, Nozick
points out, "a much larger sum than the average income and larger
even than anyone else has. Is he entitled to this income? Is this new
distribution ... unjust? If so, why?" To Nozick, the questions are
rhetorical. He concludes that there is no injustice in the
redistribution. (Nozick, 1974. 161).
speaking, Nozick does not endorse the extreme and simplified position
presented here. The "end result distribution" of private transaction
can only be just if certain "side constraints" and "rules of
rectification" are inviolate in these transactions. However, Nozick
believes that in the "real world," these qualifications make little
practical difference, and thus that his libertarian conclusion
remains essentially intact. (Nozick, 179, 182) My own view is that,
far from being practically insignificant, these constraints and
provisos effective undermine and refute his justification for the
libertarian state. Unfortunately, I haven't the space here either to
give a fair representation of Nozick's views, or my critique
4. Unlike the
radically atomistic libertarian approach, contractarian theory
regards society as an "emergent" system, and thus with
properties of the whole that are qualitatively different than the
mere summation of its parts. By this account, it is not only
possible, it is actually the case, that (contrary to Nozick) the
summation of individually permissible "capitalistic acts" can add up
to unjust distributions of both income and opportunity.
5. The presumption
of this brief paragraph is audacious: it is nothing less than a
summary of the essential tenets of an ethical theory that is
extensively, elegantly and scrupulously argued and expounded, in an
acknowledged philosophical masterpiece comprising almost six-hundred
pages. Yet my task in this essay requires that I make this attempt,
and that I do so briefly.
6. True, the tax
benefits are not apportioned fairly between the poor and the rich.
But this is a separable issue from that of compensation, in that the
unfairness of the tax system is not argument for its abolition, but
rather for its correction.
Bayes, William W. 1970). What is
Property?, The Freeman, July 1970, p. 348.
Chrisman, R. (1970). "Ecology is a
Racist Shuck." Scanlon's Monthly, I (August), 46.
Freeman, A. M. (1986). The Ethical
Basis of the Economic View of the Environment. (eds) VanDeVeer and
Peirce, People, Penguins and Plastic Trees (1st ed).
Belmont, CA: Wasdworth. 220.
Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the
Commons, Science, 162: 1243 (13 De. 1968).
Hobhouse, L. T. (1974). Quoted by
Paul Samuelson, Newseeek. Dec. 30, 1974, p. 54.
Hospers, John. (1974). What
Libertarianism Is, The Libertarian Alternative, (ed.) Tibor
R. Machan, New York: Nelson Hall.
Nozick, Robert. (1974).
State and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.
Rawls, John. (1971).
A Theory of
Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard. 1-5, 453-62.
Sagoff, M. (1988).
The Economy of
the Earth, New York: Cambridge, 1-74.
Smith, Adam (1776).
The Wealth of
Nations, New York: Modern Library, 1937. 423.
VanDeVeer D. and Peirce, C. (1986).
Letting the Market Decide: Is Efficiency Overrated? (eds)
VanDeVeer / Peirce,
People, Penguins, Plastic Trees (1st ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.