Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Intertemporal Pollution, Accountability, and Justice in Appropriation

If we are ever able to quantify the effects of pollution, we will still need to establish the degree to which particular contributors can be held accountable for those effects. It is important to recognize that in many cases, polluting acts have happened, and will continue to happen, over a long period of time. The significance of this fact can perhaps be best illustrated by an example.

Let's say that on one fall day, three factories independently decide to dump some barrels of toxic waste into Tranquility Lake. There are no regulatory agencies to take exception to this action, and the lake is no one's private property. But the following spring, Marlon, whose property lies along the lake, notices that the grass in his back yard is not growing like it usually does. He tests the soil in his yard, and finds it to have unusually high levels of a number of unusual chemicals, which he learns are toxic to plants. He takes measurements in Tranquility Lake, and discovers that the chemicals that are killing his plant are also present in high levels in the lake. After a bit of research, Marlon discovers that the chemicals are used in the processes that the factories on the lake engage in.

He confronts the owners of the factories, and being good, honest people, the owners confess to dumping the barrels of chemicals into the lake, and apologize for the harm they caused. They all agree to settle the matter in arbitration. The solution that they reach is that Marlon is entitled to full compensation for the damage to his lawn, including compensation for his inconvenience. And because the factories all contributed to the harm in basically the same way, the factories will pay the part of the compensation corresponding to the amount of toxic waste they dumped on the autumn day. Since Factory A dumped 1 barrel, Factory B dumped 2 barrels, and Factory C dumped 3 barrels, Factory A pays 1/6 of the damages, Factory B pays 1/3, and Factory B pays 1/2. Everyone goes home happy; justice has been served.

Now let's amend the example to say that the lake had been contaminated decades ago by a number of factories that had long since shut down. The pollution was not severe enough that any damage to Marlon's property resulted (or would ever result), but the levels of the foreign chemicals were significantly higher than they would have been naturally. Now let's imagine that our three factories show up on the scene and dump their chemicals. What if, because of the previous pollution, the damage done to Marlon's lawn is more severe than it would have been if the old factories had never existed? Should the three currently operating factories be held accountable for all of the damage that they do?

One way to approach this would be to say that the three factories should "take the lake as they found it." This is the approach taken by Robert McGee and Walter Block in their essay, "Pollution Trading Permits as a Form of Market Socialism and the Search for a Real Market Solution to Environmental Pollution." McGee and Block explain, " can analogize the case of ordinary (human) trespass to the intrusion of pollutants onto the property of the victim. In a typical case, the thief breaks into the premises of the homeowner. Unbeknownst to the intruder, the victim has a weak heart, and is easily frightened. In this example the weak heart...amplifies the harm. As a result of the trespass, the homeowner dies from a heart attack. Can the trespasser be found liable for wrongful death? Yes, because of the doctrine of "you take your victim as you find him." Taking this approach, we would say that Marlon was particularly vulnerable because of the peculiar circumstances in which the factories found him, but this fact wouldn't absolve the factory owners of their accountability for the damage caused by the dumping of the chemicals.

However, one might object that in the weak heart example, the factor making the homeowner vulnerable was no one's fault. In Marlon's case, the only reason the damage was so severe was that other agents had committed acts in the past which put Marlon in a position of vulnerability. A case could seemingly be made that the factories should be held accountable for the damage that would have been caused in the absence of the old factories' contributions, but nothing more. However, this raises a significant problem. This approach would force us to either place the accountability for the damage to Marlon's property on the old factories' operators, or to place the burden back on Marlon.

The latter seems unacceptable. The "responsibility principle," suggested by Talbot Page in his essay, "Responsibility, Liability, and Incentive Compatibility," seem to me a reasonable starting point for arguing why. Page writes, "When A's actions impose costs on B, A should be made responsible by paying for these costs." As I interpret it, A does not need to be a single individual for this principle to make sense. As long as costs are being imposed on B, and as long as those costs are caused by A's actions, then the costs should be paid by A. This is clearest in cases like Marlon's, where B is not a member of A. The group of people including both the old factory operators and the current factory operators imposed costs on Marlon, and so they should pay those costs. To be honest, I find that so obviously true that I'm not even sure how to argue in favor of it.

Accordingly, the accountability for remaining damage would need to be allocated to the old factory operators. For the sake of discussion, we'll ignore for now all questions regarding the burden of proof, imperfect knowledge, the potential need to deal with preemptive compensation, and any difficulties arising from intertemporal compensation. These are all important issues, and I want to deal with them. But first, I think it's important to ask whether it would actually be fair to hold the old factory operators responsible for damage which resulted from the presence of their (otherwise harmless) pollution in Tranquility Lake when the three factories came along decades later to dump some chemicals there.

The first thing to notice about this example is that it seems to be the outgrowth of something like a tragedy of the commons. The damage to Marlon's lawn is caused by a situation in which a commons has been "fouled" to the extent where it is damaging property adjacent to it. So perhaps if we figured out what the right way is to think about tragedies of the commons, we could determine what to think about the Tranquility Lake situation. Basically, the problem is this: the lake had some capacity for absorbing pollution without causing any damage. Once this threshold was breached, progressively more damage would be done to Marlon with each additional amount of pollution. To steal a term from Tom Athanasiou and Paul Baer's book, Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming, what the old factory operators did was "fill" some of the "environmental space" which was available due to the lake's capacity for absorbing pollution without causing damage.

As a result of the environmental space having been filled by the old factory operators, the currently operating factories' dumping did a lot more damage than it otherwise would have been. In order to hold the old factory operators responsible for part of this damage, it seems that we would need to establish that they didn't have a right to fill the environmental space in the way that they did. Otherwise, we would seem to be led to the idea that they did nothing wrong, since they acted perfectly within their rights, and (because of the responsibility principle) we should hold the currently operating factories completely responsible for the damage they caused.

So did the old factory operators have a right to do what they did? Some libertarians, like Murray Rothbard, think they did. In his essay, "Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution," Rothbard wrote, "...if a factory owned by A polluted originally unused property up to a certain amount of pollutant X, then A can be said to have homesteaded a pollution easement of a certain degree and type." So essentially, what the old factory owners did was to enclose a part of the commons (in this case the "environmental space" that they filled) and made it their own. And it does seem to me that this is what they have done. But does that mean that their actions were acceptable?

As far as I am aware, Rothbard believed so. The polluter "improves" previously unused environmental space by directing it to the achievement of her ends, and through mixing her labor with it, she acquires just title to it. Because the polluter is using previously unowned environmental space, no one can deny her the right to do as she did. But this is a left-libertarian site, and Rothbard won't be getting away that easily. Accordingly, I'll try to figure out what to think about Rothbard's position as it applies to this situation, in order to determine whether or not it gives us adequate guidance for approaching the old factory operators' actions.

The questions about Rothbard's approach come from the heart of the left-libertarian paradigm. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick wrote, "It will be implausible to view improving an object as giving full ownership of it, if the stock of unowned objects that might be improved is limited. For an object's coming under one person's ownership changes the situation of all others. Whereas previously they were at use the object, they now no longer are. This change in the situation of others (by removing their liberty to act on a previously unowned object) need not worsen their situation. If I appropriate a grain of sand from Coney Island, no one else may now do as they will with that grain of sand. But there are plenty of other grains of sand left for them to do the same with. Or if not grains of sand, then other things...The crucial point is whether is whether appropriation of an unowned object worsens the situation of others." In the case of any scarce resource, it seems fair to say that any appropriating act has the potential to make others worse off. But more precisely, the crucial point is whether the appropriating act makes others worse off in a way that infringes upon their rights. Merely making someone worse off does not violate their rights; I am made worse off when a girl at a bar declines to kiss me. We must examine what people are entitled to in order to resolve the question of whether an act of appropriation is justified.

And as far as Rothbard is concerned, no one is made worse off in a morally relevant sense by the appropriation of an unowned object. The path of the reasoning arriving at this view is easy enough to spell out. In the case of an unowned object (such as the environmental space in our example) no one has yet "mixed" any labor with the object. Because Rothbard ostensibly believes that our claims to property originate in our mixing our labor with unowned objects (this is taken from Locke), it seems reasonable to say that no one has any property rights involving objects that have not had any labor mixed with them. But as Peter Vallentyne writes in his introduction to Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics: The Contemporary Debate, "Libertarianism (both left and right) construes basic individual rights as property rights." So if no one has property rights in these unowned objects, and property rights are the only kind of rights there are, then no one's rights are violated by appropriation.

In my view, something seems to be missing here. For example, let's say that in order to survive, the individuals living around the lake needed to pollute it to some degree. Let's further stipulate that if not for the old factory operators, this level of pollution would never produce any damage. According to Rothbard's approach, if Marlon's lawn ended up damaged by the pollution in the lake, the people to be held accountable for the damage are the people polluting the lake to survive. But it seems to me that the people responsible are the old factory operators, who (we might suppose) did not need to pollute the lake in order to survive.

This idea is captured by Stephen Gardiner in his essay, "A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the Problem of Moral Corruption," when he wrote, "One way in which a generation may act badly is if it puts in place a set of future circumstances that make it morally required for its successors (and perhaps even itself) to make other generations suffer either unnecessary, or at least more than would otherwise be the case." I think Gardiner oversteps his intentions when he uses the term "morally required," but what he has in mind is clear. If in the pursuit of some "sufficient" standard of living, people needed to pollute the lake, then in some sense we would feel sympathy for them, and consider their actions to be morally permissible. If the old factory operators made it the case that these actions would harm others, where they would not have ordinarily, then the factory operators have done something wrong. It seems to me that because Rothbard's account cannot capture this notion, there is something wrong with it.

But what exactly is Rothbard’s principle missing? If we are to hold the old factory operators accountable, we need to know. This is because there is an important disanalogy between a case where people need to pollute the lake to survive and the case which we have been working with, where the three currently operating factories did not need to pollute in any similar way. The reasons why we disagree with Rothbard will determine what we think about the old factory operators' actions.

We have several options. The first is an extremely strict proviso: It is illegitimate to appropriate any resource without leaving as much of that resource (or a costlessly available substitute) as there was when you got there. Under this criterion, by depleting the natural store of environmental space embodied by Tranquility Lake, and not putting the lake back into its former state afterwards, the old factory operators acted wrongly. Accordingly, it might seem reasonable to put them on the hook for the damage caused by the depleted state of the lake.

The other end of the spectrum would be a very weak proviso: It is illegitimate to appropriate any resource without leaving enough of that resource to allow others to satisfy their basic needs. In this instance, the old factory operators wouldn't be in the wrong at all. The three currently-operating factories didn't need to dump in lake, and so the old factory operators did nothing wrong by using the resource. The accountability, then, would rest squarely on the three factories which acted most recently.

In the middle, there are a number of other provisos which warrant consideration. For one: It is illegitimate to appropriate any resource without leaving enough so that others had the opportunity attain the same level of wellbeing (I dispute this elsewhere). Or another: It is illegitimate to appropriate any resource without leaving behind something of equal value as what you took (I don't like this one either; I can't think of any coherent theory of value which would make it work).

Personally, I think the most plausible of these accounts is the weak proviso. If my appropriation makes it so that others can't satisfy their basic interests without harming others, then I think it's fair to say that I should be accountable for the damage (assuming that I didn't need to appropriate what I did). But if my appropriation just makes it so that others have to figure out some perfectly feasible alternative course of action in order to avoid harming others, then I don't see why I should be accountable if they choose the harmful alternative.

Accordingly, it seems we can say that in Marlon's case, the accountability rests solely on the three factories' operators, even though the damage caused by their acts was amplified by the polluting activities of the old factories. Because they didn't need to pollute in any morally relevant sense, they should bear the burden of any costs imposed on others by their actions. I think I'm happy with that, so I'll stop there.

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