Cato Journal, volume 27, number 3, fall 2007, The Real Coase Theorems, pages 373-396, by Glenn Fox. Glenn Fox is discussing the book The Firm, the Market, and the Law; by Ronald Coase, University of Chicago Press. The following is a quotation from Ronald Coase. I am copying the quotation from page 389 of the Cato Journal.
The question is normally thought of as one in which A inflicts harm on B and what has to be decided is, How should we restrain A? But this is wrong. We are dealing with a problem of a reciprocal nature. To avoid harm to B would be to inflict harm on A. The real question to be decided is, Should A be allowed to harm B or should B be allowed to harm A? The problem is to avoid the more serious harm. . . . What has to be decided is whether the gain from preventing the harm is greater than the loss which would be suffered elsewhere as the result of stopping the action which produced the harm.
end of quotation
Glenn Fox dismisses the idea that forcing someone to stop polluting restricts the polluter's freedom and is a violation of the polluter's rights by saying that idea is unjust. Why is it unjust? Why is anything just or unjust? What is justice? I think that Glenn Fox should not have dismissed this idea so thoughtlessly. Do we have a right to force someone else to stop polluting?
Most people who pollute are not trying to pollute. They are trying to do something else, and the pollution is a side effect. For example, a person who creates dioxin by burning trash is not trying to create dioxin, he is trying to get rid of the trash. To stop pollution, the government must take away peoples' freedom to choose for themselves how to dispose of trash. The government cannot fight pollution without restricting peoples' freedom, without interfering in peoples' lives, without telling people how to run their lives, without telling people what they can and cannot do.
Sometimes it is impossible for the government to protect one person's rights without violating another person's rights. Many people demand that the government defend their rights even if this means violating other peoples' rights. The Klu Klux Klan is committed to defending the rights of white people, no matter how many black peoples' rights they have to violate. But this violates the principle of equality. Are the rights of the victims of pollution more important than the rights of the victims of antipollution lynch mobs?
People who oppose the government think that the right to criticize the government is a very important right. But people who support the government think that the right to criticize the government is not important. They think that normal people support the government, and only crazy people want to criticize the government.
People often think that if the government persecutes people different from themselves, this is no cause for alarm, their own rights are in no danger. I think that many ordinary germans who lived under nazi rule did not support the persecution of the jews, but did not oppose the persecution of the jews either. The ordinary germans thought that the persecution of the jews was not a violation of rights because the rights of ordinary germans were not violated.
I think that Glenn Fox does not care if the secret police tortures polluters for the same reason. Glenn Fox thinks he is not a polluter, and polluters are very different from him, and he does not care about the rights of people different than himself.
Why is pollution unjust? Is it because the polluter put chemicals in the air which then traveled to the homes of the victims of pollution, changing the composition of the air which the victims of pollution breath, without the permission of the victims of pollution? But everyone changes the composition of the air every time they breathe, and this affects everyone else, and no one asks permission.
Is putting one molecule of dioxin into the air pollution? But single molecules are subject to the probabilities of quantum mechanics. It is possible for random molecules to recombine themselves into dioxin. The probability of this is very low, so this happens very rarely, so the amount of dioxin produced this way is very small. Is it right to punish someone for creating one molecule of dioxin, when it is impossible to avoid creating the occasional molecule of dioxin? But the alternative is to say that it is not pollution unless you have created at least a million molecules of dioxin. What if someone says it is not theft unless you take at least a million dollars, or it is not murder unless you kill at least a million people? How can we say pollution is wrong in principle if it is ok to create a little bit of pollution?
Most people would support the victims of pollution against the polluters because pollution is not normal. Breathing is normal, therefore someone who breathes is not responsible if breathing causes problems for other people. Putting dioxin in the air is not normal, therefore someone who puts dioxin in the air is responsible if the dioxin causes problems for other people. But who gets to decide what is normal? Why don't we consider it normal for people to put dioxin in the air? Then we could ignore people who put dioxin in the air because those people are behaving normally. People who do not put dioxin in the air are behaving abnormally, and are making the air quality better than if they behaved normally, and thus deserve to be rewarded.
Most people would say that normal is what most people do. Not putting dioxin in the air is normal because most people do not put dioxin in the air. But homosexuals get angry when people say homosexuals are abnormal. The majority of people may be intolerant and discriminate against minorities, but I will not say that such behavior is normal.
Suppose random air currents bring pollution to your house. The pollution would not have come to your house if not for the random air currents. Is this the fault of the polluter, or is this the fault of the random air currents, bad weather which is no one's fault?
Suppose one person puts scented candles in his yard, because he likes the smell of scented candles, and his neighbor complains. The scented candles put scent chemicals in the air, and some of the chemicals drift to the neighbor's house. Is that pollution?
If putting chemicals in the air without other peoples' permission is pollution, what about carbon dioxide? What if one person sues another person for causing global warming by breathing?
Why is okay to put carbon dioxide into the air, but not ok to put dioxin into the air? Because carbon dioxide is harmless and dioxin is harmful? But a few people say carbon dioxide is harmful and a few people say dioxin is harmless in small doses. (Large doses of dioxin causes cancer in rats. This has been proven. Most people assume that dioxin would have the same effect in humans, but this has not been proven. The effect of small doses of dioxin is unknown.)
How do we know if people have been harmed by pollution? People usually understand their personal situations better than anyone else. Shall we let people decide for themselves if they have been harmed by pollution?
What if one person puts a sculpture in his yard, and his neighbor believes that the sculpture emits toxic chemicals, and the neighbor is so worried that the neighbor suffers real health problems, even though the sculpture does not emit toxic chemicals? The neighbor's health problems would not have occurred if the person had not put the sculpture in his yard. Is it the person's fault that his neighbor is an idiot?
The problem with treating pollution as an issue of justice or as a moral issue is that someone has to decide what is pollution and what is damage. Who gets to make that decision? What happens when people disagree?
If it is wrong to put any substances into the air without the permission of other people, then breathing is a crime. This is obviously absurd. But the alternative is that some substances can be put into the air and some substances cannot be put in the air, and it depends on the amount and on the current weather conditions and how far away you are from everyone else. This is more about pragmatism and economic efficiency than about morality and justice.
So if the government's policy about pollution has to be based on pragmatism and economic efficiency, then what is the point of saying that pollution is an issue of justice or morality?
If we prohibited absolutely all pollution, most industrial processes would be eliminated, we would have to live without modern technological comforts, we would all be sick from poorly preserved food and lack of food and medicine, and life would be hard. But if we allow everyone to emit as much pollution as they want, the air and water would be poisoned, and we would all be sick, and life would be hard. To achieve the optimum quality of life, we need a moderate amount of pollution.
If pollution is wrong, how can we justify a moderate amount of pollution? Who thinks that murdering a few people is good, but murdering many people is bad? But we need a moderate amount of pollution. Therefore pollution is not wrong. Pollution is not an injustice or a moral issue. No one is to blame for pollution. Polluters do not have a right to pollute, and victims of pollution do not have a right to be free of pollution.
The government should tax pollution based on the probable harm that the pollution will do (the actual harm cannot be known in advance). Pollution which affects a large area should be taxed by the central government. Pollution which affects only the local area should be taxed by the local government. The government should allow polluters to decide for themselves whether to pollute and pay the tax, or to not pollute and not pay the tax. The total amount of pollution should be determined by the free market, not by the government. Polluters should be treated like taxpayers, not like criminals. People should not be allowed to sue polluters or the government for pollution (unless the polluter failed to pay the tax). This is not a perfect system, but the alternatives are worse.