I am pro-clean air. I am pro-clean water.
—Rand Paul

Libertarians invariably claim they want clean air and water, but then go out of the way to ensure that gratuitous damage to the earth continues. An example of this pattern is Senator Rand Paul’s recent attempt to prevent the EPA from regulating cross-state pollution from power plants. Paul opposes these environmental protections by using a typical libertarian objection:

I think we can have a clean environment and jobs, but not if we let this administration continue to pass job-killing regulations.

Senator Paul creates a false dichotomy between employment and limits on pollution, he then—following the universal libertarian environmental view—fails to propose a solution that is compatible with his libertarianism. This is a problem.

For any view to be part of a serious philosophy, it must be able to deal with reality. Science is clear on the causes and severity of environmental damage, and technology provides many options for practical solutions to many of our current environmental problems. Given the clear harm, any acceptable philosophy must be able to integrate an account of the cause of the problem and be able to suggest a self-consistent solution to the problem. If a philosophy is at odds with reality, it cannot be taken seriously, and should then be discarded.

If libertarianism is a serious political philosophy it must recognize the existence and severity of environmental damage, and it must be able to create a solution to stop the damage that is compatible with libertarian ideals. But libertarianism—at least in common practice—does not provide a path to solve our environmental problems. In fact, it typically ignores the uncontroversial science by denying the harm caused and its clear implications. This failure to agree with reality is what originally led me to conclude that libertarianism is not a valid position.1

However, not that everyone who claims a political philosophy conforms completely to that philosophy or weighs each part equally. Rand Paul himself is a good example of this sort of inconsistency: he is one of the most prominent libertarians, but is pro-life. Many libertarians would consider the pro-life position to be an unjustified government intrusion on a woman’s liberty. But Senator Paul recognizes the sanctity of life, saying, “It is unconscionable that government would facilitate the taking of innocent life.” This position can be supported from a libertarian worldview by (correctly) saying that the pro-life position is protects the liberty of the unborn child. This is simply an case of attaching different weights to different liberties. However, to fulfil the requirement that a philosophy must be internally consistent, a person making this argument must recognize that the same line of reasoning is behind pollution regulations. That is, one person’s imagined liberty must be restricted in order to ensure the liberty of others.

The particular set of EPA rules that Senator Paul proposed rejecting—placing some limits on a narrow (but large) type of pollution—is a another clear example of a limit an one type of liberty outweighing another. Even if we oversimplify and use a merely economic analysis, these rules will create a healthcare benefit two orders of magnitude larger than their cost. The EPA estimates that these rules will save at least 13 000 people a year from premature death. As seen in previous posts, this sort of lopsided benefit is to be expected. Just as a child’s right to not be killed outweighs a mother’s liberty to change her mind about having a child, the right of millions of people not to be caused significant health damage outweighs the liberty of a few people to slightly increase their profit. Health issues are only one aspect of the many environmental problems, considering other impacts only widens the already 100 to 1 benefit to cost ratio.

A philosophy must be internally consistent, and must be able to explain and solve any problem. So, libertarian politicians want to be taken seriously by thinking people, they must acknowledge the problems and propose realistic solutions. If one’s philosophy causes one to ignore reality or be unable to propose solutions, one is obligated to reexamine it.


  1. Of course, once I began questioning libertarianism, I recognized other problems, such as its failure to suggest a working system of government consistent with the Christian anthropology.