Newsham: It’s time for us to privatize the air

Better Dead than Red

As many of my readers would be able to surmise, it’s not often the case that I am in agreement with Ludwig von Mises, one of the most conservative economists to have ever lived. Nor, I doubt, would many of them suspect that I am a fan of various degrees of privatization and devolution of federal powers to the states. I am, in many respects, a political moderate.

Let the record state that I am a liberal, lower-case “d” democrat. I believe that private property is the key to societal advancement and that the people must be the ultimate masters of their government — not the other way around. The title of my column is meant not only as a snarky repudiation of the Republican Party, but of destructive, repressive, and largely obsolete communism.

Ever since the financial crisis, many political commentators have referred to a dichotomy of private profit and social loss — that is, the risky profiteering carried out by businesses, safe in the knowledge that if they fail, the government will bail them out. Such a system is un-American, flying in the face of our Lockean philosophical heritage of all persons’ equal rights to property.

This contrast has also been applied to tragedies of the commons: environmental disasters like overfishing, over-irrigation and slash-and-burn forest destruction. Publicly owned land, water and air — like our public tax dollars during the bailout spree — have been wasted for the benefit of a relative few.

All of this leaves me scratching my head on the question of the largest tragedy of the commons our world has ever faced: global warming. As von Mises, an Austrian economist, wrote, “if land is not owned by anybody … it is used without any regard to the disadvantages resulting.” The same could be said for the atmosphere; why should a coal plant in Montana care about what its emissions do to Bangladesh? Islands in the Indian Ocean are being evacuated. In California, bike paths and parking lots are moving back to provide an additional 50 years’ worth of dryness from the rising seas. Several towns in North Carolina are spending millions to build sand barriers against the rising tides, only to see them washed away every five years. Others are building dikes.

For decades, world leaders have recognized the threat posed by global warming to domestic peace and prosperity, and for decades, they have failed to do anything about it; that is, except for realizing, with each passing year, that it is worse than we previously thought. Even though the Department of Defense has identified global warming as a major long-term security threat to the United States, our government has taken virtually no action. The solution, though, couldn’t be more obvious: push government aside and privatize the atmosphere.

If, as political philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote, we have truly reached “the end of history,” and that the world is converging on democratic capitalism, this proposal should face little opposition. Let the leaders of the world stop socializing loss, and give each man, woman, and child the rights to the 83,000 metric tons of mean atmosphere that we deserve. Let us form pools and blocs, and let us buy and sell and lease and rent as we please, and sue those who infringe upon our property. Though the international court system would have to undergo a complete overhaul to handle the massive new caseload and the professional testimony of atmospheric scientists would be in impossibly high demand, the market would sort these problems out, creating more jobs in the process. It would create a whole new market, a global market in a global age, which could help reinvigorate our global economic malaise. Issue us the deeds! Let us own the air!

But perhaps history isn’t over, after all. Conservatives, our supposed zealots of privatization and free markets, have managed to demonize the closest legislative equivalent of the very act I described — cap-and-trade — as an act of communist tyranny. In fact. The proposal seeks to strengthen property rights and the oft-spouted conservative dogma of “personal responsibility.” Any real conservative would agree: The commons will inevitably end in tragedy — so let’s end the commons.

Jack Newsham is a freshman in Morse College.


  • RexMottram08

    You confuse pollution with global warming…

  • River Tam

    Oh look it’s so cute – the freshman is attacking straw men.

  • SY

    River Tam, don’t attack a freshman. It’s a well written piece about his discovery of economic externalities (or tragedy of the commons). I didn’t make the discovery until a junior seminar, and non-econ types just got a hurtful, if nicely worded, free class lesson.

    I just can’t tell whether the op-ed is satire or belief. Imagine selling the atmosphere to every living person, including 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians, who probably would be forced to resell their shares to their enlightened governments. Same for CO2–satire or belief. Those governments are building more than one coal electric power plant each week for their unlighted population. Maybe this is a straw man for the next article advocating a United Nations commission chaired by Cuba and Syria for the regulation of electric power generation, carbon dioxide, and human dignity in the U.S., Canada and other violators.

  • Leo

    If you would like to call Ludwig von Mises by his last name, it’s just “Mises.”

    And Mises was far from conservative. In fact, the recent biography of Mises by Jörg Guido Hülsmann refers to him as “The Last Knight of Liberalism.” As a classical liberal, Mises hated the mercantilism and protectionism that has characterized conservatism, as he would hate today’s Republicans who advocate all sorts of economic interventionism. Mises defended capitalism and the free market – pure and simple. It’s good to see you have realized that private property rights provide the best protection for the environment, unlike most other environmentalists who imagine that capitalism is destroying the world.

  • jnewsham

    So would you agree that cap-and-trade is an appropriate, capitalistic measure?

  • River Tam

    Cap and trade is scarcity by fiat.

  • Leo

    No, cap and trade is not capitalistic – it is government intervention in the energy market. By imposing arbitrary limits on carbon emissions (“scarcity by fiat” as River Tam put it), it would artificially raise energy prices the same way a direct tax would. But taxes are unpopular, which is why politicians have latched onto cap and trade as a supposedly “market-based” solution. Robert Murphy, an economist and student of Mises, explains here:

  • gwashn

    Just in case Mr. Newsham has not been paying attention, global warming has been thoroughly discredited by the serious scientific community. But then again, as usual he does not let the
    facts get in the way of stating his de rigueur liberal orthodoxy.

  • jnewsham

    ^This person is a total joke

  • YalieforLiberty