All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1991

Ecology, Socialism, and Capitalism


Tibor R. Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama. His most recent book, Capitalism and Individualism, was published by St. Martin’s Press in October.

The socialist—or, more generally, the collectivist—economic system has fallen into disrepute. Theoretically there were hints of this as far back as the 4th century B.C. when Aristotle observed in his Politics that private ownership of property encourages responsible human behavior more readily than does collectivism (as spelled out in Plato’s Republic). Aristotle said, “That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.”

In our time, Ludwig von Mises advanced the same general observation in more technical and rigorous terms in his book Socialism, although he was mainly concerned with economic problems of production and allocation of resources for satisfying individual preferences. More recently, however, Garrett Hardin, in his famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” argued that the difficulties first noticed by Aristotle plague us in the quintessential-ly public realm, the ecological environment

These various indictments of collectivism, coupled with the few moral arguments against it, didn’t dissuade many intellectuals from attempting to implement the system. Our own century is filled with enthusiastic, stubborn, visionary, opportunistic, but almost always bloody efforts to realize the collectivist dream. Not until the crumpling of the Soviet attempt did it dawn on most people that collectivism is simply not going to do the job of enabling people to live a decent human social life. Although most admit that in small units—convents, kibbutzim, the family—a limited, temporary collectivist arrangement may be feasible, they no longer look with much hope toward transforming entire societies into collectivist human organizations.

The most recent admission of the failure of collectivism—in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet-bloc economies—comes from Robert Heilbroner, one of socialism’s most intelligent and loyal champions for the last several decades. As he puts it in his recent essay, “After Communism,” “Ludwig von Mises . . . had written of the ‘impossibility’ of socialism, arguing that no Central Planning Board could ever gather the enormous amount of information needed to create a workable economic system. It turns out, of course, that Mises was right” (The New Yorker, September 10, 1990)

But, not unlike previous thinkers who have seen examples of the failure of some kind of perfectionist, idealist normative moral or political scheme, Professor Heilbroner cannot quite say goodbye to his utopia. He notes that there are two ways it may remain something of a handy concept. First, it may leave us piecemeal social objectives to strive for—but these have always come in the context of essentially capitalist economic systems. Second, it may re-emerge as an adjunct of the ecological movement. As Heilbroner puts it:

The ecological crisis toward which we are moving at a quickening pace has occasioned much scientific comment but surprisingly little economic attention. [Professor Heilbroner does not follow the burgeoning literature of the New Resource Economics—e.g., the works of John Baden and Richard Stroup.] Yet if there is any single problem that will have to be faced by any socioeconomic order over the coming decades it is the problem of making our economic peace with the demands of the environment. Making that peace means insuring that the vital processes of material provisioning do not contaminate the green-blue film on which life itself depends. This imperative need will affect all social formations, but none so profoundly as capitalism.

What is one to say about this new fear, a new problem allegedly too complicated for free men and women to handle? Heilbroner continues: “It is, perhaps, possible that some of the institutions of capitalism—markets, dual realms of power, even private ownership of some kinds of production—may be adapted to that new state of ecological vigilance, but, if so, they must be monitored, regulated, and contained to such a degree that it would be difficult to call the final social order capitalism.”

This somewhat novel but essentially old-fashioned skepticism about capitalism needs to be addressed—if only because it is time that the technique it exhibits of undermining human freedom be exposed.

There is no justification for any of this distrust of the market, as opposed to placing our trust in a scientific bureaucracy. If men and women acting in the marketplace, guided by the rule of law based on their natural individual rights to life, liberty, and property, were incapable of standing up to the ecological challenges Heilbroner has in mind, there is absolutely no reason to believe that those challenges could be met better by some new statist means. Why should ecologically minded bureaucrats be better motivated, more competent, and more virtuous than those motivated by a concern for the hungry, the unjustly treated, the poor, the artistically deprived, the uneducated masses of the world? There is no reason to attribute to any ecological politburo or central committee any more noble characteristics than to the rest who have made a try at coercing people into good behavior.

If free men and women will not manage the environment, neither will anyone else. In fact, more optimism about the market is warranted when we examine the sources of our ecological troubles. Given, especially, collectivism’s record of far greater environmental mismanagement than the mixed economies we recklessly label capitalist, there is already some suggestion here that the problem is too little capitalism. What Heilbroner and friends fail to realize or reveal is that the environmental problems most people fret about are due to the tragedy of the commons, not due to the privatization of resources and the implementation of the principles that prohibit dumping and other kinds of trespassing. With more attention to protecting individual rights to life, liberty, and property, solutions to our problems are much more likely.

The best defense of the free market rests on the realization that it is the nature of human beings to be essentially individual. In other words, the individual rights approach is most natural—it most readily accommodates nature and, therefore, the environment. If there is a crisis here, it amounts to the history of human action that has been out of line with ecological well-being. But how do we know what kinds of human action might have been more or less conducive to a healthy environment? We need to know about human nature—what it is that human beings are and what this implies for their conduct within the natural world. If, as the natural rights (classical liberal) tradition has inti-mated, human beings are individuals with basic rights to life, liberty, and property, then this is how they are best fitted within the rest of nature. Environmentalism must learn to trust free men and women, not the state.


  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.