All Commentary
Sunday, February 1, 1987

The Worst Polluters

The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne. Victoria, Australia.

Opponents of the free economy long have asserted that environmental pollution is caused by the market system, and have claimed that any person concerned about the environment must opt for some form of statism.

Unfortunately, most defenders of the market fail to address such criticisms. In fact, many would-be defenders do more harm than good. For example, some defenders respond to environmentalist critics by claiming that the benefits of modern technology and the market “outweigh” environmental costs. Other defenders of the market respond by ridiculing a concern for the environment, implying that environmentalism is a form of human folly. Another response argues that industrial pollutants are minuscule compared to the pollutants nature releases into the environment.

Some of these responses may have limited merit. What is disturbing, however, is the tacit admission by many proponents of the market economy that environmental pollution is, alas, an undesired but somehow inevitable accompaniment of free enterprise.

Hence a simple question: is pollution a natural result of the capitalist system?

If the free market is responsible for pollution, one might reasonably expect that socialist economies would be characterized by an absence of pollution. The reality, however, is otherwise.

Recent accounts from Poland, for example, paint a picture reminiscent of Dickensian por trayals of the Industrial Revolution. According to the Polish Ecological Club, an informal organization of environmental scientists, chemical pollution in the industrial Katowice region of Southern Poland constitutes a problem of horrendous proportions. Garden soil samples reveal a lead content of up to five hundred times the national limit. Farms near the Lenin Steelworks have been so poisoned with heavy metals that such traditional crops as sugar beets and green vegetables have had to be abandoned. The lead content in salad greens was found to exceed the safe human limit twenty-one times.

Consider the following report on the situation in Cracow:

Acid rain dissolved so much of the 16th century Sigismund Chapel of Walwel Cathedral that it recently had to be replaced. The chemical used to dissolve gold in the chemistry laboratory is aqua regia . . . a mixture of concentrated hydrochloric and nitric acids. . . . Something not unlike aqua regia falls daily in the Cracow rains. . . . convert[ing] the chapel’s original gold roof into soluble chlorides. (Lloyd Timberlake, “Po-land-The Most Polluted Country In The World?” New Scientist, October 22, 1981)

The situation in the Soviet Union is also grim. Indeed, the lakes and seas of the U.S.S.R. are more polluted than in any capitalist nation. Lake Baikal in Siberia is all but destroyed. The salinity of the Caspian and Aral Seas has risen alarmingly, with much water having been diverted for irrigation and hydroelectric projects. The problem has been compounded by feeder rivers which have been described as “little more than open sewers.” (See F. Singleton (ed.), Environmental Misuse in the Soviet Union [New York: Praeger Publishers, 1976] and Marshall I. Goldman, The Spoils of Progress: Environmental Pollution in the Soviet Union [Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1972.])

Conditions are no better in communist China. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping recently conceded that, under Chairman Mao, environmental devastation was rampant, with many forests being reduced to deserts, over eight million acres of the north Chinese plain being made alkaline and thus unproductive, and pollution of rivers so hampering fish migration that fish for a time all but disappeared from the national diet. (J. Erikson, “Candour From China,” The Australian, March 3, 1984; compare China News Analysis, October 6, 1978, December 1, 1978, February 16, 1979.)

Socialist reality shatters the fantasy that environmental problems in general, and pollution in particular, are market-created phenomena.

Property Rights

The Industrial Revolution led to widespread pollution in the form of factory smoke. Common Law, however, provided a flame-work within which the victims of such pollution could seek redress. All that was required was the enforcement of private property rights through, for example, the tort of nuisance. Air pollution affecting the person or property of a given party clearly constituted a nuisance against which the victim should have been able to sue for damages.

But it was feared at the time that industrial progress would be impeded if the courts, relying on Common Law, defended the property rights of individuals, with industries paying appropriate damages. Thus, governments deliberately altered the laws relating to nuisance, negligence, and trespass. Private entitlements to clean air were transferred to the so-called “public domain” where, not surprisingly, they were effectively appropriated by industrialists. The sorry tale is told in an admirable paper by Joel F. Brenner: “Nuisance Law and the Industrial Revolution.” (Journal of Legal Studies, 1974) and in Morton J. Horowitz’s volume, The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977)

The effects of this dramatic change were singularly unfortunate. By declaring air a “public good” government made it possible for industrialists to impose the appalling costs of pollu-tion upon the men, women, and children whose persons and property were invaded with impunity. Furthermore, the absolution of polluters from responsibility for the costs of their activities meant an absence of any economic incentives to develop non-polluting technologies.

The crucial point is disarmingly simple. Horror stories about pollution typically focus upon what people are doing to the air and to rivers, lakes, and oceans, it is no accident that these resources are “unowned,” having been assigned by governments to the “public domain.”

What to do? One might lament a lack of “social responsibility” on the part of polluters. One might fantasize that some as yet untried variant of the socialist formula will lead to the evolution of a “new humanity” regarding pollution with abhorrence. However, one cannot assert that the free market in a free society is responsible for pollution. Pollution exists in precisely those areas where the free market, depending as it does upon precisely defined and efficiently enforced private property rights, has not been allowed to operate. It is the absence, not the presence, of the free market that can be cited as a cause of pollution!


It is interesting to consider how the free market in a free society might address the problem of pollution. Clearly, a vital first step is a return to Common Law and the vigorous enforcement of private property rights. The laws of trespass, negligence, and nuisance to remedy the invasion of an individual’s person or property by smoke, chemicals, noise, and so on would do much to resolve the problem. No less important would be the development of private property rights in hitherto “unowned” areas.

Yet interesting though such considerations might be, they are beyond the scope of this article. What is luminously clear, however, is that far from pollution problems being a natural result of the capitalist system, such problems can and must be ascribed to past and present statist interventions in the market. To the charge, “Capitalism pollutes!” the only informed response can be: “Not guilty!”

  • The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE from April to October of this year.