Libertarians, Free-Marketeers and the Destruction of Nature

[T]he first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos. So the prime task of government is to establish order; organized central force is the sole alternative to incalculable and disruptive force in private hands.
— Will & Ariel Durant, 1968, The Lessons Of History

A “free market” without public oversight turns Adam Smith’s “magic hand” into a destructive fist on the natural world. Libertarianism and free market purism overlap tremendously. What distinctions exist between them, though, are immaterial when it comes to nature, for with both nature becomes reduced to mere raw material to be transformed into money. Fundamental to libertarianism is that persons or groups should be allowed to do whatever they please in a system in which private property — theirs — is deemed sacred, while free marketers are dedicated to an unrestrained competitive arrangement based solely on cash. For both, government of, by and for the people acting for “the common good” is an impediment to their conception of a “liberty” in which wider social and ecological values are subordinate.

Libertarian argument is often couched in deception. A case in point is seen in “A World Connected”, a project of the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies. At their home page, visitors were recently invited to comment on an article titled “Logging: Global Development at the Expense of Natural Resources.” Citing news of illegal logging in Asia, the article’s author refers to this as a “glitch” in the free-market system because “Market incentives are strong, and neither companies nor small, developing countries have been able to overcome the economic incentives to over-log”. Quickly, though, it becomes clear that the article is an attack on public ownership itself, for public forests are at issue in this instance of illegal logging. Garrett Hardin’s classic 1968 article, “The Tragedy of the Commons” is invoked in a revealing paragraph as follows:

Market failure, in this case, has to do to an economic concept known as the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons occurs when everyone has equal rights to a limited resource. This happens both with publicly owned resources, such as national forests, and unowned resources, such as fish.

Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” is frequently misapplied by libertarians to public ownership, as in the paragraph above in which citizen-owned “national forests” are lumped with “unowned resources, such as fish” , which can only refer to oceans which are true commons outside of territorial waters. But now, having concocted false equivalence of unowned commons with public ownership, the author goes on to write:

When a resource is commonly owned, this tendency creates an incentive to use as much of the resource as possible, before someone else takes it all. This leads to overuse of the resource and market failure. One possible solution is to create a regime of property rights. Continued profits derived from the resource will then depend upon an owner’s ability to keep the resource available and thus the owner will likely spent [sic] a larger percentage of his profits ensuring his property rights and the sustainability of the forest.

But wait. Click on property rights in the article for this definition: “Property Rights can be described as the bundle of rights … belonging to an individual or group of individuals.” Correct. And here the libertarian attack on public ownership crumbles, because a nation’s citizenry is most emphatically “a group of individuals” whose property is as sacred as that of any corporation or any of George W. Bush’s “Haves and Have Mores”. In the case of national forests, unlike that of unowned commons such as open ocean, a branch of government, of, by and for the people, in this case the U.S. Forest Service, is established to protect national forests from over-exploitation and for “the common good”.


Free-market economist James Beckwith, concentrating on parks, laid out libertarian goals in his 1981 article “Parks, Property Rights, and the Possibilities of the Private Law“, published by the Cato Institute, a libertarian stalwart. In it, he argued for “…ascending radicalism from reform through volunteerism and privatization of services to the outright abolition of public ownership and the transfer of parks to private parties.” The recruitment of volunteers, what he called an early “tentative step”, was to be followed by “the contracting out of support services to private firms operating for profit; … If the price of recreation is raised, less of it will be demanded by consumers, and overcrowding in the parks will be reduced; … The gate fee could cover such hard-to-charge-for-amenities as the sky, broad vistas, and fragrant flowers; … It is essential that property rights in the parks be defined, transferred, and enforced.”

Charging for the sky? He’s absolutely serious. If “customers” — who used to be citizen-owners — are unwilling to pay enough, what then? In such a scenario, Beckwith writes that lands ” … might even cease to be parks at all because recreationists might not be willing to pay enough to bid away the land from alternative purposes”. What alternative purposes? Why, whatever would generate the most cash in an unregulated “free market”. Just imagine.

Because ability to pay is no indicator of taste or of understanding the needs of nature or of natural landscapes – and because free market forces have no such concern to begin with – the floodgate is opened to the most mechanized, destructive and vulgar of activities. What has traditionally been managed for an entire citizenry, and in the best interests of the land itself, is quickly given over to “users” providing greatest profit.

Profits to be made in “industrial recreation” are astronomical. Despite a harmless façade brought by the “green-washing” arm of the advertising industry, the American Recreation Coalition (ARC) represents the free market at its most destructive to nature. ARC fronts for the interests of every snowmobile, jetski, ATV, 4-wheeler, off-roader and RV interest imaginable, whether manufacturer, dealer or user group, as well as for petroleum interests and such as Disney Corporation. Even Yellowstone, the crown jewel American parks, is not exempt, as it remains open to snowmobiles despite repeated public hearings in which citizens favored their ban.

Privatizing management in the U.S. National Park System would demolish any public interest holding at bay a total industrial takeover. But as war in Iraq claimed public attention, the Bush Administration kicked privatization into high gear, so that Bush appointees now move the privatization agenda forward. In 2003, then Interior Secretary Gale Norton, using code terms such as “public-private partnerships” and “competitive outsourcing”, announced plans to privatize 72% of U.S. Park Service positions. In the same year, Bush announced that as many as 850,000 federal positions could be outsourced to the private sector.


Terry Anderson, a senior fellow at the right wing Hoover Institution, attracted attention in 1999 with an alarming policy paper, “How and Why to Privatize Federal Lands”, also published by Cato. His proposal involves giving citizens “shares” of public domain that can then be bought and sold on the open market. Poorer citizens would certainly cash out quickly, but even middle classes, saddled with health costs, mortgages, tuitions and the like, would in time see reasons to sell their shares. In the wings, corporations and the super wealthy would gather shares as they appeared on the market and ultimately own what now belongs to all citizens. According to Anderson’s analysis, the transition would take 20-40 years. Anderson became George W. Bush’s adviser on public lands issues and has advised Bush to replace governmental regulatory law with free market principles.

All of this is what libertarians and free marketers have worked toward for decades with a torrent of policy analyses, workshops, conferences, articles and books funded by a dozen or so foundations, e.g., Bradley, Scaife, Olin, JM, Lambe, Earhart, Koch, Carthage, Castle Rock. Collectively, all represent a force that, since the 1960s, has coordinated efforts to forge national policy favorable to deregulation and privatization. Joined by large corporate interests such as RJ Reynolds, Shell Oil, Pfizer, etc., the collective, with countless billions of dollars at its disposal, can outspend progressive efforts by orders of magnitude as it pictures government not as an entity of, by and for the people but as an evil, oppressive force packed with incompetent, thieving bureaucrats intent on thwarting creative enterprise.


There is another fatal flaw in depictions of private ownership of everything, and of free market “magic”, as guaranteeing proper care of the natural world. Large corporations diversify, and when one line dwindles, the profit mandate requires investment elsewhere. Maximizing profit is the corporate obligation against which all other obligations pale, else, as free-market guru Milton Friedman made clear, stockholders should sue management. If the price of lumber is such that a corporation’s other investments can earn more, it’s time to “cut and run”, plowing new cash into what increases profits — cars, sneakers, whatever. Nothing personal, just business. One need only consider the millions of acres of Maine woods leveled in the 1990s by corporate owners who then sold denuded land and moved on, or at the ravaging of the last large redwood tract in California under the ownership of Charles Hurwitz.

Libertarian and free market extremisms are rooted in simplistic theory linked to a kind of religious zeal. But their theory falls apart in the real world of corporate conduct, because the privatization of everything in a regulation-free, no-holds-barred environment in which maxed-out profit is the goal, guarantees the most rapacious of behavior. As to corporate behavior, simply consider the Enron debacle, Big Tobacco’s deliberate, generations-long campaign that ruined the health of millions and the global implications of ExxonMobil’s program of many years to contradict climate scientists.

In a world privatized and deregulated, disintegration within nature and its processes is absolutely predictable. In this light, libertarian and free market purists appear as cultists required to ignore truths about the consequences of giving free rein to the acquisitive instinct and to what the Greeks called “pleonexia”, the desire for more and ever more.

Bill Willers is an emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. He is founder of the Superior Wilderness Action Network and editor of Learning to Listen to the Land, and Unmanaged Landscapes, both from Island Press. He can be contacted at Read other articles by Bill.

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  1. michael anthony said on May 19th, 2007 at 6:44am #

    I’ve known the assets of this nation were being stripped for some time, corporate strategies are just following the style of what the Russian oligarchs did with the companies they own and operate during the early 1990s, and look at how wealthy they are! This is the first I have heard of the squeeze on public parks, but I’m not surprised. If you or your family have any financial investment in a U.S. corporation. Sell Now and reinvest in China, India, or Europe, or maybe South America. The wealthy are already ahead of you, but it’s not too late to cut and run with your own money. I always laugh when I watch CNBC now and see the little ticker with the phrase “Dow near Record High!” because, while technically the Dow Jones Average is numerically higher than in the past, the value of the dollar is in the toilet. Which means the Dow rally is just an illusion. Funny CNBC never mentions that. This parks issue is just another evidence of the stripping of American value. We should be nationally outraged because without the parks are private homes will be worth less. (worth less to us after we buy, but the developer does not care) Of course I am open to discussing the overhaul of all private property ( but not privacy) rights in America. The ones we have only benefit the most financially capable among us. Or as your deep pockets analogy suggests, are financially limited Americans being driven to sell out their lives for the smallest of rewards like a desperate Hurricane Katrina victim getting a $2000 debit card while our government guarantees the future wealth and security of financial elites and their future generations by guaranteeing profits for industries like insurance and pharmaceuticals, oil, military, banking. And those profits will likely go to elite investors first, while lesser Americans are banned from investing (for our own good no doubt), or linited to B-grade shares worth less and taxed more.