Wednesday, 20 January 2010

A Libertarian Reason for Recycling

Responsible Writers Recycle Stories.  Image of Universal Recycling Logo, devised by Gary Anderson - public domain There is a lot of Government nagging - and, over on this side of the pond, direct and ham-handed coercion - to recycle every damn thing these days. If a libertarian does not react hard against this out of natural orneriness, their cooler-headed line on the subject is apt to be that recycling will, and should, occur just when it offers people enough value to become commercially viable.

Mostly I've tended to agree with this in principle, though in practice I'm more sympathetic to most kinds of recycling than this would indicate. I do, in fact, dislike environmental damage quite a lot, and am prepared to pony up accordingly when convinced that said ponying will actually result in the desired benefit. Also, there are aesthetic considerations - my inner engineer is deeply offended at the idea of going to all the trouble of something like aluminium production, only to junk so much value by throwing the results into the general trash. Only paper recycling, which on the face of it looks both economically and ecologically dubious or worse, attracts my serious suspicion.

All of this, though, can be handled within the market/voluntary framework so dear to libertarian hearts. My tin can, my rules, no foul!

What is not so obvious is that even libertarians who despise the whole Green movement on principle may have one good reason to recycle. The act of recycling resources may inherently benefit the global observance of property rights, thus moving the world in a slightly more libertarian direction, and making society more civil and markets more efficient in consequence. For the progressives in the room, there are also distributive and democratic benefits: the property rights chiefly enhanced will be those of the poor, and the biggest losers will be dictators and the more ruthless kind of multinational corporation. All this is so far from obvious that I only just thought of it this morning.

Why should recycling (and re-use, and materials conservation) bestow upon us these magic ponies? Not, certainly, by being good works in themselves which necessarily ennoble us.

What they all have in common is this: they all tend to shift resources away from the primary extractive sector, and towards secondary (manufacturing) and tertiary (retail and other services). In a perfect world, this would matter not a button.

If one believes in the resource curse theory, however, places especially endowed with natural resources tend to suffer a corresponding curse, namely that they are systemically crappy places to live. A quick global survey judged by the reader's own standards will suggest how far this is true: by mine, the words that come to mind are, "Pretty darn' tootin'!" A fall in demand for raw resources ought by itself to ameliorate the curse somewhat.

I have a specific reason for believing in resource curses. I think they are a natural consequence of a concentrated pre-existing non-human wealth source, accessible only through massive capital investment, and offering such rewards downstream as to make the incentives to wholly displace and disinherit any property incumbents... alarmingly high. Further, because of the huge amounts of profit and tax revenue at stake in this single matter, administrative and judicial corruption become more likely and virulent. Is that what we see in the world? I think it is. The worse-governed the land of resources already is, the worse these effects will be - unless and until its government becomes actually so bad that not even the heaviest hitters will invest any capital under it at all.

According to this account, we could gain a lot by a move away from large-scale one-time immobile extractive industries with huge costs of entry - towards smaller, more distributed, higher-skill transformation, resale, and re-manufacturing enterprises. If we value the rule of law, the freedom of transaction, and the clipping of Big Government's wings, other things may not have to be as equal as all that.

"Recycle. Re-use. Regenerate property rights?"

Well, maybe!

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