world pollutionBOTTLING THE AIR

by Mason Gaffney

Don’t you know that if people could bottle the air, they
would? … there would be an American Air-Bottling Association.
… they would let millions die for want of breath, if they could
not pay for the air.Robert G. Ingersoll

Times have caught up with Ingersoll. Ronald Coase,
prominent Chicago economist, says polluters (whom he calls
emitters, to avoid bias) have as much right to emit as victims
(he says receptors) have to breathe clean air. It doesn’t
matter, says Coase, how we assign property rights originally: as
long as property is firm, the market will sort it all out.
However, since emitters have invested in costly facilities, and
property is sacred … you see whither this unbiased science is

Was he laughed to scorn? Au contraire, he was raised on the
shoulders of his adulatory peers and anointed a demi-god (which
tells you something about his peers). Having risen on wings of
theory the idea found its way into practice, and today The South
Coast Air Quality Management District awards “offset rights” to
those with worthy track records of emitting. New emitters must
buy “property rights” from old ones.

In effect, we don’t fine people for emitting, we reward them
with a right to continue. Then we can pay them to stop, by
buying back the right we just gave away. This is putting the
free market to work, they say. If you have not been emitting
before, too bad. I have offered not to emit millions of tons of
nitrates, and sulfates too. My price is modest, and highly
competitive. I underbid the big refineries by 50%, but Air
District officials just hang up on me, if you can believe it.
They say I must have earned my offset right by suffocating the
neighbors in the unregulated past.

Pursuant to Coase we should no doubt award the Ukraine a
perpetual right to have melt-downs at Chernobyl, rights they
could then sell to Uganda or Paraguay or other LDC wanting to
modernize with a melt-down or two. Nicotine fiends with proven
records of smoking in crowded rooms regularly over at least the
last four years will receive official charm bracelets they can
flash whenever asked to butt out. These, of course, will be
modern “bearer bracelets,” transferable to the highest bidder.
Anyone caught leaving a room filled with such legally sanctioned
smoke might well be fined, and charged with violating the
bracelet-bearer’s 5th Amendment rights.

And those who want to breathe? Coase says they should pay
for the privilege, as they pay for indulging any personal taste.
After all, they already pay those who supply them with land to
live on. Only welfare bums would expect property owners to dip
into their hard-earned savings and supply them with free air,
when the market has a solution at hand. All they need do is buy
offset rights from Ancient and Honorable Emitters. When they
want to breathe, they just retire the rights upwind of them.
This is a marvel of efficiency, too. They retire only what it
takes to clean the air they need: no waste.

If they can’t afford to buy outright, they could rent –
markets have ingenious solutions for all problems, like any good
panacea. Gas masks are another free-market solution: much better
than socialistic policies that would impose uniform clean air on
everyone, whether they want it or not.

What about the new-born, with no prior history of either
emitting or breathing? They come innocently into the world with
no basis for being grandfathered in, and little money. Sometimes
real men must put aside maudlin whining, grit their teeth, and
just pull up the ladder, lest the lifeboat be swamped. It’s the
free market way of population control, a modified kind of natural
selection. As for the alleged innocence of the little brats,
remember Original Sin, and The Lord of the Flies. There is, to
be sure, a noisy crowd who want clean air to be generally
available, and prate emotionally of natural beauty and rights.
They are only “environmental activists,” an odd elitist lot whom
objective scientists may disregard.

For that they gave Coase a Nobel Prize. You see, old
Ingersoll was on the mark. Nothing is too absurd once we accept
invading, usurping, and leeching as the bases of property.

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