Ron Paul's free, green market

The libertarian presidential contender says laissez-faire policies could stop global warming and save the planet.

Published November 29, 2007 12:21PM (EST)

Enviros may roll their eyes at a candidate who dismisses the U.S. EPA as feckless and disposable, who believes all public lands should be privately owned, and whose remedy for an ailing planet is "a free-market system and a lot less government." But Ron Paul, the quixotic libertarian U.S. rep from Texas, has a bigger cult following online than any other presidential candidate, and has won unexpected attention in the GOP debates with his provocative ideas.

Some of those ideas arguably have environmental merit. Paul is known for his zealous opposition to the Iraq war, which he duly notes causes pollution and the "burning of fuel for no good purpose." He wants to yank all subsidies and R&D funding from the energy sector, which many believe would benefit the growth of renewables. A cyclist himself, he has cosponsored bills that would offer tax breaks to Americans who commute by bicycle and use public transportation. Still, his libertarian presidency would, among other things, allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, boost the use of coal, and embrace nuclear power. Moreover, it wouldn't do diddly about global warming because, Paul reasons, "we're not going to be very good at regulating the weather."

I called Paul up on the campaign trail in Iowa to get the skinny on how the environment figures into his small-government agenda.

For more info on his platform and record, check out this Paul fact sheet.

What makes you the strongest candidate on energy and the environment?

On energy, I would say that the reliance on the government to devise a policy is a fallacy. I would advocate that the free market take care of that. The government shouldn't be directing research and development because they are bound and determined to always misdirect money to political cronies. The government ends up subsidizing things like the corn industry to develop ethanol and it turns out that it's not economically feasible. So, my answer to energy is to let the market work. Let supply and demand make the decision. Let prices make the decision. That is completely different than the bureaucratic and cronyism approach.

On environment, governments don't have a good reputation for doing a good job protecting the environment. If you look at the extreme of socialism or communism, they were very poor environmentalists. Private property owners have a much better record of taking care of the environment. If you look at the common ownership of the lands in the West, they're much more poorly treated than those that are privately owned. In a free-market system, nobody is permitted to pollute their neighbor's private property -- water, air, or land. It is very strict.

But there are realms of the environment that, by definition, can't be owned, right? How would you divide the sky or the sea into private parcels?

The air can certainly be identified. If you have a mill next door to me, you don't have a right to pollute my air -- that can be properly defined by property rights. Water: if you're on a river you certainly can define it, if you're on a lake you certainly can define it. Even oceans can be defined by international agreements. You can be very strict with it. If it is air that crosses a boundary between Canada and the United States, you would have to have two governments come together, voluntarily solving these problems.

Can you elaborate on when government intervention is and isn't appropriate?

Certainly, any time there's injury to another person, another person's land, or another person's environment, there's [legal] recourse with the government.

What do you see as the role of the Environmental Protection Agency?

You wouldn't need it. Environmental protection in the U.S. should function according to the same premise as "prior restraint" in a newspaper. Newspapers can't print anything that's a lie. There has to be recourse. But you don't invite the government in to review every single thing that the print media does with the assumption they might do something wrong. The EPA assumes you might do something wrong; it's a bureaucratic, intrusive approach and it favors those who have political connections.

Would you dissolve the EPA?

It's not high on my agenda. I'm trying to stop the war, and bring back a sound economy, and solve the financial crises, and balance the budget.

Is it appropriate for the government to regulate toxic or dangerous materials, like lead in children's toys?

If a toy company is doing something dangerous, they're liable and they should be held responsible. The government should hold them responsible, but not be the inspector. The government can't inspect every single toy that comes into the country.

So you see it as the legal system that brings about environmental protection?

Right. Some of this stuff can be handled locally with a government. I was raised in the city of Pittsburgh. It was the filthiest city in the country because it was a steel town. You couldn't even see the sun on a sunny day. Then it was cleaned up -- not by the EPA, by local authorities that said you don't have a right to pollute -- and the government cleaned it up and the city's a beautiful city. You don't need this huge bureaucracy that's remote from the problem. Pittsburgh dealt with it in a local fashion and it worked out quite well.

What if you're part of a community that's getting dumped on, but you don't have the time or the money to sue the offending polluter?

Imagine that everyone living in one suburb, rather than using regular trash service, were taking their household trash to the next town over and simply tossing it in the yards of those living in the nearby town. Is there any question that legal mechanisms are in place to remedy this action? In principle, your concerns are no different, except that, for a good number of years, legislatures and courts have failed to enforce the property rights of those being dumped on with respect to certain forms of pollution. This form of government failure has persisted since the industrial revolution when, in the name of so-called progress, certain forms of pollution were legally tolerated or ignored to benefit some popular regional employer or politically popular entity.

When all forms of physical trespass, be that smoke, particulate matter, etc., are legally recognized for what they are -- a physical trespass upon the property and rights of another -- concerns about difficulty in suing the offending party will be largely diminished. When any such cases are known to be slam-dunk wins for the person whose property is being polluted, those doing the polluting will no longer persist in doing so. Against a backdrop of property rights actually enforced, contingency and class-action cases are additional legal mechanisms that resolve this concern.

You mentioned that you don't support subsidies for the development of energy technologies. If all subsidies were removed from the energy sector, what do you think would happen to alternative energy industries like solar, wind, and ethanol?

Whoever can offer the best product at the best price, that's what people will use. They just have to do this without damaging the environment.

If we're running out of hydrocarbon, the price will go up. If we had a crisis tomorrow [that cut our oil supply in half], people would drive half as much -- something would happen immediately. Somebody would come up with alternative fuels rather quickly.

Today, the government decides, and they misdirect the investment to their friends in the corn industry or the food industry. Think how many taxpayer dollars have been spent on corn [for ethanol], and there's nobody now really defending that as an efficient way to create diesel fuel or ethanol. The money is spent for political reasons and not for economic reasons. It's the worst way in the world to try to develop an alternative fuel.

But often the cheapest energy sources, which the market would naturally select for, are also the most environmentally harmful. How would you address this?

Your question is based on a false premise and a false definition of "market" that is quite understandable under the current legal framework. A true market system would internalize the costs of pollution on the producer. In other words, the "cheapest energy sources," as you call them, are only cheap because currently the costs of the environmental harm you identify are not being included or internalized, as economists would say, into the cheap energy sources.

To the extent property rights are strictly enforced against those who would pollute the land or air of another, the costs of any environmental harm associated with an energy source would be imposed upon the producer of that energy source, and, in so doing, the cheap sources that pollute are not so cheap anymore.

What's your take on global warming? Is it a serious problem and one that's human-caused?

I think some of it is related to human activities, but I don't think there's a conclusion yet. There's a lot of evidence on both sides of that argument. If you study the history, we've had a lot of climate changes. We've had hot spells and cold spells. They come and go. If there are weather changes, we're not going to be very good at regulating the weather.

To assume we have to close down everything in this country and in the world because there's a fear that we're going to have this global warming and that we're going to be swallowed up by the oceans, I think that's extreme. I don't buy into that. Yet, I think it's a worthy discussion.

So you don't consider climate change a major problem threatening civilization?

No. [Laughs.] I think war and financial crises and big governments marching into our homes and elimination of habeas corpus -- those are immediate threats. We're about to lose our whole country and whole republic! If we can be declared an enemy combatant and put away without a trial, then that's going to affect a lot of us a lot sooner than the temperature going up.

What, if anything, do you think the government should do about global warming?

They should enforce the principles of private property so that we don't emit poisons and contribute to it.

And, if other countries are doing it, we should do our best to try to talk them out of doing what might be harmful. We can't use our army to go to China and dictate to China about the pollution that they may be contributing. You can only use persuasion.

You have voiced strong opposition to the Kyoto Protocol. Can you see supporting a different kind of international treaty to address global warming?

It would all depend. I think negotiation and talk and persuasion are worthwhile, but treaties that have law enforcement agencies that force certain countries to do things, I don't think that would work.

You believe that ultimately private interests will solve global warming?

I think they're more capable of it than politicians.

What's your position on a carbon tax?

I don't like that. That's sort of legalizing pollution. If it's wrong, you can buy these permits, so to speak. It's wrong to do it. It shouldn't be allowed.

Do you think it should be illegal to emit harmful pollutants?

You should be held responsible in a court of law, and you should be able to be closed down if you're damaging your neighbor's property in any way whatsoever.

Who would set the law about what pollutants could and couldn't be emitted? Congress?

Not under my presidency -- the Congress wouldn't do it. The people who claim damage would have to say, look, I'm sitting here, and these poisons are coming over, and I can prove it, and I want it stopped, and I want compensation.

You've described your opposition to wars for oil as an example of your support for eco-friendly policies. Can you elaborate?

Generally speaking, war causes pollution -- uranium, burning of fuel for no good purpose. The Pentagon burns more fuel than the whole country of Sweden.

Do you support the goal of energy independence in the U.S.?

Sure. But independence does not mean to me that we produce everything. I don't believe governments have to provide every single ounce of energy. I see independence as having no government-mandated policy: If you need oil or energy, you can buy it.

What about being independent from the Middle East, so we're not buying oil from hostile countries?

I think it's irrelevant. We wouldn't be buying it directly, we would be buying it on the world market. I don't think the goal has to be that we produce alternative fuel so that we never buy oil from the Middle East. The goal should be to provide all useful services and goods through a market mechanism instead of central economic planning or world planning. That system doesn't work.

What role do you think coal should play in America's energy future?

Coal is a source of energy and it should be used, but it has to be used without ever hurting anybody. I think we're smart enough to do it. Technology is improving all the time. If oil goes to $150 a barrel because we've bombed Iran, coal might be something that we can become more independent with. I think technology is super, and we are capable of knowing how to use coal without polluting other people's property.

But coal technology has been proven to harm people -- with poisons like mercury and asthma-causing particulates -- so should old-style coal plants be allowed to continue operating?

Use of the technology I mentioned to prevent harm to people, even if it costs more for the coal producer, is another example of how costs must be internalized to the energy source. To the extent coal can be efficiently produced in a way that does not pollute another's property or another's physical body, it will be chosen as a viable energy source. Certainly no producer of energy or anything else has a right to pollute or harm another's property or person.

If coal is not competitively priced when all costs to keep production safe are internalized to the producer, then coal will not be purchased or produced. I do not happen to believe this will be the case, but it is for the market to sort out, not politicians in Washington. It may be that, from time to time, as other energy sources become scarce, "safe coal" will be viable even if it is not at some other point in time.

What's your take on nuclear?

I think nuclear is great. I think it's the safest form of energy we have.


I don't think anything's wrong with ethanol -- it's just not economically competitive. It's only competitive now because those who produce it get subsidies.

What environmental achievement are you most proud of?

Nothing really special, other than trying to explain to people that you don't need government expenditures and special-interest politics to promote safe, environmental types of energy. That comes about through a free-market system and a lot less government, and I think that's the most important thing I can contribute.

If you could spend a week in a park or natural area in the United States, where would it be?

There's probably hundreds of places. I probably have gone to Colorado more than any place, around Telluride and Ouray.

Can you describe your connection to the natural world? Have you had any memorable outdoor or wilderness adventures?

My favorite thing is riding bicycles, and at home my hobby is raising tomatoes. I live on the San Bernard River in Texas, and I belong to an environmental group that works very, very hard to protect the natural aspects of that river.

Can you elaborate on what you've done personally to reduce your energy and environmental impact?

Well, no, other than the fact that I'm just always aware of doing anything damaging to the environment. I don't think I do anything that damages it at all. I don't ride my bike because I think I'm destroying the environment by driving my car; I ride it because it's a great way to be outdoors and enjoy the environment.

This article is part of a series of interviews with presidential candidates produced jointly by Grist and Outside.

By Amanda Griscom Little

Amanda Griscom Little is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.

MORE FROM Amanda Griscom Little

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2008 Elections Environment Global Warming Ron Paul