Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 3, 2023

Environmental dangers demand a new conception of liberty

By DAVIDE PINI | September 15, 2013

The United States of America was founded on the principle of individual freedom. Although this principle is noble and high, over the centuries it has often been abused and misinterpreted to fuel dangerous political positions. One of the major victims is the environment.

In the 1980’s, Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics helped establish the Washington Consensus: the universal ideal that markets are naturally efficient, and will ensure a fair and equal distribution of resources. Beautifully explained by graphs and equations, this theory fascinated Americans in part due to its familiar emphasis on the importance of individual liberty.

Unfortunately, this theory undervalued the nature of externalities like pollution. A factory which pollutes the air may maximize the firm’s profit, but it also harms the people in the surrounding area. Professors Quan Li and Rafael Reuveny recently discovered a symmetrical trend between the rate of deforestation and the rate of trade openness in democratic countries — providing evidence that the environment is indeed victimized by the desire for entrepreneurial freedom.

Despite these environmental concerns, big corporations like Exxon Mobil finance lobbies to claim that global warming has not been scientifically proved. Why are they allowed to do so? Freedom of speech.

The 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court decision allowed big business to influence the political arena through monetary contributions. Even though these donations are completely out of reach for the common citizen, a deviated concept of freedom argues that because these companies provide the country with jobs and income, they may do whatever is necessary to maximize profit.

But this is nonsense. All the scientific indicators tell us that the environment is quickly deteriorating, and if we don’t reverse the current rate of pollution in drastic ways, we might reach a point of no return for our planet.

Corporations cannot be considered human beings, because unlike humans they concern themselves only with short term profits; Exxon Mobil executives will not work in those positions forever, and high short term revenues lead to huge end of year bonuses while they remain in office. Human beings, by contrast, live for a lifetime, and know their actions will impact not just their own lives, but future generations as well. There is an enormous discrepancy between what is good for society and what is good for the CEOs, and claiming that they should have an equal legal influence on Washington is a misinterpreted conception of freedom.

Those pushing this conception mistakenly believe that under taking environmental policies will require giving up jobs and economic downturns. Some corporate leaders will even tell you that environmental activists are the same as “terrorists,” attempting to divert and undermine the values on which the American society was built. But in reality, many countries have been implementing environmentally-friendly projects without giving up jobs or profits. In 2009, for example, South Korea launched the Green Deal fiscal stimulus plan, creating over 940,000 jobs in a respectful and sustainable way.

So too should the American culture move towards a more holistic conception of freedom, which rather than focusing on the individual, takes into account the wellness of society as a whole. As Mikhail Bakunin’s once put it: “The freedom of other men, far from negating or limiting my freedom, is, on the contrary, its necessary premise and confirmation.”


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