January 21, 2012 by galudwig
David Hart QC wrote an interesting post on pollution, motorway traffic and free trade. While his intent is indubitably good and I can agree with certain aspects of it, the underlying premises of his argument are some I cannot but disagree with.
What happened is that Austria tried to ban lorries of over 7.5 tonnes carrying certain goods from using certain sections of the national motorway system, apparently trying to comply with European environmental regulation regarding air pollution. The EU Court, however, ruled against this decision, because it is breaches EU provisions which protect the free movement of goods.
Now, I am entirely in favor of “human rights”, of protecting the environment, of caring for human health. But a fundamental truth which so many fail to understand is that a government can only declare these kinds of things “rights”, by exercising its monopoly power and using the threat of violence. The obvious absurdity of a European court declaring the coercive activities of a member state illegal because it infringes a European law designed to protect the free movement of goods, even though this member state was only trying to comply with a different European law, needs no further explanation. There are no general principles according to which we can declare the ruling correct or incorrect, and any judgement thereof can only be based on either one’s ideological leanings or on one’s receptiveness to lobbying and interest groups. Both are alluded to in the article from UK Human Rights Blog.
Of course, the implication of my assertion that are no objective, general principles according to which one can make a true and objective ruling on which law should trump the other, which interest should rule over another, is wide and manifold. If one accepts, as I do, that these laws, and rulings such as discussed in the post, are arbitrary and purely up to the discretion of individual lawmakers and the support they can garner in a small court, as well as being based on force and coercion, then how are rights to be protected at all? If the god of government is a brutal monster, then who shall protect us from the beasts within us?
The answer is that we shall.
Why do we look to government to protect us from air pollution in the first place? Is it not clear that governments themselves are not only some of the biggest polluters in the world, but are also grossly inefficient in doing anything at all? Air pollution can lead to diseases, and to other infringements upon our individual rights, including our property rights. So this is clearly a case which should be settled in a court of law or, alternatively, by an arbitration firm, not something which is out of our hands. The primary reasons why polluting firms are often not held responsible for their polluting activities is that there are no clearly defined property rights and the government has taken it upon itself to protect “society” as a whole, by awarding itself the right to tell business what to do and how much to produce, to declare what constitutes pollution and what doesn’t. When the original post implies that Austria should have been free to ban certain lorries, in order to comply with the law, I believe we should rather focus on the fact that there really is no such thing as “Austria”. What is really being said is that certain bureaucrats should have the power to tell other bureaucrats what to do with the property and lives of the individuals they govern, supposedly for the “benefit” of these individuals. In my opinion, no one should have this power, without having earned it by our voluntarily signing a contract.
To get back to the original article, so the EU ruled that Austria’s banning of certain lorries infringes on another of their laws. I would say that the ruling is good, but the rationale is bad. Free trade is not a god. It is not something that is important because it is enshrined in law. It is a human right. The fundamental freedom of one person to trade goods and services with another person, based on voluntary agreements and mutual benefit, is one of the most basic human rights, and the cornerstone of civilization as we know it. Should environmental regulation trump this? No. Governments that claim to be protecting the environment by arrogating to themselves the right to define what pollution is and then create laws which force individuals to comply with this arbitrary definition, are out of order. Environmental protection should be a concern of those who are affected by it, ie the people themselves, those whose body and property are at risk of being violated by polluting firms.
The reason why this is impossible is the fact that government owns the roads. That government writes the laws according to which we are to lead our lives. In a very real sense, it owns our lives. This monopoly has to end.