Responding to the Deepwater Horizon disaster

Kevin Carson has a new piece up at the Center for a Stateless Society, In a Truly Free Market, BP Would Be Toast, which argues that without federal regulation limiting liability BP would not only be facing liabilities that “stack up pretty tall against BP’s total equity,” but also that in a genuinely free market the demands of insurers would force companies like BP to take adequate precautions.

Kevin is absolutely right in saying that the Gulf spill is not the product of an “unregulated market.” It’s one of the great wonders of the modern world that, with news of the latest attempt to tweak the economy by this or that incentive a daily staple, the phrase “unregulated economy” still exists in the language. Of course, in this regard, the shenanigans of the the government look a lot like the daily shenanigans of the market. Clearly, an unhealthy fusion has taken place, but it’s hard to decide whether it’s more troubling that the market has been governmentalized or that the government is on the market. In any event, if we are going to include that “unregulated market” among the possible alternatives to the present debacle, it’s probably only fair to also consider the possibility of an “unmarketed regulation.” If it is obvious that the current economy is something of a botched job with regard to freedom, it should be equally obvious that the regulatory state is not fulfilling its functions in any coherent manner. If “the system is working” through this particular sort of malfunction, then that “system” is not government per se, but the bastard love-child of corrupt government and corrupt market, which is nothing other than the dominant present form of privilege.

I would like to think that in a “truly free market” it would indeed be easier to sue the pants off those who recklessly endanger the lives and livelihood of others. I would hope that in such an economy, where “all economic actors do business on their own nickel,” the process of accumulating enough nickles to dig a deepwater well would build in a certain amount of responsibility, long before we got to the stage of insuring the thing. But the problem with markets is that there are many kinds of value and interest which have a hard to finding representation. After all, sea turtles and brown pelicans don’t get any more of a vote in the market than they do in elections or campaign contributions. Private property conventions tend to establish a separation of interests not reflected in, or respected by, the circulatory systems of the biosphere—and while there are, arguably, very good reasons to construct a certain kind of property-privilege around each and every human subject, we play a dangerous game when we mistake the legal and/or conventional systems of property for a map of our actual degree of interdependence on one another and on non-human nature.

As I read western intellectual history, the revolutionary trend is more and more towards the recognition of universal interconnectedness as an objective condition, and the checkered career of modern individualism has been determined by the fact that it is not immediately clear how we should deal with our undeniable experience of separate being, in the face of a whole lot of pretty persuasive evidence that the human subject is not, objectively, much more than a calm pool in the flow of everything everywhere. Faced with this basic and very thorny problem, the individual has had to shrink considerably, expand just as dramatically, or find some way to split the difference. Unfortunately, as often as not, we’ve remained sort of betwixt and between solutions to the dilemma, either stuck with pretty wishy-washy non-solutions or turning defiant. The defiance of ecological concerns has had a helpful, if hapless, ally in various sorts of naive anti-humanisms and primitivisms, in shallow “environmentalism,” and in the tendency of half-baked attempts at environmental legislation to regulatory capture. Those who deny the last several centuries of natural science point to the failure to sell adequate regulation to the oil companies, and pretend that the failure of junk legislation is the vindication of their junk science. When they want to sway the base, they appeal to false populism and junk religion. Faced with the need to confront all the consequences of our advancing knowledge of the universe—both those that emphasize our individuality and those that pull in a very different direction—we’re seeing denials of reality that would make flat-earth enthusiasts blush. Now, I don’t expect everyone to be convinced of the need for a “gift economy of property,” or to accept the sort of ecological ethics that I think are implied by pretty much all the best thought of the last couple of hundred years. But I do think that anyone who believes the market alone, or government alone, or any combination of market and government will solve he problems posed by the Deepwater Horizon spill—without there first being a profound examination of the problems in precisely ecological terms, and with all the sacred cows of both market and government banished to other pastures—probably needs to go back to the drawing board.

To be frank, the problem with something like Lew Rockwell’s anti-environmentalism is that it is quite simply stupid to act like ecosystems are some sort of left-wing plot. You can’t be a very useful “hero” for human liberty if you decide you “hate” the basic life support system of the human race. The problem with the back and forth around Rockwell’s stupid statements is that it’s quite clear that the “libertarian” defenders are absolutely married to their dubious principles, no matter how far they may be removed from reality.

For those who are not in a “til death do us part” relation with a particular vision of private property, the disaster (of still unknown and largely unknowable proportions) that has started in the Gulf poses a lot of hard questions about how a free and sustainable society can function—and it poses them in a way that is hard to ignore. Personally, I don’t think there are any easy points to be scored for free markets, free governments, or their lack. All free institutions will be as wise and good—or foolish and bad—as the individuals that make them up and the internal connections that they forge. We’re obviously faced with broken markets and corrupt regulatory regimes at the moment, but there wouldn’t be much improvement from free-but-dumb alternatives. There’s no substitute, when it comes to engaging ecological concerns, for ecological thinking, and there are plenty of indications that we are collectively resisting that engagement with every means available to us. It seems to me that there are promising routes toward a solution beginning from virtually all of the usual anarchist starting points. In the next couple of issues of The Mutualist, I’ll be looking at how the most expansive sorts of anarchist egoism and the most collectivist sorts of anarchist communism ultimately point to the need of at least sometwo-gun,” non-simplist, and essentially ecological balancing act.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. “Be patient of those with simple questions, and suspicious of those with simple answers…”

    I think that anarchism is at its best when it is open-minded, and open-ended.

    We can’t know the future, and it is sheer hubris to base our vision of the mechanical order of the future on our current situation, or indeed the past.

    (Not sure that this relates to anything you said, I was distracted by a cat and rabbit battle).

  2. Kevin’s comment brings up a somewhat-related thought I’ve had regarding conservation. Namely, how does conserving natural areas work when pure occupancy-and-use principles determine rightful land possession?

    My thoughts are that natural areas that either protect watersheds, are established as places of recreation or foraging, or serve some other human purpose are in fact being used, and arbitration might be necessary to determine use in a case-by-case basis (for example, someone wanting to build a home on a well-known hiking trail). I suppose if a conservation group claimed an animal population and a reasonable amount of habitat as a subject of scientific study this would be a recognizable claim.

  3. I think that most natural resources should be collectively owned and managed in a mutualist (or broadly anarchist) society. So the likelihood of an event like this happening would be much less. I am not sure what the more individualist variants of mutualism think about this, however, despite BP being toast in a truly free market.

    I am glad you are working on bringing ecological thinking into mutualism. Elinor Ostrom’s work on governing the commons should be useful in formulating a “two-gun” approach. I look forward to the more explicit development of an ecomutualism and I intend to contribute to it from an economic perspective.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Shawn. Re the question of unrepresented interests, I quote from Gary Chartier’s comments addressed to me (I hope he won’t mind):

    “It seems to me that this depends entirely on whether people think they’re worth protecting. Take sea turtles (since Shawn mentions them): under a statist regime, legislation will only protect sea turtles if legislators ultimately want it to. They need to be convinced that sea turtles’ interests are worth safeguarding. The same is true under any other legal regime. But there’s nothing about a stateless society with a radically free market that makes it impossible for those interests to be recognized, provided people actually think they’re legitimate. If only a minority regards them as important then, no, that minority won’t be able to impose its views on the majority, but the same is true in a stateful society, in general, absent a dictator who, say, happens to care about sea turtles.”

    IOW, the sea turtles are unable to exercise rights on their own behalf in *any* system. In any system, the protection of their interests depends on humans who identify their interests with their own.

    The Freeman ran an article about ten years back on how the present system deliberately excludes conservationists from the price-formation process for national resources. Bidding for leases on government land is restricted only to the industry in question (i.e. logging companies), and closed to those who might want to buy land to hold out of use (or bid up the price so that it’s profitable to log only a smaller amount).

    Also, I addressed the question of liability and insurance in isolation. There’s no reason a free market regime would be incompatible with assorted systems of common rights like those described by Elinor Ostrom.

    In any case, I’m inclined to believe the sea turtles et al are likely to benefit as “free riders” from the increased risk premiums and incentives for more careful drilling, even if their interests are not addressed as such (much as global warming is addressed indirectly by anything that tends to internalize more costs in the price of fuel, even if the use of the atmosphere as a carbon sink isn’t one of the costs addressed per se).

    Your questioning of the assumptions behind methodological individualism resonates with me a lot more these days, since I’ve been studying networked/stigmergic organization. It seems to me that denying the possibility of some emergent properties to patterned interpersonal interactions, at a meta-level, is an unsupported dogma.

  5. Derek, I’m inclined to agree, although I’ve got a ways to go on the exposition of it all. But I’m actually going to explore things from a radically individualist perspective first, before turning to wrestle with the collectivist-mutualist debate over land-ownership. Where nearly all mutualists have agreed, at least historically, is that skipping to quickly to the collective generally trips us up.

  6. Kevin, what ecological thinking does for us is to show the sense in which the interests of the sea-turtle, or of an as-yet-unknown species of algae, are not isolated from our own. I think I am, in my own peculiar way, as good a methodological individualist as anyone. It just seems to me that some of our mutualist predecessors complicated the matter of identifying individuals in some interesting ways. Obviously, lots of those individuals can’t be directly represented in our political systems. But that’s a problem to be solved — which can, I think, be solved by carefully rethinking some basic concepts — not, a matter unconnected to human liberty.

    If you look at the long development of our thinking about freedom and justice the trend seems to be away from one-size-fits-all law and towards an increasingly broad recognition of what actors must be considered. Sketching out a next step that some of us are already trying to take, Aldo Leopold said, “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” It seems to me that some nominal libertarians still want to rule something.

  7. Darian, “pure occupancy-and-use principles” are going to play out very differently depending on the reigning theory of initial appropriation. In the recent debates, we’ve tended to focus on abandonment, but that may be a much simpler issue in the long run. The Lockean proviso standard was that anybody could take a drink as long as “a whole river of the same water” was left. It’s no wonder propertarians tend to hate the provisos. We probably need a good trip back to the drawing board with regard to rights of appropriation.

    Even without that, however, active conservation is pretty obviously a use. A land-use scheme that wouldn’t cover crop rotation or a woodlot would be a large and silly step backwards. Recognizing a wildlife corridor, or critical wetland, or scenic area is a tiny step forward, involving an expansion of “use” that governmentalists managed to wrap their heads around a long time ago.

  8. I think homesteading of wilderness areas would be a moot issue in most cases, if it weren’t for more fertile and favorably situated land currently being held out of use by artificial property rights. Wilderness is generally marginal land, economically, which people only occupy when land inside the margin of cultivation is artificially scarce.

  9. There was an interesting idea, at least I thought, discussed a while back about providing a place in a property theory particular rights to particular things; tree rights to tree, dog rights to dogs, bee rights to bees etc.

    It was an interesting conceptualisation that would potentially allow for corrections to start being made in the way humanity behaves with respect to ecosystems — a sharp turn from the stated goal of ‘storming nature’s castles’ and ‘putting her on the rack’. After all, it would consider as part of those rights the right to reproduce in order to sure up the numbers of a species.

    If anything, it provides an outlet for further discussion.

  10. Royce, I think something along those lines is the logical extension of Proudhon’s theories. The theory of rights in “War and Peace” posits a right for every human faculty, and the theory of liberty from “Justice” makes freedom a matter of complex interrelations with other individual(itie)s. Nature provides us with working models of dynamic, polycentric, self-regulating systems, if we’re willing to renounce dominion as the goal, and get down to the business of serving our own freedom by recognizing the diversity of our potential partners.

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