The best way to protect the environment is to deter polluters with restitution. If those who polluted had to clean up their messes, they wouldn’t make them in the first place. Cleaning up pollution is much more time-consuming and expensive than prevention.

Unfortunately, the world’s greatest polluter, the US military, is not bound by this principle. Usually, our military claims sovereign immunity, which basically says the sovereign, government, is exempt from its own rules. Sovereign immunity violates the second principle of nonaggression and protects government polluters, who would be more careful if they were required to right their wrongs.

Thousands of sites at home and abroad are now highly contaminated by the heavy metals used in bombs and bullets, jet fuel, toxic chemicals, and radioactive waste both at home and abroad.  Perchlorate, a toxin used to make the military’s solid rocket fuel, is now found in high concentrations in over 90% of U.S. lettuce and human breast milk.

The contamination on military bases has caused popular resistance to U.S. troops. The aquifer in Germany supplying Frankfurt’s water has been contaminated by 300,000 gallons of toxic jet fuel leakage. Poisoning the wells of our allies won’t win us many friends.

Our lawmakers have extended the concept of sovereign immunity to include favored private monopolies. For example, in 1957, a study by the Atomic Energy Commission predicted that a major accident at a nuclear power plant could cause up to $7 billion in property damage and several thousand deaths. Consequently, no company would insure the nuclear installations, so power companies were hesitant to build new plants. Congress passed the Price-Anderson Act to limit the liability of power plants to $560 million. In the event of an accident, the insurance companies would have to pay only $60 million. The other $500 million would be paid, not by the company, but by the taxpayers. If the damages were more extensive, the victims would just have to suffer.

The Love Canal incident illustrates how sovereign immunity can poison the playground. Up until  1953, Hooker Electrochemical Company and several federal agencies dumped toxic wastes into a lined trench near Niagara Falls, New York, and sealed them there to prevent leaching. As the population increased, the local school board tried to persuade Hooker to sell this cheap, undeveloped land to the city for a new school. The company felt that it was unwise to build on such a site and refused to sell.

The school board simply threatened to seize the land through “eminent domain.” Eminent domain allows a government agency to force a person to give up his or her land for the so-called “common good.”

Hooker finally stopped trying to fight city hall and sold the land to the school board for $1. Hooker took the board members to the canal and showed them the dangerous chemicals so they would not build any underground facilities. Indeed, a provision against building was put in the deed of sale.

The city ignored these clear warnings and its contractual obligations. In 1957, it began constructing sanitary and storm sewers. By 1958, children playing in the area came into contact with the exposed chemicals and developed skin irritation. Hooker again warned the school board to stop excavation and to cover the exposed area. The school board again refused to listen.

By 1978, reports of chemical toxicity came to light. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filed suit, not against the school board, but against Hooker Electrochemical! Taxpayers had to pay $30 million to relocate Love Canal residents; Hooker paid over $200 million in settlements.

The Love Canal incident is a classic case of the role of aggression in polluting our environment. The officers of Hooker Electrochemical took responsibility for their toxic waste by disposing of it carefully because it could be held accountable. Hooker did not want to turn the property over to the school board because they feared that it wouldn’t be as careful, since it had sovereign immunity. Hooker relented only when the school board threatened to use the guns of government (eminent domain) to force the company to its will.

The company’s fears were well founded. Public officials, like everyone else, respond to incentives. Anyone who is not held responsible for mistakes has little incentive to avoid them. How different things would have been if school board members had been personally liable for the damage that they had caused!

Restoring polluted property to its original state or compensating the victims for any damage is a costly endeavor. If government officials or corporate managers knew that they could spend the rest of their lives trying to pay off and environmental mistake, they would be careful not to make them. Of course, few people would want to take a job that had the potential for that kind of liability. Therefore, most such jobs would carry liability insurance for top management.

Insurance companies, of course, would not want to have to pay for environmental claims. Therefore, they would monitor the companies or government agencies that they insured and adjust the rates up or down depending upon whether good environmental safety practices were in place. To avoid high premiums, companies and government agencies would likely abide by the insurance companies recommendations.

Consequently, instead of being regulated by a government that claims sovereign immunity for itself, environmental protection would be jealously guarded by those who would be responsible to the victims if an error occurred. While no system is perfect, we’d likely have fewer incidents of pollution.

These posts are part of a “Cliff Notes” version of my award-winning international best-selling libertarian primer, Healing Our World. The next post in this series will be Chapter 15, “Dealing in Death.” If you’d like to learn more about how restitution works to fight pollution before the next post, check out Chapter 14 of the 1993 edition of Healing Our World, in my Free Library at