Property Rights Vs. the EPA

By Bradley Harrington

“Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” — Zechariah Chafee, “Freedom of Speech in Wartime,” 1919 —

wte3-column-7-illustration-property-rightsIn last week’s column, I said that the answer to the ecological problems the EPA can’t seem to solve would be “the application of property rights to the environmental sphere to resolve these issues.” (“GOP Gutlessness Strikes Again,” WTE, Aug. 12.)

I knew, when I stated such, that in the context of today’s intellectual chaos, where property rights are not even adequately defined, much less understood, a further development of that idea would be necessary. Absent that amplification, I was pretty sure I’d take some flak from readers who view pollution as a federal regulatory problem.

Nor was I disappointed:

“On the other hand, if we take the EPA out of the mix, we’ll all be drinking bottled water and wearing respirators within a year … there’s got to be a balance.” (“Altoids,” “Online Comments”, Aug. 12.)

And more:

“Thus the Great Lakes were turned into virtual waste dumps. The Cuyahuga River, the Chicago River and others were so polluted that they actually caught on fire … Human waste was dumped unprocessed into almost every river in the United States, including even Crow Creek here in Cheyenne.” (“Jockey44,” “Online Comments,” Aug. 14.)

“Jockey44” goes on to ask: “Since even today property owners and businesses routinely create waste, who should be sure that they don’t contaminate their neighbors? Where would you find the funding to do all of the above?”

The implicit supposition that we need to address these affairs with a regulatory federal behemoth such as the EPA is completely incorrect — but, again, given the lack of understanding of the manner in which property rights operate, these points and questions are perfectly legitimate, and they demand honest, well-thought-out answers.

So, let’s begin:

When two or more people gather together, some method for the adjudication of  justice and the protection of individual rights becomes absolutely essential, and this is the role provided by property. “Property rights” declare, in essence, that a man who has honestly earned his property has a right to keep it, and to peacefully use it and dispose of it as he sees fit.

The key word here, of course, is “peacefully,” which means: No acts of force or fraud by an individual (or government, for that matter) against another individual and his property are permitted. All rights end where another’s rights begin; there can never be a “right” to violate rights.

Thus, property rights are seen to be contextual, i.e., based in the realities of the rights of the surrounding property owners. A man’s property rights will be different on a deserted island as opposed to the rights he would have downtown on New York City’s 5th Avenue.

(Sidebar: It bears mentioning, at this point, that — in the absence of the social balance that property rights provide — the only other way for men and women to deal with one another is at the point of guns. Hardly a civilized or satisfactory answer.)

So, given the above, what are we to say about things such as the Cuyahuga River catching on fire, or turds being thrown into Crow Creek?

Only that both these examples, and all the rest of them, stem not from the existence of property rights but from their failure to be properly implemented and adjudicated. Again, no one has the “right” to pollute the property of one’s neighbors, which would also include the common areas of air and water in between.

This, precisely, is the role of property rights: To ensure that such actions are defined as illegal and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And it is the task of the legal system, both philosophically and statutorially, to define and protect those rights.

Do I need to point out, Dear Readers, that we have dropped the ball completely in both of these areas? And that, in the absence of such definitions and protections, we have now arrived at the point where we are now aggressing upon property rights in order to supposedly “protect” them with bureaucracies such as the EPA?

And if that isn’t “intellectual chaos,” then no such thing exists.

So, the answer to “Jockey44’s” questions are now clear:

Yes, it is the government’s role to provide such protection all right — but in a legal, statutory sense, according to well-defined principles of property, not through a bunch of all-powerful, above-the-law bureaucrats.

And, regarding the funding to pay for that protection: Isn’t that what our government money should really be spent on, instead of blowing it on supporting some people at the forcible expense of others?

It’s guns — or property. Take your pick, but no other choices are possible.

Bradley Harrington is a computer technician and a writer who lives in Cheyenne. Email:


NOTE: This column was originally published in the “Wyoming Tribune Eagle” on August 19, 2016. Here is this column’s original downloadable PDF file.

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