Suppose you live in an anarchocapitalist society with unqualified free enterprise. Build your factories, spew smoke from the stacks, dump your trash in the river. The skies are endless, the oceans vast, and externalities don’t matter.
Now suppose one day a group of stationary bandits show up and announce that you may no longer spew waste with impunity. You must find a way to conduct your business without emitting toxic waste, or terminate your business altogether.
What the actual f…, is what any developing country thinks when they see the UN’s carbon emissions targets. Here in the first world, we understand that pollution is harmful to humanity as a whole. So obviously you shouldn’t pour crude oil into the ocean, obviously you shouldn’t smog up the air, obviously you shouldn’t leave hypodermic needles on the Shore.
Our attitude towards pollution is a lot like the attitudes of autocracies toward free speech.
In China, there’s something called “Spiritual Pollution” (精神污染). Not spiritual in the sense of religion, but spirit as in “mood” or “energy” – ie, We got spirit, yes we do!
The Chinese government is generally amenable to environmental protections, and is on track to meet Paris Accord targets nine years early. But the most important step it’s taken to curb harmful emissions is banning climate activists like Greta Thunberg. Carbon dioxide may pollute the atmosphere, but sanctimonious grandstanding pollutes the spirit.
Another example is porn. Republicans have, at various times, advocated for banning pornography under the Communications Decency Act or by emphasizing its ties to human trafficking. It never works because detractors retreat to the Motte of free speech. China cuts to the chase and declares pornography a form of spiritual pollution. Right?? No one ever concludes a porn video in high spirits the way they do after watching Amelie or It’s a Wonderful Life. Just the opposite, in fact.
I’m not pro-censorship, I’m anti-pollution! All of a sudden, content moderation becomes super easy. No more arguing about whether something is fake news or hate speech. If it pollutes the spirit, BAN! Clickbait? BANNED. Outrage porn? BANNED. Breitbart.com? BANNED. Huffpost.com? BANNED. NYtimes.com? BANNED.
I passed through an airport last week, and every single TV screen was displaying impeachment garbage on CNN. Would airport travelers tolerate it if I showed up with a diesel-powered leafblower and proceeded to spew exhaust all over the terminal? NO! So why should we tolerate CNN assaulting our mental capacity in much the same way?
Pollution need not be objective or quantifiable. We have laws against noise pollution, visual pollution, public nuisance. In an ideal anarcho-capitalist world, externalities would all be resolved through voluntary contracts (see also: Coase Theorem). Alas we don’t live in this world, and must rely on a coercive government to protect us from the health effects of environmental pollution, and the enstupidating effects of spiritual pollution.