A Libertarian Take on the Green New Deal

With all the current hype surrounding the Green New Deal and the urgency to combat climate change, one must wonder where libertarians fit into the debate. Many more broadly on the left have embraced the Green New Deal, seeing it as proof that the Green Party and Progressive movements have successfully influenced the conversation. Even on the anarchist and libertarian left, some have chosen to embrace the Green New Deal as an incremental transitionary measure which, while far from perfect, could be utilized to fight off some of the worst effects of climate change before it’s too late. However, one thing many aren’t taking into account in this debate is that the Green New Deal isn’t one specific set of proposals, but is rather the title given to multiple different proposals put forth by Jill Stein, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others which are very different in many respects.

While Jill Stein’s version is far from perfect, it can be argued that many of its proposals would lead to a net gain in many areas, namely the proposal to fund green infrastructure by cutting the military by at least 50%. However, the current Democratic Party version of the bill drops this proposal entirely and instead suggests funding the Deal via the creation of public banks. That being said, while we absolutely need to do as much as we can to combat the military industrial complex in order to save the lives of those directly affected, the creation of public banks is nothing to scoff at and could have major environmental and economic benefits which will be covered later in this essay.

The other major gripe with the current version of the Green New Deal is the group backing it, known as the Sunrise Movement, has vowed to stand steadfastly against most forms of carbon pricing and other similar market solutions to carbon reduction. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has advocated for a measure which would account for the social cost of carbon, many of the supporters of the current Green New Deal have opposed free market measures such as a carbon tax, seemingly in the name of misguided pseudo-anti-capitalism. The main argument against such taxes seems to be the idea that we shouldn’t be “commodifying” the environment. Such sentiments can make sense on a very surface level, but the reality of the matter is that under actually existing capitalism, the environment is already commodified. Factoring in the social cost of carbon doesn’t commodify it further, instead it adds externalities back into the analysis which many corporations have been shielded from considering in the current rigged market due to favorable economic intervention and regulatory environments. Dismissing market solutions in a market society doesn’t make much sense. Even if your ideal is a non-market society, you have to tailor your solutions towards what currently exists, not what exists in your ideal vision. Adding these externalities back into the equation forces corporate actors to take into consideration the environmental impact of their business, and it encourages more environmentally friendly business decisions by exploiting the profit motive of affected corporations. That does not mean we must give up our ideals or compromise our visions, it just means we must be practical in the strategies we favor while we currently inhabit this society.

Finally, to touch upon a point which Kevin Carson has touched upon many times: that of the universal job guarantee. While I think he and I would both agree (and I do not wish to speak for him), that if the state is to already enter the conversation, then it’s better to have them promoting green alternatives instead of the opposite, and while one can recognize that poverty contributes to pollution since poor folks are less able to utilize their more limited access to resources in an environmentally efficient manner due to a lack of access to more efficient alternatives, it fails to follow that a universal job guarantee helps the problem in any way whatsoever. Such a model is based on the outdated capitalist assumption that your value is based on the labor you produce. In an era of increasing fear of job automation, it seems strange and counter-productive to see folks attempt to artificially create more jobs instead of figuring out a way to divorce wealth and self-worth from labor.

It has been over a century since the fight for the 8-hour workday and yet, despite the obvious technological advancements since that time, we are still expected to work the same amount of hours if not more despite the obvious fact that it takes less labor to produce the same quality of life that we previously had. Now that isn’t to deny the idea that we should continue to improve our quality of life but, as we can see from both David Graeber’s analysis of “bullshit jobs” and the tremendous amount of product waste and artificial scarcity caused by state-capitalist intervention and the drive for continuous production, we come to understand that a lot less labor goes into maintaining the quality of life we’ve grown to expect than we care to admit as a society. However, since we’re still tied to old notions of labor value, we are inevitably tied to outdated models of mass production.

While I am not opposed to retrofitting outdated factories to produce bullet trains and other forms of green public transportation and energy production as a transitional measure to combat the negative environmental effects of centuries of crony capitalism, I see no need to partner such growth with a universal jobs guarantee. The only way to artificially create more jobs to fulfill such needs is to either utilize labor in such an inefficient way as to need more labor power for jobs which actually require less labor power due to modern technology or to utilize labor efficiently and instead produce more than is needed thus contribute to overall waste production which causes more environmental pollution. Not to mention, pushing for green subsidies while doing nothing to combat the subsidies already received by the energy and agricultural industries does little to level the playing field in favor of green alternatives. We need to push to end such subsidies while also fighting to truly decouple labor from wealth in a way that allows for an efficient use of labor without the creation of “bullshit jobs” or needless overproduction. The only true way to promote green energy is to level the playing field by ending current subsidies to big energy companies and the the best option we have for decoupling labor from wealth within our current economic framework is to enact a universal basic income.

Such UBI could even be implemented via this plan without the need to raise taxes at all. In fact, one of the most radical elements of this version of the Green New Deal is its implementation of a public banking system. For all the complaints about the Federal Reserve, Wall Street cronies, and taxation being theft, it’s rather odd to hear silence on this issue. Public banks, while they may be launched by the state, are publicly owned by the citizens of a given area. Such banks are not used for personal individual finance, for that we still must turn to local banks, credit unions, cryptocurrency, and other alternative forms of currency and exchange if we wish to divest from such things. Public banks instead are mostly focused on funding infrastructure and other government projects. They grant loans for state projects which would far exceed the limits of local banks or credit unions and use the interest earned on these loans to fund further projects. This allows for the state to generate income that does not rely on methods of taxation while simultaneously taking power away from Wall Street bankers and into the hands of local communities who act as shareholders and are able to vote on how funds are managed and spent which also means more transparency in government spending. Why would any libertarian be against a public banking system that leads to more government transparency, less taxation, less control from the Federal Reserve and Wall Street, and more local control?

Well they haven’t always been so silent on the issue. For a brief period, some right libertarians were in favor of public banks as a form of “state’s rights.” In the fight for cannabis legalization, the federal government has maintained the illegality of the substance despite various states deciding otherwise. This led to a dilemma as legal cannabis businesses are legally banned from using federal banks. When this issue first came to light, many in the industry were championing public banks as a viable option for legal states to cater to the needs of local cannabis businesses. Of course this issue faded fast into the shadows and public banking didn’t become a hot topic again until Standing Rock, which is where this ties back into the Green New Deal.

In the aftermath of the battle at Standing Rock, the anti-pipeline movement has shifted its focus towards divestment. The goal is to push local governments, universities, and other entities to divest from the fossil fuel industry and any company which invests in oil pipelines. In the context of local governments, this primarily means moving the government’s funds from one of the bigger banks who invested in these projects and towards healthier alternatives. The issue is that there aren’t many alternatives that meet the needs of a local government.

Smaller local banks don’t have the capacity to fund larger projects and credit unions aren’t set up for such things either. Public banks allow for an alternative that is community-owned and much more transparent. So not only would the local government be divesting from these major banks which fund environmentally disastrous projects, but when they do switch to a public bank, the way that money is spent gets decided by the citizens who own the public bank, thus allowing more democratic control over how our government spends its money and on what projects.

And the divestment campaign doesn’t stop at pipelines and Big Oil. In fact, since Standing Rock, the call for divestment from these projects has joined forces with the call to divest from private prisons. As the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons has exposed, many prisons are on superfund sites and contribute to some of the worst environmental damage in the country. If the Green New Deal is successful in creating a public banking system it could go a long way towards helping these divestment movements which would in turn leave those industries with much less money to wreak havoc with.

So libertarians shouldn’t be faulted for supporting the Green New Deal in its current form as an incremental measure, no matter how small, towards shifting from our current centralized system of environmental destruction towards a system that is slightly more green in nature, but we should see the chance for libertarians to enter the conversation and offer better more holistic solutions. As the next presidential election approaches, libertarians have the chance to influence the conversation in various ways. I believe a libertarian Green New Deal should consist of measures to end subsidies for the fossil fuel and agricultural industries while also fighting to break up government-owned utility monopolies thus allowing people to go off-grid.

Fighting against copyright, patent laws, eminent domain, and zoning laws can also go a long way towards helping solve the problem. Copyright and patent laws allow companies like Monsanto to copyright genetic materials and use it to shut down small farmers while also promoting unsafe practices such as monocropping and the usage of unsafe herbicides and pesticides while eminent domain laws allow pipeline companies and similar groups to seize personal property in order to complete their projects. Zoning laws also contribute artificially to urban sprawl which contributes to more of a need for various means of transportation whereas more efficient planning could lead to less of a need for long distance travel.

Lastly, as long as government is set to build infrastructure, there is absolutely nothing wrong with pushing for those projects to be more environmentally efficient. As such, placing restrictions on government infrastructure is not a bad thing. Requiring governments to choose private contracts based on green standards is not a bad thing. Requiring governments to prioritize government contract with green builders and manufacturers or even voting to force public utilities towards renewable sources can make a difference while we’re still forced to live under a statist system. And if they can fund it via public banks instead of stolen taxes, all the better.

Just remember that this is a completely non-binding resolution so they are not held to enact any of these things. That means that we must hold their feet to the fire and push for the aspects of this Deal that we agree with while also continuing to push for other solutions as well. I fault no one for backing the current model for the Green New Deal while recognizing that it is inefficient as a long term solution in many ways. But libertarians should enter the conversation and propose alternative versions of the Green New Deal in the same way that the Greens and Democrats have their unique versions. Maybe we could combine the best of both while adding our own flair by proposing a universal basic income funded by military cuts and a system of local public banks partnered with environmental standards for all government buildings and public infrastructure (as long as they’re in charge of building the roads, I at least want a damn bike lane!), carbon pricing, and other truly green free market solutions – solutions which could have a effect in the long term, rather than just providing short-term transitionary measures.

The Anatomy of Escape
Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist