Here’s a letter to a New York high-school student who reads Café Hayek:
Thanks for your e-mail and for reading my blog.
Your teacher argues that, as you describe it, “law should be changed to require anybody who emits any potentially harmful substance to first get explicit permission from everybody that will be impacted or by their chosen representatives.”
You’re wise to be skeptical of your teacher’s proposal. Any serious effort to put it into effect would grind human life to a halt. The reasons for my conclusion are too many to list, but here are two prominent ones.
First is the impossibility in many cases of identifying everyone who will be affected by the emitted substance. If nothing else, we must ask if this group includes only people who are alive today, or also future generations. If government were to adopt such a rule as your teacher recommends, you can be sure that environmental activists, along with special-interest lobbyists, would insist that “everybody that will be impacted” includes future generations – that is, individuals from whom it is impossible to “acquire explicit permission.”
Second, the category “potentially harmful substance” is harmfully ambiguous. Your teacher, no doubt, is thinking of industrial emissions. But what about the “potentially harmful” substances emitted by nature? Respectfully ask your teacher if he believes that government should prevent him from planting in his yard a flower garden or a new tree until and unless he gets explicit permission from all the individuals who will breathe in pollen emitted by – and potentially be stung by insects attracted by – his newly planted vegetation. People have died from allergic reactions to pollen and to insect stings.
My serious point is that, were your teacher’s proposal to be implemented, economic and even household activities would be dramatically slowed by disputes over what substances do and don’t qualify as “potentially harmful.” Just as bad, the definition of such substances would surely be expanded to include substances that even your “deep green” teacher would be horrified to discover are classified as “potentially harmful.”