Liberalism, the environment and environmental regulation: how can liberalism be environmental?

Student: Itai Eliav
Advisors:  Prof. Chaim Gans and Dr. David Schorr


The study begins with a review of the harsh criticism that has been raised against liberal thought. According to this criticism, basic assumptions, values, ​​and principles of liberalism – such as the presumption of individualism, the centrality of liberty, and the principle by which the state should be neutral and minimal – make liberalism an anti-environmental political morality. According to this criticism, the denial of the ecological and environmental aspects of our lives is deeply rooted in the principles of liberalism. It is a dominant cause of environmental destruction, and even a major factor of the entire ecological crisis. Philosophically, it is argued, liberal political theory does not allow the liberal democratic state to defend the environment effectively. Such environmental criticism is fundamentally important because it focuses the attention on the relationship between liberalism and the environment, on the challenge of examining the environmental sensitivity of liberalism, and on the need to map the relationships between various liberal theories and the environmental regulatory domain.


My research examines this critique in relation to three major liberal theories that have been developed since the 1970s: (1) liberal perfectionism; (2) the liberal theory of John Rawls; and (3) the libertarian theory (which is rooted in classical liberal thought). These theories have not focused specifically on environmental issues; in fact, they have virtually ignored the development of environmental awareness. Nevertheless, the study shows that the environmental critique of liberalism is not justified with regard to these theories by exploring their implications for environmental issues. It shows that these theories (including libertarianism, characterized by general opposition to regulation) provide philosophical foundations for state regulation protecting the environment.


I then discuss the environmental policies and regulatory approaches implied by each of the liberal theories mentioned above. This is a complex issue because there are a variety of different legal and regulatory tools designed to cope with environmental problems. For example, one needs to decide what environmental laws to enact, what regulatory means, tools and policy should be used, etc. The basic purpose of environmental regulation and policy is to reduce environmental harm, protect the environment, and improve its quality. However, there is no consensus among environmentalists about the course of action that should be taken, and in many specific cases it is not clear what course of action could achieve the best environmental outcome. From an environmental point of view each of the various regulatory tools and arrangements has its own advantages and disadvantages, as well as supporters and opponents.


In addition, the choices between different environmental policies and regulatory options are not purely environmental. They have economic, social, political and ethical aspects. They embody judgments about values and have implications for environmental justice issues such as just distribution and allocation of environmental goods and damages. In other words, making this kind of choice is a practice in which environmental considerations meet with political morality considerations. Therefore, disputes about environmental issues can arise from the variety of political morality conceptions.


From a liberal perspective, in many cases it is not clear what position on matters of environmental dispute would be coherent with the relevant liberal view. This ambiguity exists regarding various liberal theories, and it is possible that each of them may lead to different positions in environmental matters (or to similar positions but for different reasons). The study examines the position required from the points of view of the three liberal theories mentioned above with regard to three basic categories of environmental regulation: (1) command and control (direct regulation); (2) fiscal regulation (green taxation); and (3) marketable emission permits (or tradable pollution rights). In addition, each of these liberal theories is examined in relation to two main policy tools which are not types of environmental regulation in themselves. These tools are: (1) cost-benefit analysis; and (2) feasibility analysis.


An examination of the positions emerging from the three liberal theories under consideration with regard to environmental regulation issues can clarify liberal theory from an environmental perspective, and illuminate the field of environmental regulation from different liberal points of view. This examination of the relationship between the theoretical foundation of liberal political morality and the environmental domain clarifies which environmental conceptions might be consistent with each liberal theory, and can help liberals formulate attitudes toward different environmental policies and regulatory tools. This clarification improves as well our understanding of the meaning of the different environmental regulatory tools from the point of view of political morality.


This study provides theoretical background for developing the environmental regulation system in a way that is coherent with certain views of political morality and can help in understanding the required conception of environmental justice. It can also help us identify manipulative use of environmental regulation. 

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