A Geo-Libertarian Manifesto

“How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all”–a very geo-libertarian question to our culture today.

Recently I heard the climate scientist James Hansen speak at the “On Earth as it is in Heaven” conference of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration, in Washington, DC, at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral’s education building. Hansen’s case for a “fee and dividend” carbon tax struck me unexpectedly as reflecting aspects of geo-libertarianism or geonomics, less than a household name but an important alternative approach for environmentalism in the twenty-first century. His plan involves fining production and importation of carbon-based fuel, progressively by volume, and distributing the proceeds directly to all U.S. citizens as a dividend, which could be used for any purpose, although presumably helping to support markets for alternative energy sources. The dividend would be a bit like that received by Alaskan citizens from oil.

The basic idea behind geo-libertarianism, which shadows Hansen’s proposal in part, is that natural resources are a gift and a common heritage, and not an individual possession or creation. Geo-libertarianism seeks to tax revenues from unearned “rent” due to increases in market value of unmanufactured natural resources ranging from land to energy, while leaving wealth otherwise produced by labor, entrepreneurship, and creativity untaxed as much as possible.

Significantly for Orthodox Christians and others, this approach reflects biblical principles of land ownership, which centered on a sense of the land as a gift from God, given for the temporary use of humans in their lifespans, who bear an obligation both to God and to past and future generations, as scholarship by Ellen Davies of the Duke Divinity School on biblical agrarianism has shown. This was seen in the Jubilee years in the Old Testament, the sense of land ownership revolving around extended family networks of tribes, and in Jesus’ parables regarding material riches. Thus the approach relates to the Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart’s half-joking advocacy for a political philosophy based on “exactingly close readings of The Compleat Angler and The Wind in the Willows.”

Moreover, geo-libertarianism operates outside the usual US political binaries, incorporating aspects of free-market principles as well as environmentalism, usually associated today with right-wing and left-wing positions respectively. It does this by opening a way to assign cost based on market functions for environmental impacts otherwise difficult to assess, and to do so in a way that encourages what the philosopher Roger Scruton has called oikophilia or “love of home” as a prime motivator for environmental care. Geo-libertarianism does so by supporting what Scruton describes in his book Green Philosophy as a necessary culture of aesthetic appreciation and piety for the earth as a shared gift. This involves not constructing earth as an object for utilitarian uses by government or corporations, but experiencing her shared relationships in effect as a household gift economy, based on impulses of human community deeper than either government fiat or market forces. Thus, although a conservative Anglican thinker and American Enterprise Institute fellow, Scruton in his  book like Hansen supports a carbon tax, but one based in a national culture of oikophilia, rather than in global approaches based in technocracy, which he sees as ultimately ineffective on environmental issues and deleterious to human community and culture.

Across the political spectrum. geo-libertarianism also affords adaptations or intriguing echoes not only of Henry George’s populist “geoism”  from the 19th century, but of both Thomas Payne’s revolutionary Citizen’s Dividend and the French Physiocrats’ Confucian-influenced thought from the 18th century (the latter having left a legacy at French Azilum near here in the Susquehanna Valley), as well as the goals of tariff-based industrial policy advocated by some paleo-conservatives, libertarian approaches to natural resources of the Property and Environment Research Center, and the ecological economics of Herman Daly associated with the Green movement and American Left. The libertarian economist Fred E. Foldvary has been a prime academic advocate of geo-libertarianism (which he refers to as “geonomics”), although his work has drawn fire from less environmentally centered free-market advocates.

At the time of the DC conference, I had just mentioned geo-libertarianism in a review of a new book on Orthodoxy and the environment, Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism by Fr. Michael Butler and Andrew P. Morriss. The new book offers an excellent discussion of patristic cosmology, and stresses the incompatibility of Orthodox spiritual practice with statist-centered technocratic approaches to environmental problems. Yet the volume, published by the conservative Acton Institute, is but one of three significant new publications on the topic in 2013. The other two, more substantial volumes in terms of range and length and depth of critique of modernity, include Bruce V. Foltz’s superb Byzantine-centered intellectual and cultural history The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible, and the magisterial anthology edited by Fr. John Chryssavgis and Foltz, Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Creation, and Nature, both published by Fordham University Press. These three valuable studies, all with different emphases, seek to bring incarnational Orthodox Christian pansemiotics to bear on our current environmental predicaments, and should be read together by those with a serious interest in the topic. While geo-libertarianism is not specifically mentioned in any one of the books, it lends itself to the range of Orthodox Christian approaches addressed in all three. It provides a distinctive way to relate biblical traditions to environmental policy today.