A repeated myth is that government intervention comes only after private markets have clearly failed and the bureaucracy must step in to stop the abuse. For example, we hear that Congress created the Food and Drug Administration in 1906 because conditions in American meatpacking plants had become progressively dangerous as corporate bosses put “profits ahead of people.”
So it is with the Environmental Protection Agency, created by Congress and President Richard Nixon in 1970. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson painted the same gloomy picture that is given for creation of any federal agency: American life had become too intolerable without it. She writes:
Last month’s elections were not a vote for dirtier air or more pollution in our water. No one was sent to Congress with a mandate to increase health threats to our children or return us to the era before the EPA’s existence when, for example, nearly every meal in America contained elements of pesticides linked to nerve damage, cancer and sometimes death. In Los Angeles, smog-thick air was a daily fact of life, while in New York 21,000 tons of toxic waste awaited discovery beneath the small community of Love Canal. Six months before the EPA’s creation, flames erupted from pollution coating the surface of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, nearly reaching high enough to destroy two rail bridges.
Coverage of the Cuyahoga River fire featured a Time Magazine photo from a 1952 fire on the river with claims it was taken during the June 1969 fire. However, as Stacie Thomas pointed out in this article, the real fire was brief, no photos were taken, and damage to the bridges was minimal.
Furthermore, notes law professor Jonathan H. Adler, the “pollution-was-progressively-becoming-worse” scenario Jackson paints is not true:
Contrary to common perceptions, many measures of environmental quality were already improving prior to the advent of federal environmental laws. The Environmental Protection Agency’s first national water quality inventory, conducted in 1973, found that there had been substantial improvement in water quality in major waterways during the decade before adoption of the federal Clean Water Act, at least for the pollutants of greatest concern at the time, organic waste and bacteria.
Unfortunately, Jackson is not satisfied with rewriting environmental history. She also commits the venerable broken-window fallacy, failing to account for what did not happen because of government intervention. She writes:
We have seen GDP grow by 207% since 1970, and America remains the proud home of storied companies that continue to create opportunities. Instead of cutting productivity, we’ve cut pollution while the number of American cars, buildings and power plants has increased. Alleged “job-killing” regulations have, according to the Commerce Department, sparked a homegrown environmental protection industry that employs more than 1.5 million Americans.
She’s also guilty of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Moreover, Jackson confuses jobs with the creation of real wealth. For example, many of the new “green jobs” are created via government subsidies, which means that the government is cannibalizing profitable entities to prop up those firms that are unprofitable. Far from creating wealth, this activity is economically destructive.
One wonders how much economic growth would have taken place had the EPA not existed. Obviously, that is a calculation no one is able to perform, but I suspect that some readers of this site who have had to deal with EPA bureaucrats can tell a few horror tales.
My only contact with the EPA came more than 30 years ago when I was a news reporter covering a story about a fertilizer plant’s discharges into Chickamauga Lake. Although Tennessee state water-quality authorities were willing to work with the firm, given there was no immediate health or aquatic hazards, the EPA was utterly rigid and the plant was shuttered. It was the bureaucratic mind at work.
Jackson wants us to believe that without the EPA we’d all be dead. I doubt that seriously, but I don’t doubt that EPA is a destructive enterprise killer. While Jackson calls for “common-sense solutions,” I submit that common sense tells us to do away with the agency.