Closing the Green Gap of Market Liberalism

Karl Hess Jr. is a Senior Associate with the Foundation for Research in Economics and the Environment and a Senior Environmental Fellow at the Cato Institute.

When Earth Day, 1970, opened the environmental floodgates, the gap between market liberal thought and the first rumblings of a youthful environmentalism yawned deep and wide. Except for a scattering of lonely voices, the libertarian standard was absent from the field of public debate. Market liberals were out of place and caught off guard. They and their ideas were strangers in a strange and emerging landscape of revulsion against pollution, stridency toward overpopulation, celebration of the pristine, and evocation of a land ethic.

Over the past quarter century, free market environmentalists have made enormous strides in advancing the idea of liberty in the cause of a healthier environment. The literature of market environmentalism is rich and creative, quoted in mainstream periodicals and echoed in policy debates. Yet for all the hoopla over its success, the gap between green sensibilities and free market solutions persists to this day. Try as hard as they might, market liberals have not seized the moral or ecological high ground. And the reason is clear: free market environmentalism has failed to articulate a compelling vision of man and nature in close and lasting harmony.

Part of the problem is the way in which market liberals think about both the environment and the debate that rages over its well-being. Some see it only in the light of conspiracy. In true cold war fashion, they decry environmentalism and its upswell of issues as the machinations of greenly disguised reds. Others, such as those of a scientific bent, are more subtle. They ply their science in what amounts to reverse alchemy, transmuting environmental issues into non-issues, environmental apocalyptics into environmental hyperbole. And even among the small tribe of market liberals who are declared environmentalists, nature is often nothing more than a sounding board for ideological debate: take away the state and defer to free markets and private property rights, and all is right between man and nature.

Aside from the lesser or greater truths of these positions, the remarkable fact is that nature and the environment are largely incidental to the incantations of free market environmentalists. No wonder, then, that green-baiters, scientific obfuscators, and Panglossian optimists are almost always circling their wagons to fend off environmental assaults. They steep their message in the principles of liberty, yet they fail to articulate it with environmental commitment, compassion, and credibility. They are masterful at proving why good environment depends on liberty, but they are derelict at showing why liberty relies, in the most basic sense, on good environment. Instead, they debase their message with ad hominem arguments, scientific denials, and utilitarian appeals to the economic efficiency of free markets.

But the fault line of market environmentalism runs deeper and wider than cavalier disregard for the message and messenger of evangelical environmentalism. As if by knee-jerk reaction, market liberals clump the many diverse streams of environmental thought into a stereotypical mold, into everyman’s strawman—the new-age theologian, born-again to the unified church of state and nature. Spiritualism is the dead giveaway, proof-positive of the foibles of environmentalism, in much the same way the religious enthusiasm of William Lloyd Garrison and his cohorts was proof-positive of the wackiness of the anti-slavery movement in the pre-Civil War South. Paranoia and misinformation are the self-forged shackles of libertarian environmental thought. They compel men and women of high principles and superior ideas to embark on a lonely journey that forsakes potential allies and forgoes promising diversions from the main path of their intellectual journey.

Prick a Greenie and Find a Libertarian

Market liberals have turned their eyes from and deafened their ears to what should be cause for celebration and hope for the advancement of libertarian ideals. They have stubbornly refused to come to terms with an enticing fact: except for the corporate environmentalists who make their living lobbying and running the federal government, the moral center of the environmental movement belongs to those whose ideals are at minimum quasi-libertarian.

Classic environmental heroes, for example, ally themselves with the principles of decentralism and individual self-governance. Edward Abbey, novelist and movement guru, wrote eloquently of his personal anarchism and pleaded in Desert Solitaire for wilderness as a buffer and refuge against “authoritarian government” and “centralized domination.” Aldo Leopold, the moral spokesman of the movement, noted that “[o]ne of the curious evidences that conservation programs are losing their grip is that they have seldom resorted to serf-government as a cure for land abuse.”

The list of living heroes is no less impressive. Murray Bookchin, in The Ecology of Freedom, evokes a strident libertarian defense of personal freedom and offers that defense as the best offense for guarding the integrity of nature. Christopher Manes, Earth Firster! and chronicler of Green Rage, links the environmental cause to Jeffersonian democracy—“to radical, grass-roots democracy, based on the ward level and ever prepared to overturn any accumulation of power by those in leadership roles.” And Holmes Rolston, an environmental ethicist in the “Deep Ecology” tradition, in his book Environmental Ethics, echoes the sentiments of F. A. Hayek: “There is a kind of order that arises spontaneously and systematically when many serf-concerned units jostle and seek their own programs.”

And if the words of environmental heroes past and present are not enough, market liberals might consider the plethora of charts and tables that set the so-called “green paradigm” against that of modernity. For example, in Derek Wall’s current Green History, “the politics of industrialism” are enumerated side by side with “the politics of ecology.” Modern values of centralization, hierarchy, dependency, representative democracy, and law and order are countered by green virtues of decentralization, non-hierarchical structure, serf-reliance, direct democracy, and—yes!—libertarianism.

Environmentalists who strive at the grass-roots level and greens who spin the mythologies of “Deep Ecology” are far from consistent in their libertarian acts and words, but the fact remains that their ethics and morality are rooted in libertarian sentiments. If this is the case, why do so many environmentalists eschew their libertarian roots in practice and why, more importantly, do so many market liberals ignore the deep affinity that exists between themselves and the watermelon strawman they have devoted so much time to tearing down? Why do free marketeers read and write so many books on “eco- scams” and “environmental overkills” when they could be laying the groundwork for an environmental alliance that advances the principles of liberty?

The Great Divide

Greens and free marketeers can point to many differences that set them apart, but the greatest divide of all starts and ends with free markets. For reasons that escape most market liberals, rank and file environmentalists have a deep-rooted antipathy to free markets and a free market economy. That alone, it is argued, sets them apart from the libertarian world of non-coercion and voluntary consent and earns them the well-deserved scorn of principled market liberals.

And there is truth to this. Writers in the deep ecological vein of Murray Bookchin—people whose proclaimed affinities are libertarian or anarchist—are strangely at ease when it comes to disparaging the market. In The Ecology of Freedom, for example, Bookchin spares no words in his assault on market forces and the free market, arguing that the free marketeer’s icon is by nature oppressive and by historical record antagonistic to personal freedom. Moreover, the “green paradigm” has little use for the free market. A free market economy is merely one of several distinguishing features of the anti-ecological “politics of industrialism.” In contrast, local production for local need is the key to sustainable living and the vital fulcrum for the “politics of ecology.”

Market liberals have good reason to be upset with the market-unfriendly attitudes of greens. First, green bias against markets is simply unwarranted. Markets, when coupled with secure and exchangeable property rights, foster our acting as efficient stewards of nature’s amenities. The absence of markets—not their oppressive presence—is what most threatens personal freedom and most endangers nature’s integrity. Second, the elimination of markets from the menu of environmental solutions would appear to leave nature at the mercy of the state—clearly unpleasant option for the committed libertarian. Interestingly enough, it is also a distasteful option for most greens and grass-roots environmentalists. They are not enamored with state action, they are simply in a quandary. When forced to choose between impersonal market forces and government regulation, they choose the latter in the belief that politics offers more certainty and control than free markets.

This presumption is not entirely outlandish given the narrow spectrum of choices that environmentalists see before them. Like their conservation brethren at the turn of the century, greens are grappling with the issue of sustainability. One hundred years ago, the issue of sustainability focused on the overcutting of public forest and overgrazing of public rangelands—all the result of a policy-generated tragedy of the commons. Rather than opt for markets and private property ownership, policy-makers settled on government regulation and ownership of one-third of the nation’s land.

Today, the issue of sustainability—the impetus for modern-day environmentalism is much different. At stake is more than finding a means to conserve common lands that could just as easily—and more effectively—have been divided among private owners and stewarded in concert with market forces. Central to the green paradigm is concern over sustaining ecological intangibles that are resistant to simple market solutions and straightforward private property resolutions. Things like ecological processes that transcend human convention, vast Western vistas that forge a national identity, natural communities (plant and animal) that know no property boundary, and water and air flows that knit human-divided landscapes into a common watershed are emergent commons whose sustainability is of increasing concern to environmentalists.

Greens and market liberals part company at this point, one resigned to government intervention as the least of two evils and the other entrenched in ideas and solutions that appear to be the only option compatible with individual liberty and personal freedom. As a result, greens and market liberals have reached an impasse, but one that is far more modest than either side dares to realize or accept. The great divide that sets them apart is not Grand Canyonesque in scale; it is merely a subtle change in the lay of the land and the color of the grass on the other side of the tracks.

The Market and the Marketplace

Strange as it may seem, environmentalists and market liberals are both creatures of the market. Where their difference lies is in which market—or, more accurately, on which side of the market—one or the other finds comfort and solace. On one hand, the market is a global network of impersonal economic exchanges. Through the media of currency and free trade, it shuffles information, goods, and people between near and distant places. As such, the market is process; it is the unrelenting flow of energy (in the form of price) that magically orchestrates and coordinates infinite transactions between mostly anonymous people. Individuals may succeed or fail according to their merits, but society as a whole prospers and advances in the wake of free exchange. This is the market celebrated by market liberals, the market relied on by free mar keteers to bring harmony between man and nature.

While the market of global process and exchange is essential to the well-being of society, it is not sufficient for the happiness of most people. The market that matters most to people lies closest to home. It is the place—the marketplace—where people gather to exchange in voluntary fashion everything from cash to good ideas to friendship to mutual aid and cooperation. It is the deep market of community, the cooperative flip side to the market of competition and impersonal economic forces. Here, people fill needs and seek values that can’t be readily satisfied by the currency of dollars or measured by the usual standard of efficiency. They join together to embark on an open-ended pursuit of happiness, to give and acquire through consensual sharing the social currency that builds secure homes, safe neighborhoods, and happier lives. Through association and community, people tame and subdue the crueler side of the impersonal market, creating without direction or intent the fabric of an enduring social order. This is the marketplace to which the greens owe allegiance, the felicitous realm of local production for local need.

Environmental critique of free market environmentalism invariably arrives at the distinction between the market and the marketplace. To many greens, the market is oppressive because it seems to relegate to impersonal forces the final authority over decisions that rightfully belong to the individual and community. Market liberals, of course, are quick to remind greens that the market is founded on voluntary exchange; there is no compulsion for the individual to act against his or her will. While this is true, the greens do make a valid point, particularly in an America where political power rests not in small communities but resides in an all-powerful, centralized state.

For all their fuzzy-mindedness, greens seem to understand what Alexis de Tocqueville meant when he advanced community and association as the individual’s sole bulwark against “the most galling tyranny,” the tyranny of the American majority. However, what greens have done, and what upsets market liberals most, is to expand Tocqueville’s fear of unbridled democracy to encompass free markets. This does not mean that greens are anti-free market by conviction any more than Tocqueville was opposed to democracy in America in principle. It simply means that environmentalists have figured out what free marketeers should have long known: markets bereft of the buffering effect of voluntary association and community are as threatening to liberty as the unbridled state. Therein lies the challenge to both greens and market liberals—how best to save the marketplace from both the state and the impersonal market.

Little Platoons and Little Commons

Community and association are the common ground where both greens and free marketeers can ply their libertarian visions in unison to forge a viable option to the environmental welfare state. For greens, community is the organizing principal of serf-regulating nature. It is also the moral and environmental context in which individuals can and should practice a land ethic—an ethic that entails membership in a local land community and that elicits care towards nature in its full diversity.

For market liberals, voluntary association and community are a proud heritage, in which the libertarian tradition in America flourished for nearly three centuries. Pioneers from almost every corner of the earth arrived in the youthful nation, coalesced into voluntary communities, and built towns where democracy involved more than yearly elections; it was immediate and participatory, creating what Tocqueville fondly described as little laboratories of liberty. Town meetings were the templates of liberty; “[they] are to liberty,” Tocqueville wrote, “what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.”

Tocqueville’s town meetings and voluntary associations are either nonexistent or attenuated in today’s America. The state has usurped the role and function of community in attending to the vital needs of both nature and civil life. The roots of social disintegration and environmental degradation lie there, in the death of what Edmund Burke affectionately called little platoons. “Take away the functions,” writes Charles Murray in his book, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government, “and you take away the community. The cause of the problem is not a virus associated with modernity, it is centralization of functions that shouldn’t be centralized, and this is very much a matter of political choice, not ineluctable forces.”

Clearly, closing the green gap of market liberalism means adding community and association to the repertoire of free market tools. This is not to say that market liberals have forgotten community and association while advancing the cause of liberty. In the realms of health care and social welfare they have creatively and eagerly embraced social cooperation and voluntary association as part of a libertarian solution. Now it is time to do the same in the realm of nature and the environment.

Free marketeers must look beyond market gimmicks and private property rights to solve festering environmental problems—and to solve them in a manner still consistent with liberty. The new environmental commons of ecological processes, scenic vistas, unbounded communities of plants and animals, and free-flowing streams of air and water demand solutions that encompass yet go beyond ordinary markets and property rights. Dealing with that commons requires more than buying a piece of land or setting the invisible hand free on an unfettered market. The environmental commons is a challenge to community—or, in the absence of community, a challenge that will be eagerly and hungrily taken up by a centralized state in search of an equivalent to militarism.

Greens and market liberals can engage in the common cause of good environment and sustainable liberty if they will only take the time to appreciate and exploit the less obvious and deeper expressions of the free market paradigm. Sustaining free-ranging ecological processes may require neighbors and neighborhoods to cooperate and enter into an array of protective covenants and binding social agreements at the local level. Communities that value open spaces and untrammeled vistas may have to find new tools of self-governance to curb the tragedy of the commons that is now transforming desirable environments into exploited landscapes. Associations and cooperatives may have to be formed to protect unbounded communities of plants and animals and steward free-flowing streams of water and air.

None of this is impossible. Local, self-governing solutions to common resource dilemmas are emerging in greater numbers every day. On the north fork of the Clark River in northwestern Montana, neighbors are joining together voluntarily to protect their most prized common resource: the river. From coast to coast, neighbors and likeminded people are combining in association to tackle the toughest of environmental problems—problems for which private property rights and markets fall short and for which the state is unwelcome. And emerging from these trial-and-error experiments in Jeffersonian democracy are the nuclei of community—little platoons whose meaning and purpose reside in caring for the many little commons ushered in by the age of environmentalism.