All Commentary
Sunday, February 1, 1998

Government Versus the Environment

Government causes more harm to the environment than businesses or individual citizens.

When the subject is the environment, the public perception is that a resource of such importance can only be adequately safeguarded by the benevolent, all-encompassing hands of the government. Whether that protection comes in the guise of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Forest Service, the Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or any of their variations at the federal, state, and local levels, many citizens fear that leaving environmental (that is, property) stewardship in the hands of “big business” or “selfish” individuals would result in wholesale destruction of our land, water, and air.

The zeal with which our legal system handles alleged enemies of the environment grows ever stronger. Individuals are imprisoned for dumping dirt on their own land. Entrepreneurs—even with local and state permits in hand—are brought to trial for violating the decrees of the Army Corps of Engineers by creating new lakes and wildlife preserves. Private forestland is declared off-limits to individuals seeking to retire to and build on their own property; selling their own trees will land them in jail.

In their efforts to protect the ecology, government agents prohibit development along certain seashores, seek to limit usage of private property that is home to endangered species, to forbid lumber harvesting on “public” lands harboring spotted owls, and to bring more and more wilderness under the protective wing of our dedicated public servants.

Yet, as in many other areas of our society, government reveals its contradictions by doing things that harm our environment far more than anything attributable to business or individual citizens. Amazingly, though, the ecological headaches engendered by these darker policies do not dim the luster of governmental activism. Indeed, as is typical of the harm engendered by the state’s ignorance, ineptitude, and intolerance, the resultant problems lead to even more strident calls for further intervention. This seemingly endless cycle only increases the costs we all pay for such bad programs, not only monetarily but in diminished personal freedom and erosion of respect for our legal and governing system.

Helping a Few, Harming Many

Most of the damage the state does to our environment comes when it seeks to help a particular segment of the population at the expense of the rest. With concentrated benefits and diffused costs masquerading under the mask of “the public good,” these efforts have created many of the most egregious examples of abuse.

  • Water usage has proven to be a favorite excuse offered for state intervention. Farmers benefit from subsidies designed to lower their costs for irrigating their crops. As a result, areas of marginal agricultural potential (especially in the west) are brought under production. Fragile lands are exploited that might otherwise lie fallow. Not only does the resultant overproduction of some commodities lower the prices farmers get for them, but the increased acreage put into crops leads to an acceleration of soil erosion. Subsidized crop insurance further exacerbates the situation.
  • Nonfarm citizens also have their water costs subsidized by people in other parts of the country. Dam construction and artificial waterways designed to transport that water enable people to populate such arid regions as Arizona and southern California. Not only does that lead to an explosion in population in those and other areas, natural lands are flooded for reservoirs, water tables are lowered to quench the thirst of newcomers, and water shortages occur during times of lowered rainfall. Rather than letting supply and demand determine the proper usage of water, the government decides how this resource will be distributed. Those dams also provide hydroelectricity below cost, again encouraging settlement of these areas at a higher level than would otherwise occur.
  • Where there is too much water the government again intervenes. Swamps have been drained (in Florida, for example) to encourage development. Now those same areas suffer a dearth of water, endangering the habitat of alligators and various species of birds.
  • Even while prohibiting the cutting of trees in some forests, the government subsidizes the construction of access roads into other so-called public lands. This leads to an increase in the harvesting of lumber from areas many environmentalists would like to preserve. Wildlife habitat is also threatened.
  • In a similar vein, state-owned rangelands are overgrazed by cattlemen enjoying lower-than-market rates to rent the land. In another example of the “tragedy of the commons” (the overuse of a resource because of the denial of individual ownership), overgrazing also strains local water supplies and contributes to environmental degradation.
  • While the government is lauded by some and condemned by others for reintroducing wolves into the west, few mention that it was government bounties on these predators (as well as others) that contributed to their decline in the first place.
  • Though it prohibits development of some “sensitive” rivers, seashores, and islands, the government encourages building in other such places. On flood plains and along coastlines, homeowners proliferate despite the dangers of recurrent flooding or storm damage. Why? Either they purchase below-market flood insurance or have their property losses covered by a “compassionate” government’s disaster relief that diminishes the cost of choosing to settle in such risky environments. Many of these homeowners rebuild repeatedly, all at the expense of their fellow citizens.
  • Zoning and land-use regulations designed to preserve wetlands and other wildlife habitat diminish the incentive of landowners to convert portions of their property to such uses. Rather than lose control of their property to stifling edicts, many citizens will choose instead to “sterilize” their land and not convert it to recreational or conservational use.
  • Highway construction paid for by the government places roads through woodlands and other habitats regardless of the wishes of the property owners (who are confronted by the use of eminent domain) and regardless of whether it makes economic sense. By also paying for infrastructure costs, the state encourages development in places where it might not otherwise occur. In Brazil, tax incentives and state-subsidized road construction have contributed to the very rain forest destruction so many environmentalists decry—even as they call for more governmental controls.
  • Subsidized freeways contribute to overuse that leads to massive traffic jams and more car exhaust in the atmosphere as autos creep along toward their destinations.
  • Through excessive regulation and the prohibition of such technology as breeder reactors, the government has effectively killed new nuclear power plant construction in this country, although nuclear power is safer and pollutes less than many traditional power sources, including coal and natural gas.
  • By reducing the wealth of its citizens through taxation, inflation, and regulation, the government makes it more difficult to deal with the legitimate environmental problems we do face. Wealthier societies have the resources to handle such difficulties while poorer ones do not.

Ultimately, it is the state’s violation of property rights that leads to many of the environmental ills laid at the feet of private citizens and businesses. The greatest ecological disasters in the world have occurred in those countries where property rights did not exist. (In the former Soviet Union and East Germany, for example, the devastation reached horrific heights.) Through subsidies, regulations, zoning, and eminent domain, the state encourages behavior that increases pressures on the environment.

There is nothing inherently wrong with settling in Arizona, with building one’s home on a seashore, or with constructing highways. But it is wrong to force others to share the costs of doing so. A person’s right to his property is inviolable. Whenever the government encourages and sanctions policies that steal that property—whether directly or indirectly—it acts immorally. In terms of environmental protection, the state is not exempt from the law of unintended consequences. Even when acting from good intentions, the government will cause problems where none existed or permit the continuation of problems that adherence to property rights would end.

In reality, the issue is not “the government versus the environment” but rather the government versus individuals and their rights. Only destruction can result from failing to understand that.