So-Called Property Rights?

Property Rights Are the Key to Environmental Protection

Remember William Weld? He was the Massachusetts governor (and presumed presidential wannabe), who resigned so President Clinton could appoint him to dispense advice as ambassador to Mexico. Those plans were derailed by Senator Jesse Helms, so now he makes money in Boston perhaps while planning his political future. Weld wrote an op-ed in the New York Times late last year that indicates why the media like this “maverick” Republican. In “Government Made Easy,” Weld skewers the leading Republican and Democratic presidential aspirants because, unlike the with-it Weld, they “really don’t get it.”

In a couple of paragraphs, Weld tries to position himself as a thoughtful guy who understands the virtues of markets by attacking nationalized health care, wage and price controls, and collective bargaining by public school employees. He is also foursquare against slavery—really. Tough stuff in Massachusetts.

What role does he see for government? It is to appeal “to the better angels of our nature, when it contributes to a sense of community, both at home and abroad.” How does it do this? By, among other things, strong environmental controls. Let’s focus on only a few of his pronouncements to see the depth of his lack of knowledge of markets and law.

Weld asserts that “Individuals and businesses simply will not protect the environment for our descendants; we need vigorous government enforcement and conservation measures.” He scorns “backers of so-called property rights.”

He does not understand that property rights are the key to environmental protection. People, not government leaders, protect resources, environmental or otherwise. The worst abuses of the environment in the United States have come on government-controlled lands. The communists left an environmental nightmare behind in Russia and other eastern European countries.

The Virtue of Property

Weld’s mistake is common. It is one that Tom Bethell discusses brilliantly in his new book, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages. Those who do not understand the virtues of liberty and markets, as exemplified by private property, believe that problems can best be overcome by having the right person in charge. Sure, dolts like Stalin and Brezhnev got it wrong and ruined the environment (and everything else); if only there had been a good person in charge. . . . The Russians needed someone who knew how to exploit “the better angels of our nature,” as Weld says. Unfortunately, heaven on earth is not possible; Weld could not produce it in Massachusetts—good luck on a larger scale.

In any event, Weld need not worry about individuals and businesses destroying the environment—it was nationalized in the early 1970s when the EPA was created and given near total control over environmental matters. But in recent decades politicians have fared well by perpetuating the myth that centralized control of the environment is needed to save it. The Al Gores and William Welds of the world will save us from our ecologically destructive selves!

Weld thinks people can “pursue happiness” when the government is there to help them do so. Of course, it is the other way around. People naturally pursue happiness. Government “helps” that to happen not by centralized control of the use of property but by helping to protect and enforce private property rights.

Weld’s lack of respect for the fundamental legal regime that allowed this nation to be so successful is astonishing. Besides deriding the fundamental liberty of property rights, he also says we should “not give ourselves over to generalized weeping about due process.” Toss out the Constitution.

Weld also focuses on the need for strong antitrust laws. After all, he notes, “government is good when it safeguards our livelihoods from predatory business practices.” As a former Federal Trade Commission bureaucrat, I can report that businesses often engage in “predatory business practices.” Over and over, we see businesses attempting to gain market share at the expense of their competitors!

Many practices are used in an effort to lure customers from one seller to another: new product innovations, quality improvements, price reductions, and advertising. What is predation to a losing firm is usually another firm’s superior service to the public. Don’t like UPS? Switch to Fed Ex or DHL. Don’t like the Department of Justice? Switch to, uh, well, just trust Weld to put the right person there to produce good government.

Weld’s concern about “predation,” which most people presume to mean really nasty business tactics—the evil stuff shown in so many television shows and movies—is belied by the dearth of cases. Even the Clinton regulators find so little to pick on that they are reduced to the foolishness of devoting public resources to beating up on Microsoft: one multibillion dollar company giving away its Web browser to lure customers from the market-dominant browser of another multi-billion dollar company. They even have tape recordings of Bill Gates saying that he wants to beat the competition!

Weld hits the nail on the head when he notes that “Economic Man will take the whole pie for himself every time, if you let him.” That, in straightforward language, is in fact an essential assumption in economic theory. Theory assumes that people are interested in maximizing their own well-being. Much of this has to do with obtaining wealth for personal and family comfort, but it goes far beyond that. Well-known people often derided as Robber Barons—Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller—earned billions! And what became of their wealth? It was mostly given to charity.

Humans are inherently competitive. That drive can be exploited largely for good and productive purposes, such as devising better products that help people, or it can be devoted to wheedling resources out of the pockets of those who worked to earn them. One can be a thief, which is clearly unproductive to society. One can also be a politician who exploits the power of government to force people to give up earned resources to those who are wise enough to support the politician.

Perhaps I have been overly harsh. Weld is not a deep thinker. Like many politicians he probably sincerely believes he can tell us what to do to live a better life. He has the same instincts as George Bernard Shaw, who believed that the Soviets were doing a great job of crafting a “new man” devoid of self-interest.

When the Berlin wall fell, the crust finally fell from most people’s eyes about the real nature of central control. Not William Weld’s. He still does not get it. The Mexican people can count their lucky stars.

—Roger E. Meiners
University of Texas, Arlington
Senior Associate, PERC

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