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Friday, April 1, 1994

Taking the Environment Seriously

The Federal Government Is Environmental Enemy No. 1

In 1994, the United States will spend approximately $150 billion on environmental protection and there will be precious little to show for it. Certainly the staffing at environmental agencies will increase, as will the employment of green lawyers and consultants. Bureaucratic paperwork also will continue to grow at an exponential—and dare one say unsustainable—rate. Nevertheless, the countless dollars, opportunities and hours spent to comply with America’s environmental laws will yield marginal environmental benefits. Something is very wrong with the conventional approach to environmental policy.

Many experts would counsel that the profligate waste in today’s ecological efforts results from too much enthusiasm. In this view, American society has collectively taken the threats posed to the environment all too seriously. There is truth in this statement, insofar as humans have overestimated the likelihood of ecological catastrophe resulting from the growth of civilization. However, before turning our backs on the issue of ecology, we should consider a second opinion. Perhaps, as Roger Meiners and Bruce Yandle suggest in their new volume, we have failed to take the environment seriously enough.

The essays in Taking the Environment Seriously make the case that the dominant regulatory approach to environmental issues should be re-examined by those who recognize the onus of existing environmental rules, as well as those with an abiding interest in conserving the natural world. Conventional regulatory efforts “relate to production inputs. None focus directly on the environment itself,” note Meiners and Yandle in their preface. Indeed, modern policy experts have been deluded in thinking that environmental results can be adequately achieved through properly designed government fiats, and have been oblivious to the failings inherent in their approach.

Those essays that focus on the failures of existing government policies may be old-hat to those enthralled by the minutiae of environmental policy—for those less familiar with the subject they should provide a rude awakening. The book opens with Robert Nelson’s overview of America’s failing environmental programs and their histories. David Riggs discusses acid rain, illustrating how utilities are being forced to invest millions purchasing emission-control equipment that is unlikely to produce tangible environmental benefits. Indeed, the most comprehensive environmental study ever conducted could find scant evidence that acid precipitation was causing much of a problem at all. Efficiency-minded economists may marvel at the cost-effective use of tradeable emission permits to achieve the mandated emission reductions. However, Riggs reminds the reader that the more important question is whether one should promote the undertaking at all. Enacting “efficient” means to achieve unworthy ends is hardly something to crow about.

Richard L. Stroup and Jane S. Shaw, in their chapter, further catalog the ecological harms imposed by the federal government, from the mismanagement of public rangelands and national parks to the perverse subsidies for the destruction of wetlands. After reading of the costs to be imposed by the cleanup of hazardous wastes at federal facilities as much as $250 billion—one can easily conclude that the federal government is environmental enemy number one. This stands in contrast to private environmental success stories, such as the use of property rights to protect marine resources—the subject of the chapter by Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal.

If the federal government is mediocre at protecting environmental values, and spends much of its time inflicting ecological damage, one may ask whether the federal government should be engaged in environmental policy at all. The common law was premised on the protection of persons and their properties and, as a result, was often used to prevent what is now considered environmental harm. Polluters were not guilty of despoiling “public” water or lands, rather their crime was the violation of the rights of others. In their chapter “Clean Water Legislation: Reauthorize or Repeal?” Meiners and Yandle note that “The common law relies upon individuals seeking protection of their rights, not on group lobbying before Congress.” This not only curtails efforts to politically impose ecological asceticism, but in some cases “the common law often sets standards far tougher than those set by statutes.” Under common law protections, no political entity could unilaterally impose a pollution easement upon private lands. From this standpoint, it seems that the best a government could do is to transfer all that is common into private hands.

The most thought-provoking essay in Taking the Environment Seriously is “Economics, Ethics, and Ecology” by Paul Heyne. Heyne critiques not only the misguided ecological crusades of left-leaning environmentalists, but also the economist’s obsession with efficiency. As Heyne observes, “There is no such thing as technical efficiency, an efficiency that is independent of subjective evaluations.” Thus when the economist presents the environmentalist with a more “efficient” means of achieving environmental goals, such as through transferable “rights to pollute,” the economist is missing the point. Environmentalism embraces what Lon L. Fuller termed a “morality of aspiration,” an open-ended pursuit of environmental improvement. From this standpoint, efficiency is nothing to celebrate; indeed, an environmentalist may find it to be something to condemn “insofar as it pushes . . . pollution issues lower down on the political agenda.”

Heyne finds principled opposition to the conventional environmental agenda not in neoclassical economics, but in a traditional standard of justice that emphasizes individual rights and the rule of law. This approach will not only facilitate a free political order, it will also allow for the pursuit of many goals, environmental and otherwise; “A regime of clear and stable property rights, as it turns out, will be supportive of both efficiency and justice.” Indeed, by protecting rights and the rule of law, “efficiency will largely take care of itself.” The alternative of statist intervention in all facets of life—whether for the environment or any other end—will fail on both counts. As Heyne astutely observes, “the command-and-control approach will almost inevitably substitute arbitrary decisions for the rule of law.” Moreover: “Allowing environmental regulations to be shaped by a political process that is dominated by special interests is another ethically indefensible procedure.” The reality of both failings are amply demonstrated in the balance of the book.

Free market advocates are often branded “anti-environmentalists” for their seeming indifference to environmental harms. To most self-proclaimed environmentalists, fealty to free market ideologies will end in ecological—if not total—devastation. Yet, as this volume suggests, perhaps it is the modern environmentalist whose outlook will lead to ruin. As Heyne concludes, “When we take the whole environment seriously, we will acknowledge that our primary moral obligations are to respect the persons, the liberties, and the rights of those among whom we live. After all, these are the people upon whose cooperation we must ultimately rely, whether it is to ‘make a living,’ to ‘save the earth,’ or to see the realization of any other of our larger aspirations.”

Jonathan H. Adler is Associate Director of Environmental Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C..

  • Bruce Yandle is dean emeritus of Clemson University's College of Business & Behavioral Science and alumni distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Clemson. He is a distinguished adjunct professor of economics at the Mercatus Center, a faculty member with George Mason University's Capitol Hill Campus, and a senior fellow emeritus with the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC).

  • Jonathan H. Adler is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western University School of Law. He teaches teaches constitutional, administrative, and environmental law.