Environmental issues are the natural preserve for the (classical) liberal. Yet, this is not well understood among us "on the right".
In countless contributions to this blog, I have argued that ecological order is emergent order. The idea of evolution has been discovered by (classically) liberal thinkers. It underlies their ecological vision, according to which not only extra-human nature but human society too represents an ecological habitat.
The species of free, peaceful, and affluent humans is a constantly endangered species; it is in need of environmental protection. Looking after and protecting our free society is a matter of environmental awareness.
'The environment' has no meaning independent of human conceptions of it.
A free society is the best basis for (i) a genuine discourse about the environment as well as (ii) responsible and effective comportment vis-à-vis nature, whose central and most important agents are human beings capable of understanding, demanding, and practicing freedom.
If man does not assert his role as integral part of nature, the rest of nature will not do the job for him. Extra-human nature is indifferent to the fate and well-being of man. In fact, it is remarkably hostile to human needs, unless man subjects extra-human nature to his requirements.
In the modern world, this task requires us to realise that the ecological order of a free society is supremely capable of keeping the entirety of nature (i.e. men amongst themselves and their relationship with extra-human nature) in proper balance. Yet:
For many people, “conservative environmentalism” sounds oxymoronic. Since the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s, the Left has mostly managed to claim the moral high ground. They get to be for clean air, clean water, and saving the whales; for harmony with nature; and against pollution, deforestation, species extinction, and other bad things.
In response, conservatives have often let themselves be cast as the heavy in the Left’s morality tale, stuck talking about cost-benefit analyses and questioning whether low level exposure to some unpronounceable chemical compound is really so bad. But while these arguments and intellectually sounds and even controlling, they sound cold and bloodless.
The idea of a “conservative environmentalist” can raise skeptical hackles from those on the Right as well. All too often, self-described conservative environmentalists have quickly devolved into Me Too-ism, in which liberal policy prescriptions are simply repackaged as conservative, with an occasional quote from Burke or Hayek thrown in for flavoring.
Yet there is also a tradition of authentic free-market environmentalism, represented by such notables as Terry Anderson, Julian Simon, Bruce Yandle, and Robert Gordon. They have sought to use free market principles and insights to address and solve pressing environmental concerns.
Furthermore, in addressing free market solutions to environmental challenges, Jesiah Neely presents an argument analogous to my position with regard to civil society and art expressed in Gains Crisis and Gains Enhancement in the Arts.
It’s an economic commonplace that people tend to take better care of things they own. There is a reason why cattle, unlike the buffalo, are not at risk of extinction.
Entrepreneurship, innovation, and response to consumer demand have historically proven to be much better at meeting people’s needs than government command and control. That is as true when it comes to environmental goals as when it comes to economic goals. While new technologies and increased efficiency contributed to massive declines in harmful pollutants in the U.S., the old Soviet Union created some of the world’s greatest environmental calamities.
The free market is such a superior system, that oftentimes it can beat government regulation without even trying. In 2009, the U.S. Congress declined to pass a massive cap and trade bill. Yet the U.S. is now on track to meet the reduction targets contained in the Kyoto Protocol not through any government action, but through ordinary market developments. By contrast, the European Union’s cap and trade scheme has been beset by numerous problems.
Despite a sound theoretical and empirical case, many are reluctant to apply market principles, as well as Public Choice insights into government failure to environmental policy. Today, more than one billion people lack access to clean drinking water and reliable electricity. This is not because of industrial pollution, but because those services are provided by corrupt government-run monopolies.
There’s a reason millions in the developing world have cell phones (a late 20th Century technology) but not reliable electricity (a late 19th Century technology). One is provided chiefly by the market, while the other is provided (or not provided) chiefly by government.
This must change. Conservatives and libertarians should not be afraid to stake out the moral high ground on environmental issues, and to show how their principles can produce a positive vision that is both environmentally friendly and authentically free market.