Saving the Environment from Political Destruction

by Harry Browne

(From The Great Libertarian Offer)        

The word "environment" covers a multitude of issues such things as pollution, conservation, recycling, global warming, the ozone layer, air and water quality, endangered species, and even population control.

Covering all these issues thoroughly or even one of them would take an entire book. So I will call attention only to some aspects of them that normally are ignored when the environment is discussed.

POLLUTION

When environmentalism became a popular topic in the 1970s, little attention was paid to the ownership of the properties being polluted. Important questions were never asked publicly:

  • Why would the owner of a lake or river allow it to be used for dumping chemical waste a practice that would destroy the value of the property?

  • Why would the owner of a forest cut the trees for profit, and then ignore the future profits to be made by replanting?

At first glance the polluting doesn't seem to make sense. Why would anyone destroy the value of his own property? Would you intentionally pollute your front lawn, knowing this would make your home worth less than what you paid for it? It's not very likely.

And yet, many properties throughout America are losing value because the owners allow them to be polluted.

Who owns these properties?

In most cases, they are owned by governments federal, state, and local.

The key to understanding and correcting pollution problems is one simple fact: Most pollution occurs on government property on government lands, and in government rivers, streams, and lakes.

There are three ways pollution can occur:

  1. Private companies can pollute their own property.

  2. Governments can allow private companies to pollute government property.

  3. Governments can pollute their own property.

Very rarely do we hear of a private company that is destroying the value of its own property. And we would be hard put to understand why a company would do such a thing.

But destroying someone else's property is a different story.

Private Polluting of Government Property

If someone dumped garbage on your property, you'd stop him the next time he showed up. And if you couldn't stop him yourself, you'd ask the police to do it. But government has rarely stopped companies from dumping toxic wastes in its lakes and streams, and clear-cutting or strip-mining its lands. In fact, it has encouraged these activities.

Why? Because no one in the government was hurt personally by the damage.

When you read that some company has polluted a river or a lake, realize that the government owns that waterway, and it has failed to keep it clean.

If an employee of a private company allowed the company's property to be polluted, he'd probably be fired. But when a government employee allows government property to be polluted or otherwise abused, he doesn't lose his job. The polluters usually have enough political influence to gain access to the government property through leases, special arrangements, or just indifference on the part of the government managers.

But this side of pollution is rarely noticed. Public outrage over pollution isn't directed at the government only at the "corporate polluters." And when the outrage reaches a crescendo, governments respond by harassing private companies and property owners those who have kept much better care of their property than the government has.

Private vs. Political Ownership

Wherever direct comparisons are possible, private ownership equals "clean" while government ownership equals "polluted."

For example, government-owned forests in the Blue Mountains of Oregon have suffered permanent damage. Nearly all the seed-bearing pines have been destroyed, and the entire forest has been devastated by insects.

But next to it is a Boise Cascade forest that has suffered practically no insect damage. And Boise uses logging practices that keep the forest replenished, protecting its investment. As a result, the Boise forest looks very much as it did a century ago.

The same comparisons exist when properties are used for mining or grazing. Private owners take special care with their own lands to preserve their value for eventual resale. But when private companies lease government property, neither the companies nor the government managers have any personal incentive to protect the value of the property. The government even loses money on many of the leases, which usually are granted to politically influential companies on sweetheart terms.

The most effective way to reduce pollution is to have the government sell its properties to private companies who will safeguard their future value.

Pollution by Government

The ravaging of government lands by politically connected companies has been well known for years even if the press has ignored the government's complicity.

But now evidence is coming to light of how badly government itself is polluting its own property. Here is how David Armstrong summarized the situation in a 1999 Boston Globe series:

The United States government, which acts as steward and protector of the nation's environment, is itself the worst polluter in the land.

Federal agencies have contaminated more than 60,000 sites across the country and the cost of cleaning up the worst sites is officially expected to approach $300 billion, nearly five times the price of similar destruction caused by private companies. . . . 

Nearly every military base and nuclear arms facility in the country is contaminated. The pollution extends from the US Mint, which released hazardous chemicals into the air when producing commemorative coins, to the national parks, where leaky oil tanks and raw sewage are polluting pristine rivers.

Even the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], charged with enforcing the country's environmental laws, has been fined for violating toxic waste laws at its laboratories. At the EPA's lab in Lexington, for example, mercury was discovered leaching into the ground water three years ago.

From raw sewage flowing into the lakes and streams of Yellowstone National Park to U.S. Navy oil spills in Washington's Puget Sound to PCBs making fish inedible in the Shenandoah River, government managers have devastated government facilities without concern. And why should they care? Government agencies are exempt from almost all the harsh, expensive laws the politicians have imposed upon private companies.

The EPA estimates the cost of cleaning up all the sites the federal government has polluted to be at least $280 billion five times the cost for all the privately polluted SuperFund sites.

All this devastation isn't an accident. It isn't a case of hiring the wrong people to manage government property. It is the direct result of putting property in the hands of people who have no personal interest in its future value.

The solution to America's pollution problems is to get as much property as possible out of the hands of government. Private owners will always take better care of land and other resources, because they worry about their future productivity and resale value. Government managers have no incentive to care about the future value of anything under their care.

Love Canal

You may remember the Love Canal scandal in the late 1970s. It is a classic example of the way politicians and the press misrepresent pollution problems.

Love Canal is actually a trench, rather than a canal, near Niagara Falls, New York. It was intended to be a canal, but the project was abandoned in the early 20th century. From 1920 onward, the trench was used as a trash and chemical disposal site. In 1942 the Hooker Chemical & Plastics Company, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, purchased Love Canal.

The company buried its toxic wastes in the trench, and allowed the city of Niagara Falls and the U.S. Army to dump wastes there as well. Hooker took special pains with the waste material long before toxic wastes were a public issue. The company made sure the waste was buried in a way that prevented leaks and caused no damage to the surrounding environment.

In 1953 the Niagara Falls Board of Education wanted to build a school on top of the trench. Hooker refused to sell the property because of the underground wastes afraid that any construction could allow gases to escape.

The Board of Education persisted and threatened to confiscate the property by eminent domain. And so Hooker agreed to sell to the school board for $1 as long as the deed of sale prohibited any construction over the buried toxic wastes. The school board agreed, promising to use that area only for a playground.

But within one year the school board violated the contract and announced its intention to construct the school directly on top of the toxic wastes. Hooker protested publicly and vehemently, citing the danger involved. The school board ignored the warnings and built the school anyway. The presence of the school led to the building of new homes around it.

By the 1970s the chemical wastes were leaking, and nearby residents complained of odors and fumes. A consulting company investigated and recommended a number of measures to reseal the wastes and stop the leakage. But the city government ignored the recommendations.

Finally, in 1978 a state agency investigated and recommended closing the school, evacuating all pregnant women from the area, and banning the eating of home-grown vegetables. The state purchased and leveled 239 homes near the canal. Eventually, everyone in the Love Canal area was evacuated and relocated with money advanced by the state and federal governments.

Ignoring the Real Issues

The Love Canal scandal was widely publicized. Hooker Chemical Company was condemned by politicians and journalists as greedy and irresponsible as though Hooker had buried the wastes intentionally to poison little schoolchildren.

But no one bothered to ask the obvious question: why did the school board build on top of a trench that was known to contain toxic wastes especially in the face of Hooker's public warnings? And why weren't the wastes a problem before the government disturbed them?

Hooker eventually paid out over $200 million in settlements to residents and reimbursement to government agencies even though Hooker was the only party involved that acted responsibly.

The true story of Love Canal was always available to any "investigative" reporter who wanted to investigate. Hooker's protests against the building of the school were a matter of public record. The city archives contained the deed of sale, showing the stipulation against building on the waste site. Old newspapers carried reports of the public hearings at which Hooker warned against building on the canal.

But at the time of the scandal, the networks and wire services relied for information on the politicians' self-serving accusations against Hooker Chemical. The company's reputation never recovered.

Eventually, Eric Zuesse of Reason magazine dug up the truth and published it. But by then the press and politicians had moved on to new examples of "corporate greed" and no one in the national press paid attention to Zuesse' findings.

The circumstances of the Love Canal affair may seem exceptional, but only because you probably know more about it now than you do about other highly publicized environmental scandals. Reports from the press and politicians generally assume the worst about private, profit-seeking companies while assuming that government employees have no self-interest and care only about protecting the environment.

In fact, politicians and bureaucrats have a strong interest in condemning private companies because such attacks often lead to increased government power.

Who Cares about the Long Term?

One reason government will never protect us from pollution is that government managers aren't motivated to pay attention to long-term consequences as private managers are.

For example, no government employee suffered from the Love Canal scandal. The problems didn't come to light until almost two decades after the government negligence occurred. Those who were in charge when mistakes occurred in 1954 were long gone by the mid-1970s when the scandal erupted.

By contrast, company executives must be able to show stockholders today that the company's properties won't be worth less tomorrow. Anything that will alter future dividends, no matter how far in the future, affects the company's stock price today. And a declining stock price puts a company executive's job in jeopardy.

The Solution for Pollution

The next time you hear about a corporate polluter, strip-miner, or clear-cutter, notice who owns the property that's being polluted. Chances are it's a government agency.

Realize how much cleaner that property would be if it had a private owner who cared about its value. Even if the government sold the property to the same company that had been polluting it, the property would be treated much better. At last someone would worry about its future value.

Until we get governments out of property management, we will continue to suffer the pollution problems that have become so common over the last few decades.

AIR POLLUTION

Air pollution is more complicated than land or water pollution. It isn't easy to define the ownership of air space and sort out air pollution problems in court.

But we can be sure of five points that are overlooked when people call on the federal government to clean up the air.

First, the Constitution gives the federal government no authority to regulate air quality. And to overstep the bounds of the Constitution in this area promotes the idea that the federal government should be able to overstep its boundaries for any purpose someone thinks is good.

Second, what does the federal government have to do with air quality in individual cities? Why should smog-free Seattle have to abide by costly federal air-quality mandates that were designed to reduce smog in Los Angeles? If the people in Los Angeles don't like the air quality there, don't they have enough of an incentive to solve the problem on their own without federal dictation? And if they don't care, why should we? Why should people in other parts of the country, who aren't exposed to Los Angeles air, have to pay to purify the air there?

Do we really believe the Washington politicians know what's best for every part of America? Or that money sent to Washington will become more valuable than if it were left in the state from which it came?

Political Connections

Third, environmental regulations are weapons for the politically connected, just as any other government activity is.

For example, suppose the EPA forces a new factory in Tennessee to install the same new anti-pollution equipment as a plant in Los Angeles needs, even though Tennessee has no smog problem. This imposes unnecessary costs on the Tennessee company, keeping it from underselling its Los Angeles competitor.

Wasting the money in Tennessee is bad enough, but that might not be all there is to it. The EPA rule might have a "grandfather" clause exempting existing factories from the regulation. So the regulation can force a new, non-polluting Tennessee factory to incur the cost of anti-smog devices while an older, polluting Los Angeles factory gets off free.

Guess which of the two companies has the most political influence.

As with many laws, environmental regulations often ignore the targets that prompted the regulations, while creating enormous problems for innocent bystanders.

Free-Market Progress

Fourth, cars built in the 1960s polluted much less than the cars of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. But in the 1960s there was no Environmental Protection Agency to force manufacturers to abide by federal standards. Why did the automakers build cleaner-burning cars? Because that's what people wanted and once the technology was available, that's what they got.

Government doesn't have to force manufacturers to provide what people want. But if we let politicians decide what's good for people, we're giving the politicians the power to exploit people on behalf of those with the most political influence.

Saving Lives

And fifth, when politicians address an issue, they almost always focus only on the highly publicized areas and ignore aspects that might be more important.

For example, the EPA has forced car-makers to build smaller cars, because they burn less gasoline and because they should save lives by reducing air pollution. Both reasons ignore important considerations:

  • The desire for fuel efficiency was born in the 1970s when U.S. price controls on oil and natural gas kept oil companies from developing new petroleum sources to compete with the OPEC oil cartel. Once the government removed those controls in 1981, oil production boomed, oil prices plummeted, and there was no longer a need to conserve oil. But the EPA continues to pretend that fuel efficiency is virtuous. And it ignores the fact that the marketplace will always provide some fuel-efficient choices for those who want them without forcing a single choice on everyone.

  • While smaller cars may reduce air pollution slightly (by burning less gasoline), they don't save lives. Reducing their size makes cars less safe, causing more deaths than are saved by reducing air pollution. The Competitive Enterprise Institute estimated that the smaller size of cars (produced to conform to the EPA's fuel-economy standards) caused between 2,600 and 4,500 car deaths in 1998. A 1989 study produced by Harvard University and the Brookings Institute estimated that fuel-economy mandates cause a 14-27% increase in yearly traffic deaths.

Whatever may be the best remedy for air pollution, it certainly isn't to give politicians the power to force their choices on your car, your city, and your life.

RECYCLING

We are told we're running out of resources, running out of places to put trash, and in need of recycled materials to stop the pollution that comes from manufacturing.

However, government subsidies for recycling programs assure that valuable resources will be wasted.

There is a simple test to determine whether some resource is scarce enough to warrant recycling. If the price of a recycled item is less than the price of producing a brand new item, it's time to recycle. The higher price of a brand new item means the material needed to make it is more precious than the elements used in the recycling process. So it's profitable for recyclers to pay for your cast-offs, and you can save money by buying goods made with recycled materials. No subsidy is needed, and no one has to browbeat you to recycle; your self-interest provides all the motivation needed.

But if you don't get paid when you turn in items to be recycled, and if recycled items cost more than brand new products, it's obvious that the recycling process is using more precious resources than those that produce the item from scratch. In that case, recycling merely satisfies someone's belief that sacrificing your time and money will make you a better person. It's a religious matter, not a conservation issue.

The same principle applies to other environmental enthusiasms. If the government has to subsidize an alternative form of energy such as solar heating or electric cars it's obvious that the government is trying to induce us to quit using a resource in ample supply and switch to a more expensive one in shorter supply.

That's the case as well when the government imposes heavy taxes on one type of activity in order to induce people to patronize an alternative.

Landfill Shortage?

Is recycling necessary to offset a shortage of places to put trash?

No, there is no shortage of sites for landfills. Roy E. Cordato has noted:

If all the solid waste for the next thousand years were put into a single space, it would take up 44 square miles of landfill, a mere .01% of the U.S. land space.

He also pointed out that the recycling process causes just as much pollution as new manufacturing does.

And recycling doesn't save trees; it eliminates them. Trees are planted in response to the demand for new paper and other timber products. Private companies plant enough trees to meet the expected demand well into the future. If people recycle paper products, fewer trees are needed and fewer are planted just as the supply of grains, meat, minerals, or anything else is a response to the demand for these items.

So if you throw away paper products when you're finished with them, don't feel guilty. Feel proud that you're reducing pollution, saving valuable resources, and inspiring a timber company to plant more trees.

GLOBAL WARMING & OTHER ALARMS

From the cranberry cancer scare of the 1950s to the Alar-in-apples hysteria of the 1980s, from the "New Ice Age" of the 1960s to the "global warming" of the 1990s, environmental alarms almost always turn out to be false. Few non-political scientists fear ozone loss, global warming, or acid rain. These are just issues that some people hope to use to reorder the lives of the rest of us.

As William L. Anderson has pointed out:

Few among us remember the Carter Administration's Global 2000 Report to the President, prepared by the State Department and the Council on Environmental Quality in 1980, with help from a gaggle of federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the CIA.

The report, like the discredited Club of Rome's Limits to Growth report of 1972 and Robert Heilbroner's 1974 An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, predicted mass starvation, massive amounts of pollution, and increasing hunger and poverty for all by the year 2000 unless "the nations of the world act decisively to alter current trends." "Decisive action," of course, was further government control of all resources.

Fortunately, the government didn't take greater control of our resources, and none of the scare stories proved to be even close to an accurate forecast. In fact, has any such scary prediction ever panned out?

Let's walk down Memory Lane and review some of them. In the 1970s, the prevailing wisdom was that gasoline prices would exceed $2 a gallon by the end of the decade, and the Arabs would soon own half the United States. In the 1980s the Arab threat miraculously disappeared (when the U.S. government removed its price controls on petroleum), and the Japanese became the new threat. They, too, were about to own most of the U.S. But then the Japanese economy suddenly went to pieces all by itself, with no help from the U.S. government.

And there was the New Ice Age that was predicted in the 1960s. When that didn't come to pass, the alarmists decided that Global Warming made more sense. What's next dangerously moderate temperatures?

These scares and many more like them were all accompanied by urgent demands that the government take action, reduce the freedom of mankind to wantonly destroy Mother Earth, and impose oppressive controls on your life.

Fortunately, none of the proposals was enacted, and the fearful expectations evaporated on their own. So new scares were developed complete with new demands for government action, new designs to reduce your freedom, and new proposals to keep companies from providing the products and services you need and want.

A great deal of what you hear about the future of Planet Earth isn't science, it's politics. Notice that with every alarm about global warming, the ozone layer, air pollution, dwindling resources, endangered species, or anything else the preferred solution is always the same: more government.

The most popular scare story today is global warming. This is the idea that human beings, by selfishly driving their cars, are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere causing the earth to heat up and leading to the melting of the polar icecap, massive flooding, and the end of civilization as we know it.

But over 17,000 scientists none of whom is affiliated with polluting industries have signed a petition to the U.S. government that says in part:

There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.

The supposed struggle to save the planet is really a struggle for power power over your life. So politicians and environmental extremists never wait for their claims to be proven before demanding to turn your life upside down.

They tell us we can't afford to wait for proof; we must do something right now even if no one is sure what the problem is, even if no one knows whether the changes they demand really will help, and even if a solution might be discovered tomorrow that wouldn't require upsetting everyone's life.

If these weren't at bottom political issues, occasionally the reformers would suggest solutions that don't call for increased political power over your life.

SAVING THE ENVIRONMENT PROPERLY

The politicians and the environmental extremists make most of the noise, but there are tens of thousands of Americans who are doing things that actually make a positive impact on the environment.

While politicians keep reaching for more land to be controlled by the government mismanagers, organizations like the Nature Conservancy raise the money from voluntary donors to purchase properties and remove them from development.

People concerned about animal species becoming extinct are buying up lands where those species flourish. If they turn out to be wrong in their expectations, only they will lose; you won't be taxed to pay for someone's guess.

Companies building new plants make them more energy-efficient, simply to save on costs. No one has to browbeat them to do what's in their self-interest.

Other people are working to deregulate the electric power industry, so that power companies will have an incentive to reduce energy costs. Today almost all government-regulated power companies are required to charge on a cost-plus basis that is, electricity rates are based on how much it costs the companies to produce the power. There is no incentive for the companies to become more efficient and reduce costs, since their profit margin is guaranteed by the government.

The Great Libertarian Offer seeks to increase these private efforts by leaving more money in the hands of the people who earn it, so they can do their good deeds without being tempted to call on the government for help.

As with every good thing we enjoy today, future environmental blessings will come from people acting voluntarily in their own interests not from politicians imposing unproven, untested designs upon you and me.

WHY THE ENVIRONMENT IS SO IMPORTANT TO POLITICIANS

Everything you do, every move you make, each step, each breath affects the environment in some way.

That's why so many politicians and reformers are enthusiastic about "saving the environment." Virtually the entire crusade is about you.

  • "Conserving resources" means taking them from you and putting them under political control.

  • "Ending global warming" means forcing you to pay higher taxes for gas, oil, and electricity.

  • "Recycling" means vast power for those who will decide what you must recycle and what you'll be allowed to throw away.

  • "Protecting endangered species" means the power to seize your land.

  • "Controlling pollution" means controlling you.

For the politicians, the environment is the perfect issue. They can use it to gain more power while appealing to your desire for health, to your appreciation for the natural beauty around you, and to your concern for your children and future generations.

But when you get past the pseudo-science and quasi-religion that accompanies their crusades, you find that the only real environmental problems come from government itself.

And if government is unable to keep its own properties clean, why should we give it control over your property? Shouldn't we instead reverse the process and get as much property as possible out of the hands of government?

Shouldn't we choose a system in which every property manager is personally responsible for the results? Shouldn't we discard a system in which politicians are free to give politically connected companies the license to pollute land without either the politicians or the polluters having to pay for the damage?

The answer to environmental problems isn't to expand the reach of government, but to shrink it. No problems will be solved by the people who gave us the U.S. Postal Service and the Savings & Loan crisis.

But a great deal will be improved by getting property out of the hands of politicians, reducing the federal government to its Constitutional limits, telling the politicians to stop playing Junior Scientist, and letting motivated individuals deal with the problems society discovers.

In other words, by accepting The Great Libertarian Offer.