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Private Ownership and the Environment


When it comes to “environmentalism,” it is presumed by many that government is the only game in town. At least that is the message of radical environmentalists, who see private enterprise as the villain and the public sector as the white knight.

That perspective is being challenged by a growing number of scientists and public scholars advancing what is known as “progressive environmentalism.” To them, government has largely failed at the role of protector and, in fact, is quite often playing the role of despoiler. Progressive environmentalists believe that the best way to protect the environment is to empower private, property-owning individuals. What is yours, you take care of, but what belongs to “everybody,” nobody takes care of.

A 1991 report from the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, entitled “Progressive Environmentalism: A Pro-Human, Pro-Science, Pro-Free Enterprise Agenda for Change,” listed several examples that make the point:

The U.S. Forest Service uses taxpayer money to build roads (eight times the total mileage of the U.S. Interstate Highway System) into ecologically fragile areas in the Rocky Mountains and Alaska, so that loggers can cut down trees.

The Bureau of Land Management has subsidized the destruction of three million acres of wildlife habitat by using huge chains, which uproot everything in their path, in order to create more grazing land for livestock.

While the federal government owns only 4.7 million acres of wetlands and has encouraged the destruction of private wetlands, about 11,000 private duck clubs have managed to protect from five to seven million acres of wetlands from destruction.

Private individuals and organizations and even for-profit companies have acted to save a wide range of animals endangered by state bounties and vegetation threatened by counterproductive government policy. It is a story that is seldom told by the radical environmentalists and other big government types.

Similar examples are provided in a 1991 report from the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy Research entitled “Free Market Environmentalism” by Terry L. Anderson and Don R. Leal:

In England and Scotland, where there are property rights to fish in certain rivers and streams, private voluntary associations have been formed to fiercely protect these rights against the threats of over-fishing and pollution. Usually, rivers and streams have no private owners (they are “public property”) and thus few real protectors or defenders.

Because there are no well-defined property rights in U.S. coastal waters, virtually every major species of commercially valuable marine life is being over-fished and stocks are being depleted. But at privately owned or leased oyster beds and private salmon fisheries, studies show that the stocks are carefully maintained (because of the direct financial interest of specific individuals).

If you think about it, the core philosophy of progressive or free-market environmentalism makes a lot of sense. Most people do not pollute their own backyard, but they may toss a wrapper onto somebody else’s, or even more likely, onto publicly owned roadsides. And on a grand scale, we are now finding out that in those countries where government has had complete control of the environment (such as Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union when they were communist), ecological disaster is the normal order of things.

In this era of heightened interest in environmental protection, let us not jump to the conclusion that government is the answer. The progressive environmentalists are telling us that free markets and private property would get the job done a lot better.

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    Lawrence W. Reed is President of The Foundation for Economic Education. Reed holds a B.A. degree in Economics from Grove City College (1975) and an M.A. degree in History from Slippery Rock State University (1978), both in Pennsylvania. He taught economics at Midland’s Northwood University from 1977 to 1984 and chaired the Department of Economics from 1982 to 1984. He has authored over 1,000 newspaper columns and articles, 200 radio commentaries, dozens of articles in magazines and journals in the U. S. and abroad, as well as five books. His articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Baltimore Sun, Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, among many others. Mr. Reed was previously president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan (www. mackinac.org), and chairman of the board of trustees of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He also serves on the Board of Speakers of The Future of Freedom Foundation.