Is Washington, D.C., Really the Environment's Savior?

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Guest post by Jonathan H. Adler, a professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law and a regular contributor to the Volokh Conspiracy.

It can be a bit lonely working on environmental issues from the "right" side of the political spectrum. Environmental academics and activists rarely have much patience (let alone sympathy) for principles that would limit the scope of government power and few conservatives or libertarians take environmental issues seriously. Some of my friends on the right seem to think that any environmental problem the market cannot magically solve must be a hoax. There's no doubt many environmental threats have been exaggerated, and the capacity of traditional regulatory institutions to address environmental concerns is often oversold, but serious environmental problems remain, and they should be addressed. Yet in the political sphere, those on the right either oppose every environmental measure with a reactionary fervor or they insist that whatever we do, we just have to make it cost a bit less. Neither is a satisfactory response. Blind opposition to the Sierra Club's agenda does not an environmental policy make. Nor is there a compelling case for always doing environmental initiatives on the cheap. Across the aisle, unfortunately, concerns for regulatory costs and limitations are viewed with equal suspicion.

As illustrated in the past three posts, much of my work explores the possibility and potential of a "pro-environment" policy agenda that is consistent with principles of limited government. This sort of approach is often characterized as "free market environmentalism" or "FME." This moniker may be a bit of a misnomer in that it emphasizes the "market" rather than the underlying set of institutions upon which markets - and sound conservation - both depend, but it certainly communicates the idea of trying to reconcile free enterprise and environmental protection through the recognition and protection of property rights in environmental resources.

This approach cuts against the grain of conventional environmental policy. Suggestions for dramatic reform of environmental laws is regularly characterized as "anti-environmental." Part of the problem is the standard fable of federal environmental regulation which recounts an overly romanticized view of the federal government's role in environmental protection. Based on this fable, many believe any effort to curtail federal regulatory authority, expand protection of property rights, or create greater state flexibility is an attack on environmental protection. But it ain't necessarily so.

According to the standard fable, post-war environmental conditions got inexorably worse until the nation's environmental consciousness awoke in the 1960s and demanded action. State and local governments were environmental laggards, according to this story, and only the federal government was capable of safeguarding ecological concerns. Events such as the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River, memorialized in Time magazine with this picture, are pointed to as support for this traditional account. This fire, which helped spur passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, is constantly cited as evidence of how bad things were before the federal government got involved.

Yet the standard fable is just that, a fable - a fictionalized account with some truth, but fiction nonetheless. Let's start with the 1969 fire. There was a fire on the Cuyahoga River in June 1969, Time magazine did run a photo of a fire on the Cuyahoga, and the story of the fire did help spur passage of the CWA. But that's about where the truth ends. The fire was actually a minor event in Cleveland, largely because river fires on the Cuyahoga had once been common, as they had been on industrialized rivers throughout the United States, throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But river fires were costly and posed serious risks to people and property, prompting local governments and private industry to act. The fire was not evidence of how bad things could get, but a reminder of how bad things had been.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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