Ryan T. Anderson, editor of Public Discourse, weighs in on BP’s blowout in the Gulf of Mexico:
What we’re seeing is an animus directed toward modern technology and industry, an unmodulated suspicion of the private sector’s motives, an unexamined belief that markets have failed, all coupled with an uncritical (and nearly unthinking) faith that, in the final analysis, only government and extensive regulation will save us from ourselves and protect Mother Nature.
But the history of environmental progress tells a different story. And the lessons of this story ought not to be obscured by this tragic event. First, governmental attempts to protect the environment often have been inefficient, ineffective, and even counterproductive. Second, economic growth—and the affordable energy and market economies that allows for such growth—is largely responsible for the environmental gains we have witnessed over the past decades. And third, property rights and the market itself—not the supposedly angelic intentions and intelligence of government officials—best protect the environment.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and perhaps the best-known governmental misstep—still in full force—when it comes to environmental policy is the Endangered Species Act. Signed into law in 1973, the act was meant to protect species on the verge of extinction as “a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” The law has had some good effects, but in certain respects the remedy was worse than the disease. Instead of bringing economic growth and development into harmony with concern for and conservation of endangered species, the act gave some an economic incentive to kill and destroy the habitats of the very animals it sought to protect.
“Shoot, shovel, and shut-up” best captures the attitude of some ranchers, farmers, harvesters, and other land-owners who stand to lose all access to their land should an endangered animal be discovered on it. If an endangered species is discovered on private property, governmental officials can tell the owners what they may and may not do with the land—imposing criminal sanctions if they fail to comply. This can greatly decrease the value of the land, but the government does not offer any economic recompense.
As a result, land-owners know that if they spot an endangered animal they should get rid of their problem by getting rid of the animal before the government finds out—“shoot, shovel, and shut-up.” This same logic also provides the incentive for land-owners to manage their properties in such a way (by clearing undergrowth, limiting the size of forests, etc.) so as to prevent them from providing habitat for endangered species.
Imagine how many more endangered species would be discovered and protected if there were an economic incentive to doing so. What if conservation groups paid land-owners to purchase the properties where these species were discovered? Barring that, what if the government compensated land-owners, thus implementing a policy that makes sense by providing the proper economic incentives. No one suggests getting rid of the Endangered Species Act, only reforming it to make use of market-based solutions.
Read “The Gulf Oil Spill and Eco-nomics” on Public Discourse.