Acton Institute Powerblog

BP and the Big Spill

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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.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Heaping all the blame for the disaster on BP is the cheap way out, allowing too many hard questions to be evaded. BP don’t put holes in the Earth’s crust for the sheer sake of it. It does it because consumers want oil, they want a lot of it and they want it now. The company only exists because it meets these demands. But there’s a price to be paid for this, and not just in terms of money. The question is whether people are willing to accept the consequences that come from their way of life.

    I read the article and I am sure Mr Andersen means well but I cannot be as confident as he that extending property rights would undoubtedly prevent similar incidents in the future. It strikes me as sheer rationalism to assume that turning the Earth into private property, in and of itself, would make people responsible stewards of it. Self destructiveness is a part of our nature – the fact that people may hold private property is no guarantee that they wouldn’t use this property to harm themselves and others. Neither does it guarantee they would consider the effect of their actions on later generations. It is the wider culture that matters – how people perceive themselves, their duties to their Creator and their responsbilities to those who will come after us.

  • Patrick Powers

    Considering the recent history of regulatory successes: Freddie & Fannie, AIG, GM, BP, Bernie Madoff, Climate-gate, and public education for notable examples, if I were on an endangered species list, I’d be very frightened. Actually, the womb is not a particularly safe place for humans.