The Case Against Environmental Regulation

What is the most effective way to create cohesion among opposing groups? Provide them with a common purpose. I propose that, for the opposing sides on today’s environmental issues, a shared love of place (oikophelia) is that common purpose.

An appreciation of home and place requires valuing the civic order that we live in and the institutions that have formed us. It requires a commitment to the “long haul,” a willingness to let each community address its own issues, and a culture that places high value on the social and political institutions that have carried us through the centuries. Rotary Club International is an excellent example of the model we should pursue – numerous autonomous communities all working toward the same goal but adapting the process to their context. Trying to keep up with the constant surge of self-proclaimed outrages that pummel us via social media is exhausting, but improving the place you call home is invigorating. None of us can grasp the magnitude of appeals based on the supposedly impending global climate disaster. How are we to respond to appeals for a future world that we simply cannot fathom? Bringing our focus and investment energy down to our immediate community creates opportunities for visible and meaningful change through the utilization of local economic and social structures.

England has set an excellent example in this regard. Over the past century, civic groups and local organizations have spearheaded the effort to create change and have succeeding in preserving the beauty of their landscapes. Unlike our misguided attempts at government-led conservation, their approach has successfully relied on the oikophelia of their citizens in order to spur effective change. There are a few positive signs of this approach taking hold in the United States. For instance, Regional Conservation Partnerships have been springing up in the northeastern part of the country (http://www.wildlandsandwoodlands.org/rcp-network/inventory-regional-conservation-partnerships) and are organizing themselves and building extensive networks of landowners committed to conservation.

However, this “downsizing” process is going to be harder than it sounds. Reinhold Niebuhr, in his fascinating book “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” reveals through an extensive study of history the tendency of the individual to believe in altruistic motives but the utter inability of the nation-state to embrace anything other than even the basest notions of self-interest. The larger the social group, the fickler the social morality becomes and the more powerful the group’s potential for self-delusion becomes. James Madison agrees with Niebuhr in Federalist #15, where he says that “[a] spirit of faction, which is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men, will often hurry the persons of whom they are composed into improprieties and excesses, for which they would blush in a private capacity.”

Niebuhr’s insights reveal the utter senselessness of expecting the government machine to create any amount of meaningful progress on the environmental/conservation front. The government is limited in its capacity to take on projects and fully invest in their development; it must therefore externalize most, if not all, of its costs. To justify this, it falls back on the claim that it is sanctioned by the people and that the people’s concerns drive its actions. The people therefore learn (and, in our country’s case, have learned) that the only way to get the government’s attention is to frame one’s proposal in the most dramatic and alarming terms possible. Rather than focusing on maintaining the structure that has been proven by time, the government slowly begins to organize itself around polarized agendas instead of timeless principles. As Sir Ken Robinson would say, it’s a fast-food model of organization, and it is degrading our sense of place in the same way that fast food is degrading our personal and societal health. Society is thus constrained to addressing (supposedly) big issues with even bigger propositions through the operation of the government machine. This same concept applies to the massive NGOs and global funds devoted to environmental causes. They respond to dire-sounding proposals with dramatic solutions for achieving utopia, but they prefer to let us forget that their proposals require significant investment. That level of investment, once subtracted from the local communities that could actually be making change, eliminates the incentive structure and financial power needed for local groups to work toward that change. The rug is pulled out from under their feet.

A “big issue, big solution” mindset is further problematic because it places the entire burden on the government. This means that all such problems will be addressed via regulation. Governments simply cannot react quickly or efficiently enough to such proposals to come up with any other way. Regulations create a standard that all entities must fall under, effectively lowering everyone to the status quo. Philosopher Roger Scruton puts it perfectly – regulations confiscate risk and spread externalities. In other words, regulation removes our ability to assume responsibility for our environment, aggregates the risk of our collective decisions, and then spreads the cost of that aggregation across society. Public initiative, which is essential if we are to address these issues effectively, is given a back seat to regulatory plans that make us feel good about how much progress appears to be happening but conveniently hides the risks inherent in our activities.

An even more frightening scenario is apparent when we realize that we very well might be regulating in response to some of the temporary agenda-focused reductionism described above. It is a dangerous thing indeed for a society to learn that it is possible to avoid the assumption of risk associated with their decisions. Regulating and removing the risk from our decisions is dangerous because risk is necessary for wise decision-making. Risk is essentially the chance that an investment may be affected by the environment in which it is placed, and vice versa. When regulation removes this risk, we fail to take into account the potentially negative side effects of our decisions.

In the midst of this whirlwind, the value of homeostasis is forgotten. A focus on simply maintaining a healthy structure would have gone a long way toward enabling communities to create their own incentives and fix their local problems. After all, who better to fix local problems than the local people who know them best! (I would also note that such an approach makes a delightful amount of sense in a republic like ours that values – or at least the Constitution says it values – a separation of power between the federal and state governments).

Hernando de Soto, in his book “The Mystery of Capital,” uses over thirty years of international research to point out that the implementation of a government policy is actually the last step of the change process. Time has shown us that decades of action by local communities and interest groups eventually culminates in policy change at the governmental level. For instance, the Homestead Act did not establish a new system of property rights in the American frontier – it simply recognized the system that the pioneers had developed on their own over the previous several decades. De Soto shows that public or governmental enactment is never the start of a trend but is always a recognition of what local societies have been doing for many years. This is the approach – proven by history – that I advocate we adopt when addressing today’s environmental and climate-related issues.

However, as I noted above, this process won’t be easy because it will require individual and collective sacrifice for a common goal. Only a community/state/nation that has a very strong internal structure – both governmental and moral – can withstand the kinds of internal pressure that collective self-sacrifice creates and requires. We therefore see the absolutely essential need for strong, respected social and governmental institutions, built upon values that run deep through the community/state/nation’s history. Agenda-waving reductionism has only one value – gaining power without seeming like one is attempting to gain power – and that value quickly disappears in an internally strong state of the kind I am proposing.

Here are the key takeaways:

  • None of us can relate to appeals on behalf of the “global climate.” The topic is simply too large for us to grasp.
  • We need to focus on identifying the most pressing issues in our own locale and creating our own incentives and structures for addressing those issues. This is accomplished through the utilization of private property rights and the sense of responsibility that they imbue – oikophelia.
  • Regulatory frameworks just don’t work when it comes to environmental matters. They lower everyone to the status quo and stifle markets, which could effectively punish polluters and free up investment in environmental restoration. They also remove the risk associated with our collective decisions and externalize costs created by individual polluters, which is dangerous when we think about how important risk is in our decision-making processes.
  • History has proven to us that (1) we must maintain our institutions rather than follow big issues in order to remain stable and (2) that we must place a high value on the moral and civic order of our nation if we are to successfully address pressing issues like the environmental issues of today.

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