Right on Green: In Search of Authentic Free-market Environmentalism (Book review, ‘Responsibility & Resilience: What the Environment Means to Conservatives’)
“Conservative Me Too-ism is well represented in Responsibility & Resilience, at times almost to the point of tedium. The two American politicians with entries in the volume – former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg – are not exactly known as movement conservatives. And their entries do not disappoint.”
For many people, “conservative environmentalism” sounds oxymoronic. Since the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s, the Left has mostly managed to claim the moral high ground. They get to be for clean air, clean water, and saving the whales; for harmony with nature; and against pollution, deforestation, species extinction, and other bad things.
In response, conservatives have often let themselves be cast as the heavy in the Left’s morality tale, stuck talking about cost-benefit analyses and questioning whether low level exposure to some unpronounceable chemical compound is really so bad. But while these arguments and intellectually sounds and even controlling, they sound cold and bloodless.
The idea of a “conservative environmentalist” can raise skeptical hackles from those on the Right as well. All too often, self-described conservative environmentalists have quickly devolved into Me Too-ism, in which liberal policy prescriptions are simply repackaged as conservative, with an occasional quote from Burke or Hayek thrown in for flavoring.
Yet there is also a tradition of authentic free-market environmentalism, represented by such notables as Terry Anderson, Julian Simon, Bruce Yandle, and Robert Gordon. They have sought to use free market principles and insights to address and solve pressing environmental concerns.
Fake Free-Market Environmentalism
Both of these traditions–Me Too-ism and Free Market Environmentalism–are present in Responsibility & Resilience: What the Environment means to Conservatives. This book, recently released by the British Conservative Environment Network, is a collection of short essays examining the relationship between conservative and environmentalist ideas.
“Conservative” Me Too-ism is well represented in Responsibility & Resilience, at times almost to the point of tedium. The two American politicians with entries in the volume – former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg – are not exactly known as movement conservatives. And their entries do not disappoint.
Schwarzenegger, for example, offers the insightful argument that to avoid economic instability, the “one-legged stool” of economic growth needs to be replaced by a “four legged stool” consisting of jobs, national security, health, and climate change. What this means is not entirely clear, but it seems to have something to do with the government paying people to put solar panels on their roofs.
As for Mayor Bloomberg, after extolling all the wonderful green initiatives that he implemented in New York, Bloomberg finally concedes that “government doesn’t have all the answers.” Bloomberg’s example of a non-governmental solution? Citi Bike, a “public-private partnership” bike sharing program.
The reader is also treated to essays extolling the environmental record of Richard Nixon (also not a conservative), arguments for cap-and-trade on Coasian grounds, and a number of pieces by energy company executives steeped in management-speak.
A Better Way
Occasionally, though, real insight does emerge. The best of the contributions is the opening essay by British philosopher Roger Scruton, who makes the case against an international climate treaty succinctly:
Treaties are advanced as the only solution to mega-problems such as climate change. Yet of the big polluters, only the United States would obey an emissions treaty. Doing so would not only cripple its economy but deprive it of the energy needed for scientific research into a new energy source, the discovery of which we are all praying for. The only safety for the world will come when this great advance takes places in America and is made available around the world – to China and India in particular.
Scruton also notes the push for climate action may not have the purest of motives: “I suspect that the Left-environmentalist insistence on a global treaty has further negative motive – to punish America and those big businesses on which the American economy ultimately depends.”
The collection also includes an informative essay by Kathryn Murdoch on how markets have been used to help restore fisheries, as well as an intriguing, albeit vague, essay by Michael Liebreich on helping renewable energy by removing government subsidies and mandates. “Feed-in tariffs are nothing less than state price controls,” Liebreich stated. “Renewable energy targets are indistinguishable from Soviet five year plans.”
Whatever the shortcomings of Responsibility & Resilience, the book speaks to a real demand for free market responses to environmental issues. It’s an economic commonplace that people tend to take better care of things they own. There is a reason why cattle, unlike the buffalo, are not at risk of extinction.
Entrepreneurship, innovation, and response to consumer demand have historically proven to be much better at meeting people’s needs than government command and control. That is as true when it comes to environmental goals as when it comes to economic goals. While new technologies and increased efficiency contributed to massive declines in harmful pollutants in the U.S., the old Soviet Union created some of the world’s greatest environmental calamities.
The free market is such a superior system, that oftentimes it can beat government regulation without even trying. In 2009, the U.S. Congress declined to pass a massive cap and trade bill. Yet the U.S. is now on track to meet the reduction targets contained in the Kyoto Protocol not through any government action, but through ordinary market developments. By contrast, the European Union’s cap and trade scheme has been beset by numerous problems.
Despite a sound theoretical and empirical case, many are reluctant to apply market principles, as well as Public Choice insights into government failure to environmental policy. Today, more than one billion people lack access to clean drinking water and reliable electricity. This is not because of industrial pollution, but because those services are provided by corrupt government-run monopolies.
There’s a reason millions in the developing world have cell phones (a late 20th Century technology) but not reliable electricity (a late 19th Century technology). One is provided chiefly by the market, while the other is provided (or not provided) chiefly by government.
This must change. Conservatives and libertarians should not be afraid to stake out the moral high ground on environmental issues, and to show how their principles can produce a positive vision that is both environmentally friendly and authentically free market.
Efforts such as the Heritage Foundation’s American Conservation Ethic project show that this can be done. Much of Responsibility & Resilience falls short in this respect. But the existence of Me Too-ism needn’t discourage liberty lovers from developing their own solutions.
Josiah Neeley is a Policy Analyst in the Armstrong Center on Energy & the Environment, as well as a Policy Analyst for the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies, both with the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Neeley has a B.A. in Government and Philosophy from the University of Texas and a J.D. from the Notre Dame Law School. He can be reached at email@example.com.