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Balancing the environmental equation

By Henry Lamb
web posted January 6, 2003

Many of the letters I receive agree that we should not let environmental extremism destroy private property rights, but express frustration about how to find the right balance between environmental protection, and individual freedom.

The solution lies in the application of two fundamental principles: first, a free market is the most efficient method of balancing supply and demand; and second, individual freedom should be restricted only by the elected officials closest to the regulated community.

Environmental protection, after all, is a matter of balancing supply and demand. Environmentalists contend that the demand for resources is depleting the environment, and therefore, the environment must be protected artificially - through man-made use restrictions.

It is difficult for us to comprehend the environment as a commodity, subject to the same law of supply and demand that governs other markets. Our perspective is compressed by time and space. When we see a clear-cut on the side of a mountain, for example, it looks hideous, and we want to prevent it from happening again. We can't see what a free market - nature, if you will - would do with the area over time. We simply don't live long enough to see the result of what nature might do on its own, in this example.

When we look out across Atlanta, or travel the corridor between Washington D.C. and Boston, we see intense development, and want to prevent it from happening elsewhere. We can't see these areas in relation to their total global impact. We can't comprehend that nearly half the planet is still in wilderness, or that a full 95% of the total land area in the United States is undeveloped.

When Atlanta becomes "too" densely populated, or the commute from the suburbs to work becomes "too" long, the "market" will be less desirable, and the number of "buyers" will decrease.

When a handful of people believe they are wiser than the market, and decide to place artificial limits on the market, prices inevitably rise unnecessarily. Urban boundaries, for example, increase land prices inside the boundary, because the supply is limited. Where no urban boundaries exist, land prices are valued on the basis of what buyers choose to pay. Where there is no artificial boundary, open space around the city may be further from the city's core, but there will be open space out there.

Tinkering with the market, whether with urban boundaries, forced open space, land use restrictions, or designated "green-label" building products, will produce negative consequences. Unnecessarily higher prices is the first, most noticeable result. Much more serious, however, is the erosion of freedom, and the cost of lost opportunity.

The more people are told what they may and may not do, by the handful who believe they are wiser than the market, the less people will experiment in the pursuit of their own happiness. Ultimately, nature will prove that the handful of wisemen who think they know best, are fools, and the people will be ill-prepared to do what must be done.

No better example exists than the state of affairs in the former Soviet Union when the inevitable collapse came; the people had no idea how to construct a reliable economy for themselves, or for their nation. How much better would the people of Russia be today, had they, 70 years ago, rejected the "wisemen" who were sure they knew best how everyone else should live.

Those who argue that there must be regulation, will not likely be satisfied with the idea that if regulations are to be imposed, they should be imposed only by the elected officials closest to the regulated community.

The "smart growth" phenomenon that swept the country during the ‘90s did not arise simultaneously from all the local elected officials in all the communities around the country. The concept arose from a handful of international socialists, presented to the world through Agenda 21, and imposed on the United States through Bill Clinton's President's Council on Sustainable Development.

This process deliberately removes the policy-making, regulatory power from local elected officials, and imposes instead, uniform policies, enforced by the federal government through threats of denial, or promises of federal funds.

The wisemen who proclaim these policies say that they are necessary to "balance" the human footprint on the environment. In so doing, they claim a higher wisdom than a free market, and a higher wisdom than nature itself. Humbug!

What's worse, these policies cannot be corrected by the regulated community by simply electing new policy makers. These policies are made by unelected, self-appointed bureaucrats who have carefully shielded themselves from accountability. Local officials can only follow the mandates that come from the state and federal government.

Balance between human and non-human needs in our environment can be achieved most efficiently by allowing nature - and the free market - to function naturally, without the artificial manipulation of so-called environmental "wisemen." When regulation is deemed necessary by the regulated community, the regulations should be imposed only by elected officials, directly accountable to the regulated community.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization, and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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