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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Celebrating Earth Day The Free Market Way

    There is a dangerous and false dichotomy between the environmental movement and the conservative-libertarian philosophy in modern day America. Go ahead and turn on the radio, surf through the popular blogs or watch the major TV networks and you’ll get the same message: the right wing doesn’t care about environmental issues and the left does. Republicans don’t believe that man-made climate change is a problem, or refuse to believe it exists at all, while Democrats believe that only government intervention can save the world from imminent disaster.

    The worst part is that both sides are responsible for playing themselves into these roles. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard Rush Limbaugh proudly proclaim that its his right as an American to happily waste gasoline in his SUV. On the other side, leading NASA climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, has said that global warming denialists should be “tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.”

    However, the free-market libertarians are not so far in their philosophy from the environmental movement as even their own members would have us believe. Environmentalism, in essence, is the idea that humans need to reduce their impact on natural ecological forces, a type of laissez faire mentality that libertarians also preach about spontaneously occurring economic forces. The typical environmentalist concern is that players in a free market are too self-interested to produce results that are ecologically beneficial. People will readily give up environmental concerns when there is a profit to be made.

    While this concern is valid in principle, environmentalists too often forget that the self-interest which powers free markets in an economy is the same self-interest which governs the biological players of ecological networks. This is the Darwinian drive to survive and reproduce that governs all organisms, from bacteria to people. And it is due to self-interested behavior that enabled the evolution a group of organisms to be ecologically successful on a massive scale.

    Human evolution has produced a species that can cooperate on massive scales, improving the Darwinian fitness over non-human animals by orders of magnitude. By looking after everyone’s “genes” we greatly improve our own chances at reproductive success.

    The result of this evolution is built into the basic tenants of modern democratic governments — the protection of life, liberty and property. These principles tell us that no person can deny these unalienable rights to anyone else. Freedom must be preserved for the individual, and that any activity which violates someone else’s basic rights will not be tolerated. Self-interested behavior, when it is exploitative of another, is an act of violation.

    Have I said anything that any environmentalist or free marketeer would disagree with yet?

    The free market works because a person’s right to property is protected. This is why competition in the marketplace produces innovation and lowers costs, rather than generating the violence that you see elsewhere in the animal kingdom. The environment is protected from careless harm by the same protections of property. I could not dump toxic wastes into my neighbors property without getting sued, fined and probably jailed. Pumping chemicals into areas of common property, such as the atmosphere, holds similar punishments. Even if one’s action doesn’t seem to harm another person, ecological degradation is a violation of nature’s right to exist free from interference and to live “happily.”

    We should not be afraid of humans acting in self-interest as long as basic rights are protected. In fact, it is through self-interested behavior, the shameless desire to profit, by which technologies and products will become available and cost-effective to consumers. Environmentalists frequently call for alternative energies, greenhouse gas scrubbers, toxin-eating bacteria, cheap solar panels, gas-less vehicles and a whole host of ecologically friendly technology. How will these innovations come about if not for a free and competitive market?

    Aside, from these few basic protections of right to property and pursuit of happiness — which should be enforced more stringently than they are – the government need not apply external incentives for people or businesses to pursue environmental protectionism. These, which take the form of special subsidies or projects such as carbon trading, often come with unintended consequences.

    Unlike general, and universally-applied, protection of civil liberties, other types of incentives, which tend to distort normal market signals, come about to benefit private interest because they are lobbied for by special interests. In contrast to the protection of liberties, special incentives take money from the taxpayers — thus violating economic freedom — to benefit a specific industry.

    Furthermore, the consequence of doing this often comes to the opposite end as the original intent. For example, subsidies funded by the taxpayers, to corn farmers give incentives to produce ethanol for biofuel. However, corn is one of the most inefficient sources of ethanol production and can only be supported by government grants. The result is that ethanol for biofuels is more expensive and the corn supply available for food production decreases, making food more expensive. The taxpayers, in essence, are paying to make ethanol and food more expensive. Meanwhile, more efficient sources of ethanol production, such as algae farming, goes under-utilized because the farm lobby in Washington is too strong. The call for environmentalism is hindered by big government.

    Consider, also, the following case. Four years ago, Congress passed a law to encourage industries to blend biofuels with fossil fuels to power their plants. However, pulp producers, a necessary ingredient of paper products, were already using a biofuel called black liquor, a wood byproduct, for fuel. Under the incentives provided in this law, the companies realized that they could get money from the government by blending diesel fuel into their sustainable biofuels. $6 billion and four years later, in a NY Times report, Congress is only now trying to dump or amend the legislation, to eliminate the profit windfall.

    The inevitable response from Congress and the mainstream presses is to decry the greed of these companies and miss the true culprit in all of this. While humans have always and will always act out of self interest, and self-interest is responsible for human cooperation and economic success, reactive government legislation that fails to supply the ends it means to is a relatively new phenomenon. Governments are good at protecting individual and natural rights, but bad at improving general conditions by providing for the special interests. Even if the intent is not sinister, the effort is counter-productive and the ends abysmal.

    The need to involve big government, to protect the environment through pin-point legislation, and create punishments through finger-pointing is counter-intuitive to the need to protect individual rights. It assumes that people don’t want a healthy environment and that the market can’t produce ecologically-friendly solutions. This simply isn’t true and isn’t supported by the facts. People are fine with reusing their fabric shopping bags and there is a market for purchasing carbon credits, even in our current economic environment.

    If the globe is in trouble from carbon dioxide emissions, prove it in a court of law. Then, I would support fines for companies based on their specific emissions output in their particular environment. We can and should be punishing those who destroy natural property, but not rewarding special interest groups for being unable to compete in a market.

    The environmentalists have a lot to learn from the free-market ideology. And, just as importantly, the right wing needs to read up on their political philosoph
    y and understand that nature and its ecosystems deserve the protection of its property every bit as much as its people.

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