Policy for the Environment, Not Government

Given a choice, the environmental left will choose government over solving what it claims are urgent environmental challenges. The case of Washington state’s recent, failed I-732 ballot measure demonstrates this point. The ballot measure would have resulted in a net tax cut by pricing carbon while cutting sales and business taxes. But when faced with a free-market, non-regulatory solution to the environmental left’s cause célèbre, carbon reduction, they recoiled in horror because the solution failed to increase the power of the state.

The author of I-732 correctly notes the left’s opposition was due to an unyielding desire to tie everything to bigger government.” Non-regulatory approaches to environmental challenges that do not raise taxes ultimately reduce government power, making free-market solutions anathema to the left. Examples are legion in the I-732 context.

“A revenue-neutral carbon tax leaves the government with nothing,” decried anti-capitalist crusader Naomi Klein during the left’s campaign against I-732. Seattle-based Climate Solutions opposed I-732 because it did not increase spending on “infrastructure and services to address the health and environmental impacts of fossil fuel pollution.” Another left-wing group opposed I-732 because “government is an essential tool for progressive change.” The environmental left would rather expand the government than embrace a solution to what is, apparently, its climate change hyperbole.

What lessons can policymakers glean from the left’s fear of the revenue-neutral, non-regulatory approach to environmental policy? Conservatives must cease allowing the left to co-opt environmental protection for the dubious purpose of government expansion. The conservative approach to environmental challenges is traditionally to fight the ever expanding regulatory state, winning occasionally, but losing ground over time. The result is an incremental increase in the size of government and erosion of private property rights. As long as environmental protection is synonymous in the minds of the public and some politicians with regulation, this slow retreat will continue.

The environmental left raised the stakes with its defeat of I-732. A new, market-based environmental ethic is imperative.  Waiting for the political pendulum to return to the center-left will result in state control of private property through the guise of environmental protection. Fortunately, there is a thoughtful guide for a new ethic coming from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization whose membership is comprised of state legislators committed to limited government, free markets, and federalism.

Much of rural America, truly wild ecological spaces, is represented by conservatives or ALEC members who recognize its value for the economy and for the nation’s soul. The ALEC principles of sound environmental management recognize the best solutions to real environmental challenges are collaborative and based in a respect for property rights. From the successful property rights approach that is helping fishermen around the world, to cooperative approaches that pay landowners to provide wildlife habitat instead of punish them as the Endangered Species Act does, cooperative and property rights solutions are economically and environmentally successful.

ALEC principles note, “Free markets are the most effective way to make efficient use of natural resources and reduce waste.” The principle recognizes the cost of natural resources is best determined via a market price signal, which provides the incentive for innovation that will provide the necessary supply of natural resources or will find substitutes.

The left will continue to agitate on environmental issues, hoping they can be used to expand government. By substituting market approaches, we can protect taxpayers by avoiding ballooning bigger government.  We cannot be trapped into downplaying the importance of environmental beauty because we fear how the left will use it. Conservatives surround themselves with nature and we should be proud to embrace the stewardship ethic we live every day.

Too often, however, we avoid environmental issues discussions, fearing any expression of support for the environment leads inexorably to bigger government. By beginning a broader discussion that harnesses property rights and market solutions, more voices will join in, and seek a better future for us all.

Todd Myers is the Director of the Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center and Sarah E. Hunt is the Director of the Center for Innovation and Technology and leads the Center’s Energy Innovation Project at the American Legislative Exchange Council.


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