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
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
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
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
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
Agenda 21, and imposed on the United States through Bill
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
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