Politics & Policy

Will Liberty Go Extinct?

Environmental regulation threatens economic freedom.

Today marks the 38th anniversary of Earth Day, and left-leaning environmentalist activists have reason to celebrate. Over the course of nearly four decades, environmental regulation has grown by leaps and bounds. Research conducted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute shows that environmental lawmaking has proven to be the leading area of government lawmaking activity for decades.

For those who value liberty and free enterprise, these trends should be disturbing. Surely, we all want a healthy environment, but environmental regulation has become synonymous with “command-and-control” regulation. While truly free market solutions exist that could work better than command-and-control, these approaches have never seriously been on the table in Washington, D.C.

Market-like policies, such as cap-and-trade regulatory systems, earn the support of some greens. These may represent a more flexible to way to regulate, but they are also used to expand government control over economic activity. In the global-warming area, cap-and-trade could become part of a massive new regulation and wealth redistribution scheme covering economic activity worldwide.

An analysis of all the public laws passed between 1970 and 2005 shows environmental policymaking to be the leading area of lawmaking (excluding symbolic legislation). Further analysis shows that the overwhelming majority of these laws had significant impacts (and many quite major) and an overwhelming majority advance government controls on the economy, land use, and individuals.

We’ve seen few serious challenges to the scope of these laws. Despite the fact that Republicans — supposed advocates of free enterprise — had control of Congress for numerous since 1994, as well as eight years in the White House, reform of environmental laws that would make them more flexible have largely failed. When Republicans took Congress in 1995, proposals to pass regulatory reform, confirm property rights, and curb regulatory excesses were essentially dead-on-arrival. Green hype had made them politically untenable.

Of the substantial bills that have passed under Republican leadership, the trend continues leftward. For example, a federal reform of pesticides legislation in 1996 made the law even more stringent, leading to removal of many valuable products from the marketplace. Similarly, the 1996 reforms to the Safe Drinking Water Act allowed bureaucrats to ratchet up tap water regulations — costing small communities billions in return for little benefit. In 2002, President Bush’s so called “brownfield bill” — which was supposed to help promote urban revitalization by restoring abandoned properties — increased federal involvement in an area that is much better left to local governments and private parties.

The only legislation that now receives serious consideration are bills advanced by the greens. Pending on the Hill is a bill that would “reform” the Clean Water Act in a way that would essentially give the feds power not only over “navigable” waters, but all “waters of the United States.” Basically, that would give D.C. bureaucrats the power to regulate every indentation on the ground that collects water, as well as swimming pools, rain barrels, even buckets of water in your backyard.

Even when legislation stalls, greens still win. Consider the Endangered Species Act (ESA): or the past two decades, environmental activists have successfully defeated efforts to compensate property owners for financial losses produced by ESA regulations. By preventing reform, greens have facilitated continued expansion of ESA via executive-branch regulation. The executive has more than doubled the number of species listed, from 564 in 1990 to and 1,269 in 2005.

ESA’s regulatory scope also grew with the increased listing of specific areas of land labeled “critical habitats” that are regulated more closely under the act. The amount of land designated as critical habitat has grown every year, exploding under President George W. Bush. In fact, the Bush administration has finalized more habitat designations than all other administrations combined — more than doubling the total number. Greens forced such action by court order.

ESA is but one example of the many laws that continue to expand environmental regulation without any congressional action. CEI research shows that environmental regulations comprise nearly 30 percent of all economically significant regulations submitted for regulatory review since the review process began in 1981, making it the largest area of regulation by this measure.

Environment is the second largest category of federal agency spending (after Homeland Security), according to data collected by the Mercatus Institute. It is also the fastest growing area of agency spending: between 1960 and 1981, environmental spending (adjusted for inflation in 2000 dollars) grew by 7,372 percent followed by homeland-security-related spending, which grew by 2,089 percent.

Somehow, greens still find reason to complain. In particular, they complain that they have not been able to secure passage of global-warming legislation in Congress. That is likely to change, since all three presidential hopefuls support global-warming legislation.

A key reason for the greens success is that they have not only some powerful symbols — like bald eagles and polar bears — they have the money, as a quick review of IRS documents shows. In 2005, the reported income for just three activist environmental groups totals about $300 million — over $76 million for the Natural Resources Defense Council, over $67 million for Environmental Defense, and over $155 million for The Trust for Public Land — and there are dozens more groups with similarly large budgets.

Free-market public policy groups in Washington, D.C. spend a paltry sum by comparison, with only a handful devoting portions of their much smaller budgets to cover environmental issues — CEI reported $3.2 million in total 2005 revenue; the National Center for Public Policy Research reported $7.4 million in 2005; and the Marshall Institute, which reported $812,674 in 2005.

You’d think that free-market ideas would get lots of support from business. Think again. Businesses support their own causes — which often includes supporting regulations on their competition. In addition, many firms are focused on polishing up their green images, which includes supporting the Left. A 2006 report from the Capital Research Center shows Fortune 100 corporate foundations give overwhelmingly to liberal groups. In fact, in the sample year studied (2001), these corporate foundations gave 14 times more money to liberal causes than business-friendly ones. Even more surprising, environmental causes got the most funding, approximately 75 percent of the $60 million from 53 corporate foundations.

It is high time for advocates of liberty to rethink their approach and level of focus on the environment. Otherwise, in another few decades, we will the species gone extinct.

 – Angela Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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