As America begins to address the problems of the 21st century, few issues loom as large or as contentious as environmental policy. The debate, however, is not new: it builds on policy debates on the environment that evolved throughout the 20th century.
During that century, two different policy attitudes dominated. In the first half, the focus was on promotional policies. The role of government, it was argued, was to “assist” in the rapid development of resources—forests, minerals, energy, and water. Government would either own or regulate these “national” resources, and taxpayers would subsidize their development.
The results of these interventionist policies were detrimental to the environment. Lawmakers tended to neglect both the risks and the costs of such development. Whether the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Bonneville Power Administration, subsidized grazing and forestry, or unsustainable western water policies, government programs emphasized expanded supply—regardless of costs to the environment and to society.
Partly as a reaction to these problems, precautionary policies dominated the second half of the century. These policies tended to focus on preserving and conserving everything and to emphasize the value of the status quo over change. That emphasis led to the enactment of the Endangered Species Act and to the establishment of wilderness areas, nonattainment policies, smart growth, and other antidevelopment programs, as well as to a general disregard for the impact of such programs on local economic conditions.
America is ready for an integrative environmental vision. In The Environmental Source, the Competitive Enterprise Institute outlines steps that would advance that vision. The magnitude of this reform, however, cannot be underestimated: thoughtful analyses and effective communications strategies will be essential.
Many policy proposals have focused on elements such as cost-benefit analyses, sound science, and risk assessment. To the American public, however, these approaches often seem cold and uncaring. Reformers are asked, “How can you put a price tag on the environment? Don’t you care about the children?” Technocratic answers to these concerns cause policymakers to appear out of touch and, on occasion, even heartless.
Yet there is a morally defensible, principled vision—one that appeals to American values without sacrificing free-market principles or environmental ideals. Taking the environment seriously means also taking private property and other market institutions seriously.