Although it is not often talked about today, the movement toward federal protection of the environment first took root in the Republican Party. Teddy Roosevelt was a firm believer in environmental protection, and for half a century, conservatism and conservation shared more than the same root word. The reason was simple: The GOP leaders believed that an important part of property rights was the principle that no one had the right to pollute someone else’s private property or public property.
Even as recently as the 1970s, the environment was not a partisan issue. It was Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency, and the original versions of our current Clean Air and Clean Water acts were products of the Nixon administration.
Today, however, the landscape seems to have changed. Republicans, as the party of free markets, have made it their mission to reduce the role of government (and rightfully so, in my opinion). But with this, some in the party are pushing to severely scale back federal efforts to protect public and private environmental resources, and I believe these efforts are largely misguided.
Markets are great distributors of wealth, but they are not designed to allocate or protect resources which nobody owns. You would never allow your neighbor to dump garbage on your land, and you would use the common law to prevent this. But only government can protect air, water and wildlife from similar abuse.
Strangely, however, most of today’s environmental questions are portrayed in terms of environmental protection versus property rights, forgetting that the original reason for environmental laws is the protection of private and public property from environmental degradation. This does a significant disservice to the issue.
This is not to say that there aren’t examples where environmental laws or regulations go too far. There are several examples where laws or regulations have put an undue burden on landowners or businesses whose actions would have little or no effect on the environment; these incidents have undoubtedly fueled much of the frustration that some people feel with environmental law. And it is our job in Congress to find those regulations and modify or repeal them.
But it is wrong to say that federal protection for wetlands, for example, is an abuse of property rights. Every time someone develops a wetland near the Chesapeake Bay, they increase pollution runoff, adversely affecting water quality and wildlife. In the aggregate, this reduces the property values of everyone living around the Bay. It reduces fish and shellfish populations, further damaging a seafood industry that is already reeling. When the environmental quality of the Bay suffers, the important travel and tourism industry (a major employer in the region) suffers. And finally, a publicly owned resource which has been called a national treasure, is damaged. In recognition of the inter-related nature of the property rights involved, we have passed laws regulating the development of wetlands.
If we are to achieve consensus on environmental questions, we have to begin from the premise that environmental laws must involve a painstaking effort to balance the property rights of everyone involved and not forget public property in the equation. Obviously, we are obligated to minimize the pain for people who are subjected to regulation, and we cannot ignore the universal benefit of economic activity and economic growth.
If we can agree on this basic premise, then we can proceed to balance the various interests involved in crafting environmental laws that provide maximum economic opportunity with minimal environmental degradation, and maximum freedom to use private land with minimum adverse impact on other private and public property.
If we cannot agree on this, then the environmental debate will probably continue as it exists today, with one side mostly deaf to the arguments for protecting the environment, and the other side largely indifferent to the interests of the regulated community. We will have a lot of hyperbole and name-calling, bumper stickers and rhetoric, and very little reasoned debate. Environmentalists will, in some cases, fight to preserve environmental laws that provide little in the way of environmental benefits, and development interests will fight even the most reasonable and obvious efforts to increase environmental protection. And we will continue to have excessive regulation in some areas, and insufficient protection in others.
There are many challenges before the new Republican majority in the 104th Congress, and environmental protection is high among them. And I know that there is a strong urge to overreact to stories of environmental regulation by repealing or gutting many environmental statutes — to legislate by anecdote — and to do so in the name of property rights. It is my hope that Congress can instead find a way toward the center of the environmental debate, toward a policy of balancing all of the interests involved. To my Republican friends and colleagues, I must emphasize that Teddy Roosevelt is watching us. Let’s put conservation back into conservatism.