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June 14, 2024Original Analysis

Invisible Hand as Conservationist: The Power of The Market to Protect the Environment

While the efficiency of the free market is very often accepted in the realm of industry, the environment is often used as an example of the government’s necessary role in the economy. Public goods are used as an example of the problems with market allocation. Short-sighted business owners are apparently unable to see or account for the full effects of their actions, and they end up damaging the environment irreparably. Much more often, government programs are both improperly motivated and ineffective at preventing pollution. However, strong and transparent private property rights may be the most effective safeguard of the environment. 

The problem with the standard governmental solution begins with motivation. Politicians who could be indifferent towards or even actively against environmental concerns are tasked with effectively solving and enacting environmental solutions. Their lack of interest can either manifest in open inaction or apparent environmentalism masking other motives. Motivation is also difficult because ideally, a government official would like the support of all constituents for an environmental decision, which is always impossible. Citizens who disagree with a specific environmental policy will be angered when they feel that their tax money is being spent without consent, often causing them to feel an odd sense of animosity towards the natural world. Politicians feeling that they can neither solve environmental problems nor make citizens happy will often end up doing neither. Government action has far too many motivations to effectively solve the relational problem between man and his environment.

Government action is also not effective even when its efforts are concerted towards environmental protection. The common model of taking over a park or recreational area to preserve it and make it free has had many harmful effects on the beauty and vitality of the natural world. Governmentally provided free opportunities are often simply opportunities for abuse. Parks that would have limited entry in the past have now become campgrounds for drug addicts. Streams begin to run dark because there is no effective limit on visitors to public lands. Even hiking can become invasive if too many people partake. Soil erosion and the damage of automobile exhaust become exacerbated by millions taking advantage of the free experience provided to them.

National parks have the barrier of relatively far distance from larger hubs of population, but city parks provide the clearest example of this abuse. The tragedy of the commons, a supposedly free-market problem, rears its ugly head with incredible power when trash and pollution overtake “protected” parks. Even when these problems are fought against, the solutions are often too little and too late. Cities may clean up a public park for a festival or other temporary event, but there is often not enough incentive to discover the root cause of the pollution. Public servants are often already overworked, they have no mental energy or resources to prevent future pollution.

The free market can solve the motivation problem at the root of environmental destruction. If the individual who is responsible for the maintenance of a resource also owns that resource, they will be much less likely to let it deteriorate as the government has often shown itself to do. Even if they had no interest in the environment, a moderate level of intelligence would let them recognize that others greatly value a beautiful natural space. An example of this is Great Britain’s fishing rights system. Individuals can buy and sell fishing rights to specific places within the system of British lakes and streams. The owner of those fishing rights has the legal right to sue the creator of any pollution they find in their streams. Many of these rights-holders bound together can create powerful legal challenges to businesses that choose to pollute. The threat of this effective punishment disincentivizes business owners from polluting, thus securing the clean water of Great Britain. This principle of individual ownership provides stronger advocates for nature than the most well-funded government programs.

The best thing that government can do to ensure the protection of nature is to create a clear and simple system that enumerates property rights. Individual guardians of nature have and will continue to arise when they know explicitly what they own, and what they do not. This principle is little more than an acceptance of humanity’s own limits. The idea that governmental control can supersede all regular considerations and create protection for all of nature is simply foolish. Private control and property rights are nature’s best hope because they let many individuals control what is within their power. Conservation is done best when it recognizes the limits in humanity’s time, ability, and motivation.

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