By Ashford, Nigel
Review - Institute of Public Affairs , Vol. 53, No. 1
The debate on the environment has fallen into a classic good guys/bad guys routine. Businessmen and women are presented as greedy and selfish, while politicians, bureaucrats and their `green' allies, seeking more control and regulation over the land, are presented as selfless devotees of the public interest. This false dichotomy is now to be exposed by George W. Bush. His standard-bearer for a very different vision to conserve the earth is Gale Norton, his Secretary of the Interior, responsible for the 25 per cent of America owned by the Federal Government, mainly in the west.
Norton stated 'I am a conservative and a conservationist .... My number one priority will be the protection of America's natural resources'. She believes that the government is a poor conservationist and that the earth is better protected by private owners. This stands in direct contrast to the Clinton Administration which brought ever more acres into government ownership and became ever more restrictive of any economic activity on federal lands. Inability to conceive of an alternative approach can be seen in the comment by `USA Today' that `protecting the environment isn't going to be the priority for George W Bush. The Sierra Club, the biggest 'green' lobby, declared that 'Gale Norton would be a natural disaster as Interior Secretary'.
What does she believe that is so scary to traditional thinking? That both theory and practice demonstrate that government is a poor defender of the environment and that private owners are much more likely to conserve the land. Why? Because of incentives and information. The tragedy of the English commons was that as no-one owned it, people had an incentive to use the land for their own cattle or sheep without regard to damage to the soil. It was those who were selfish who obtained the greatest benefit from common land. It was everyone else who bore the costs. This problem was not solved until the commons came under private ownership. The second reason is the lack of knowledge by govern, ment decision-makers about the specific circumstances of particular places. A `one size fits all' policy is totally inappropriate.
These theories are supported by plenty of empirical evidence. The terrible forest fires that broke out in the west in 2000 were considerably exacerbated by the policies of the Clinton Administration. …