Private Property Rights, Not Ideologies, Are the Crux. (Controversy)

By Shaw, Jane S. | Independent Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Private Property Rights, Not Ideologies, Are the Crux. (Controversy)


Shaw, Jane S., Independent Review


Stephen M. Colarelli offers a provocative argument. He claims that conservatives and liberals tend to be true to their principles except when it comes to the environment, at which point they switch sides. With respect to environmental matters, "conservatives are liberal, and liberals are conservative," he says.

The reader soon discovers that Colarelli is not simply drawing a symmetrical picture of the foibles of human nature. His goal is to persuade conservatives to change their positions on environmental issues. "How can conservatives, who value tradition in the social world, be blind to the tradition in the environment?" he asks. "How can they respect the integrity of social ecosystems, yet disrespect the integrity of natural ecosystems?"

The paradox that Colarelli has identified contains a nugget of truth. Its validity depends, however, on a dramatic redefinition of environmental problems and humans' relationship with nature. In addition, Colarelli's essay is flawed by an emphasis on attitudes and ideologies when, in fact, environmental decisions reflect the incentives people face.

Consider the paradox first. Colarelli is right to say that liberals have become conservatives in their desire to keep nature from changing. However, they remain true to their historical positions in their willingness to intervene in people's lives. They do not hesitate to reduce human freedom in the pursuit of a higher goal--in this case, keeping nature "as is."

Liberals have become conservative about nature because they consider the environment "different." They think that it is inviolate and must be protected at all costs (although others generally pay most of the costs). Yes, this "hands-off" policy goes against the grain of a liberal outlook, as Colarelli claims, but he implies that this inconsistency is a heroic one. When it comes to the environment, the rules that apply in society should be reexamined and perhaps even jettisoned for the protection of nature.

When one looks a little deeper than Colarelli does, however, the conservatives prove to be more consistent than the liberals. The conservative approach to nature seems to be at odds with its traditional positions only because Colarelli redefines environmental protection to be tantamount to the preservation of nature untouched.

Although Colarelli starts out with a good grasp of the differences of principle between conservatives and liberals, he slips away from this clarity and gradually begins to describe as "conservative" any environmental position that differs from his. He says flatly: "Conservatives oppose preservation of the environment." They are "blind to the interconnectedness of natural ecosystems." Their goal is "getting rid of laws and regulations that restrict people's pursuit of self-interest." The conservative whom I defend, however, is not this concatenation of stereotypes. Rather, it is the Hayekian, free-market conservative who respects the liberty of others and recognizes the harm that comes from restrictions on liberty. This conservatism, increasingly known as free-market environmentalism, is a framework for analysis based on principle.

Free-market environmentalists do not consider the environment to be radically different from other realms of human experience. They see nature as a place of human action. Only humans make decisions about the treatment of nature; nature itself makes no conscious choices. Dealing with nature is a social activity, like virtually all activities in which humans engage. Human action is guided by laws and customs developed over centuries, and governments should not arbitrarily intervene in those decisions without a strong reason. The free-market environmentalist is consistent in wanting to avoid excessive coercive intervention in human activities, including those affecting the natural environment.

To free-market environmentalists, it is not inherently wrong to use grassland to raise cattle or to dig underground for mineral ores, although there may be something wrong with doing so in specific instances.

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Private Property Rights, Not Ideologies, Are the Crux. (Controversy)
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