Mackinac Center analyst defends free-market environmentalism

Mackinac Center analyst defends free-market environmentalism

Jason Hayes of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy lec­tures on free-market envi­ron­men­talism. Jason Hayes | Courtesy

Free-market sup­porters are con­sis­tently char­ac­terized by the media as desiring the destruction of the natural world, Jason Hayes, director of envi­ron­mental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy said in a lecture entitled “Free Market Envi­ron­men­talism” on Oct. 5.

In his pre­sen­tation, which was hosted by Hillsdale College’s Young Amer­icans for Freedom, Hayes described the core values the Mackinac Center upholds as a state-based free market think tank.

“We look at markets instead of man­dates and pro­tecting property rights instead of pro­hi­bi­tions,” Hayes said. “What typ­i­cally happens is envi­ron­mental groups or your pro­gressive friends will tell you that markets and envi­ron­ments don’t go together.”

He empha­sized that the worldview of any group or think tank will influence the policy pre­scrip­tions they support.

“There are two world­views that guide the way envi­ron­mental action works,” Hayes said. “First, there’s the ‘human first’ view. It’s a util­i­tarian con­ser­vation mindset that’s per­son­ified by someone like Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the United States Forest Service.”

Then there is the “nature first” view, per­son­ified by the “father of the national parks,” John Muir.

“It was like he wanted to win souls for the natural envi­ronment,” Hayes said. “A lot of pro­gressive-leaning envi­ron­mental groups have this sort of John Muir-style attitude: ‘We’re pro­tecting nature because it’s inher­ently valuable, not because people need it.’”

To demon­strate the wide variety of interests in envi­ron­mental policy, Hayes asked audience members to dis­tin­guish which envi­ronment, out of four pic­tures ranging from downtown New York City to a short­grass prairie, was “best” eco­log­i­cally.

“For one person, the ‘best’ is pristine wilderness,” Hayes said. “For somebody else, it’s land you can use for fac­tories.”

Hayes, however, sug­gested a way to unite these sep­arate interests: free market envi­ron­men­talism. He ref­er­enced the book “Free Market Envi­ron­men­talism for the Next Gen­er­ation” by Terry Anderson and Donald Leal, founders of a similar envi­ron­mental policy non­profit, the Political Economy Research Center (PERC).

“The idea Anderson and Leal pre­sented is that you harness market forces to improve envi­ron­mental quality — to tackle chal­lenging problems in the envi­ronment,” he said. “To do that, you need to rec­ognize the value of indi­vidual decision-making, property rights, and vol­untary trade.”

He drew the com­parison between the ease of local col­lab­o­ration between dif­ferent property owners and the dif­ficult climb up the leg­islative ladder to make changes.

“This is some­thing the guys at PERC call political envi­ron­men­talism,” Hayes said. “If you have a problem, you settle that dispute with laws, reg­u­la­tions, and lit­i­gation. But the reality is that property is an asset. If you own some­thing, you have an incentive to take care of it.”

Junior Carl Miller, pres­ident of Young Amer­icans for Freedom, sought clar­i­fi­cation for sit­u­a­tions in which going to leg­is­lators is the only option. He gave the example of nuclear power.

“How do we lobby our leg­is­lators to con­vince folks that this is a really smart idea to do, par­tic­u­larly if we’re worried about climate change and air and water pol­lution?” Miller said.

In response to a similar question, Hayes sug­gested that advo­cates for nuclear power must high­light — from an engi­neering per­spective — what con­cerns the public the most: safety.

“Fukushima got hit by the four horsemen of the apoc­a­lypse before it had a problem,” he said. “Even if nobody is paying attention to it, a new Gen­er­ation IV machine will safely shut down on its own.”

Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Eco­nomics Charles Steele attended the lecture.“I spent a summer at PERC as a graduate fellow,” he said. “I had hoped to do my doc­toral dis­ser­tation on envi­ron­mental problems under Soviet central planning, but it didn’t really turn into a dis­ser­tation — partly because it was so foreign to people.”

According to Steele, that makes him all the more grateful for Hayes’s speech, as it put together the ideas of free market envi­ron­men­talism so suc­cinctly.

“It sounded exactly like the stuff we talk in eco­nomics and at PERC,” he said. “You have incen­tives and systems that lead to good out­comes.”