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.”