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If Liberty Mattered — Once More, a Presidential Candidate’s Press Conference, Part 4

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Mother Jones: Mr. Candidate, in your opening statement, you made what surely must be one of the most irresponsible proposals ever heard from a candidate in this or any other presidential election. Can you really expect the American people to take you seriously when you propose to sell off practically all government-owned land, including national parks and wildlife preserves? Do you actually want to leave the environment to the shortsighted profit motive of the marketplace, in which the green of the dollar counts for more than the green of the fields?

The Candidate: Few issues have been more misunderstood and misrepresented than the problems of conservation and the environment. One of the most vital functions performed by a free-market economy is to assist in the economizing, caring for, and maintaining of those things which people value and which are very limited in supply. Nothing is a stronger force for conservation than the profit motive.

When a person is allowed to own something, he has an incentive to think twice before he wastes, misuses, or abuses it. If he does misuse or waste what he owns, he directly suffers the cost — he loses the benefits that could have been his if only he had showed more care for his property. And nothing is likely to result in greater abuse and misuse of something than when it belongs to nobody.

The tragedy of many of the policies advocated by those in the environmental movement is that they want to put control over the things that they consider most precious in the hands of those who have the least capability of making reasonable decisions about preserving those valued resources and rare gifts of nature. Government management and control of the environment is another example of that false trust in socialism that has led to so many disappointments in so many different parts of the world in our century. Indeed, in countries like Russia, which have borne the brunt of the socialist experiment in our times, the worst environmental disasters and conditions have been experienced.

What is worth preserving in nature? What are the best means and methods to care for it? Should we merely maintain what we have, or should we perhaps try to augment its amount? Have we set aside too much and, in fact, encroached too heavily on the attainment of other things we value, as well?

How are we to know the answers to these questions? Even the most die-hard environmentalist — unless he is one of those few extremists who would like to see man extinct in the belief that everything is worth preserving except the human race — believes that some land must also be used for residential housing, places of work, and non-wildlife recreation. To live, man must grow food, raise animals, and use resources for his clothing, his daily amenities of life, and his arts and sciences.

The advantage of leaving these problems to the marketplace is that it is then in the hands of the people themselves to decide these issues. People want more wildlife areas for aesthetic appreciation or recreational enjoyment? The greater demand for these things, as expressed in the prices that consumers are willing to pay for them, increases the profitability for owners of land and resources; thus, they use less of what they own for other purposes and instead shift their resources into these more highly valued uses; if owners fail to do so, they will miss out on the higher income they could be earning.

If an increased demand for housing and arts and crafts brings about an increased rate of deforestation, the remaining forests not yet touched by the woodchopper’s ax will rise in price because of their increasingly greater scarcity. This creates incentives on the part of forest owners to think ahead and replant trees at a greater rate, so that higher profits can be reaped in the future through harvesting or other uses valued by the general public. If urban areas begin encroaching on areas of natural beauty — and if members of the society value them enough to be willing to pay for their preservation in their untouched state — the market will see to it that ownership of these areas passes into the hands of these people because that is where the greatest monetary returns are to be gained.

Where are the pollution problems, the ecological imbalances, the seemingly excessive depletion of natural resources, and the destruction of areas of natural beauty? They are, invariably, in those places in society in which private-property rights have not been permitted to be developed or where the property rights in existence have not been clearly delineated so there are degrees of ambiguity as to what is mine and what is thine.

In many of these cases, the land and resources in question are either in a “no-man’s-land” of complete non-ownership or they are under the jurisdiction of the government. Non-ownership always produces what is known as “the tragedy of the commons.” Where there is no owner, there is no one upon whom falls the cost for every excessive misuse of a resource. And with no one directly feeling the cost of his actions — in the form of lost income or depleted resale value by not maintaining or better preserving the property — then everyone who has access to that ownerless resource will try to get as much out of it before someone else comes along and attempts to use it up before them.

Where the property rights are not clearly specified, people often will act in ways that do not take into consideration the full effect and costs of their actions upon others. In other words, blurry property rights result in resources and land being wrongly or excessively used in various ways because the user does not have to weigh in the balance and pay for all of the consequences of his actions upon others. It is not the profit motive but rather the less-than-clearly delineated property rights that causes people to act in environmentally undesirable ways, because they aren’t required to pay full costs for their resource-use decisions. This is the source of practically all the pollution problems that many people today are concerned about.

Where do too many of the most well-intentioned environmentalists turn for solutions to these problems? Unfortunately, they turn to the state. Yet, the state, precisely because it is not in the market-oriented, profit-making business, is the institution in the society least able to know how to handle these problems. Politicians running for office are concerned with the accumulation of votes from special-interest pressure groups. Bureaucrats who are delegated the authority to control and manage government-owned land and resources are concerned with bigger budgets and expanded power for themselves as part of their rationalization for remaining in existence. And special interests who lobby the state for environmental regulations and ownership by the government are interested in getting what they want at the expense of others in the society-others to whom they are unwilling to pay the real and full market price to get those others to use their land and resources in the ways that they, the environmental activists, would like to see it applied.

By politicizing environmental problems, the perverse result is to undermine the market’s quiet rational and reasonable mechanism for finding out what people really value in terms of the environment and what they are really willing to pay as the actual cost to get the things they say they desire. Instead, we have today a great deal of environmental chaos. It is precisely because I think that environmental problems are both serious and important that I advocate getting the government completely out of the environmental business and putting it back where it belongs — in the hands of the people themselves through private ownership and the competitive forces of the marketplace.

The New York Times: Mr. Candidate, given your out-of-the-mainstream views, can you really expect to attract more than a handful of ideological extremists like yourself? And aren’t you just helping to reinforce the already unhealthy negative attitude toward government that seems to be growing in society today?

The Candidate: I find your question interesting because I consider the views I’m offering to the American people to represent a philosophy of moderation. It is my opponents in the race for the presidency, both Democrat and Republican, who in my opinion represent the extremist approach to politics in America today.

On issue after issue, what do my opponents offer the American people? Government solutions of one type or another for the supposed problems of the day. Government solutions are inevitably monopoly solutions. The government taxes the people and then imposes on them one method for tackling the problem claimed to be crying for an answer. Or the government imposes one set of rules, regulations, and controls upon all the members of the society, to which they are then made to conform and obey.

Every government solution either prohibits or narrowly restricts the application of alternative means and methods for the solution of the problems of concern to various people in the country. What can be more extremist than to claim to have “the” answer?

The fundamental answer that I am offering the American people is that the solutions to the problems that confront or concern them will more likely be found if men are free to creatively compete in an open, unhampered arena of peaceful market interaction. In the market, no hierarchy of values is imposed on all, and no single method for solving a problem is imposed on everyone. Instead, the free society is a community of men tolerant of each person following his own path, guided by his own conception of the good and the worthwhile, and left uncoerced to make up his own mind about how best to pursue what is important to him through a network of diverse and ever-changing voluntary relationships and associations with his fellow human beings.

Am I espousing a “negative” attitude or message about government in society? Yes. But only as the opposite of the positive side of the same coin. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins with the words: “Congress shall make no law. . . .” I believe that, especially during this century, the Congress has passed many laws that it should not have passed because they have served to limit or deny the liberty of the American people in ways that are inconsistent with the original intent of the Constitution and, more fundamentally, are inconsistent with a proper understanding of what human freedom means. In that sense, my message is “negative” since I think that these impediments to human freedom should be repealed and abolished.

But the other side of that message, indeed the essence of it, is a positive one: that each man should be free to live his own life, to choose his own ends, and to select his own means for their attainment, and to enter into those interpersonal relationships and associations that he finds most useful and supportive to make his time on earth the best that he thinks he can make it. Out of such a free society will come a more prosperous, creative, and culturally advanced community of men than any alternative governmentally restrained, controlled, or commanded social arrangement could ever produce. It is this positive society of liberty that I would like to see in America in the 21st century that is right ahead of us.

Now, ladies and gentlemen of the press, I must excuse myself, because I have an appointment at a local veterans’ hospital at which I shall present my proposal for selling off all government-owned medical facilities.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).