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Let Spontaneity Rule

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As a conservationist and a libertarian, I always find it interesting to think how similar ecology and political economy are. Both are products of nature — self-sustaining phenomena resulting from the aggregate of millions of unrelated events.

The Nobel-laureate economist Friedrich Hayek coined a term for such phenomena — the “spontaneous order.” Spontaneous orders arise without the specific human intention to create them. Examples abound: the predator-prey population cycle, the even spacing of cars across freeway lanes, the use of money in society, and social rules of etiquette are just a few. All are the result of individual actions that were never intended to gain the end result. Or as Hayek put it, they are “the result of human action, but not of human design.”

A notable feature of spontaneous orders, however, is that they do not function as well, and sometimes not at all, when they are tinkered with. Conservationists understand this well. This is why they make concerted efforts to prevent the development of ecologically rich areas. They realize that when humans interfere with ecology, it simply doesn’t function as well.

Unfortunately, the same people who are so committed to letting the spontaneous order reign free within the environment fail to recognize the damage and distortions to the environment caused by government’s interventions. For example, taxpayer-subsidized highways flooded our economy with (polluting) cars, a phenomenon that then led environmentalists to call for nationwide emission controls on automobiles.

Moreover, in their attempt to save natural habitats, all too many environmentalists fail to recognize the fundamental wrongfulness of using government regulations to prevent landowners from using their own property in their own way or of using taxation as a way to purchase such property from landowners.

Though the conservation of wildlife habitat, clean air, and outdoor recreational areas are considered by many of us to be laudable goals, they should not be achieved through the coercive methods of government. The spontaneous order of the market will provide these things if that is what people place a value on, which obviously they do. For one thing, most property owners take care of their own property because it’s in their self-interest to do so. Moreover, there are millions of dollars donated to conservation organizations by private individuals who wish to conserve those ecological jewels that are not already owned by the government.

Thus, the moral and efficient approach would be to privatize conservation. The government should place all federal lands, including national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, and wilderness areas into private hands, including simply donating them to such nonprofit organizations as the Audubon Society or the Nature Conservancy. Not only would such an approach be based on moral principles, the spontaneous order of the market would ensure a better and freer environment for everyone.

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    Bart Frazier is program director at The Future of Freedom Foundation. Send him email.