Rights-Based Stewardship: How the Government Should Go About Protecting the Environment

By Andrew Min ’15

“If we’ve learned any lessons during the past few decades, perhaps the most important is that preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense. Our physical health, our social happiness, and our economic well-being will be sustained only by all of us working in partnership as thoughtful, effective stewards of our natural resources.”

Sentiments like the one above have, increasingly, become popular. As politicians have shared images of polar bears on melting ice caps, the media have warned of global warming, and NGOs have published reports on pollution, the impetus for protecting the environment has increased.

However, as the proverb goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As with many other problems, the problem of preserving biodiversity has been met with prescriptions for regulation, which often go against conservative and libertarian conceptions of property rights.

But protecting the environment need not require this obstruction of rights. The author of the opening quote wasn’t a hippie bent on violating private property in order to save the Skunk Frog Nor was he a tie-dyed “granola crunchy” destroying the economy to ensure the salvation of the humpback whale. In fact, the author was probably the furthest thing from it: he was the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. And his quote illustrates something that conservatives, libertarians, and other defenders of property rights often forget: the market solves more than just economic problems. “Saving the planet” doesn’t require government regulation – often, good old-fashioned market solutions work just fine.

How the Right surrendered the environment

Why is it popularly supposed that the solution requires regulation? To find the answer, we must understand the historical roots of the environmental movement.

At first, the goals of environmentalism were not always so far away from the right’s heart. Former Republican president Calvin Coolidge, a perennial favorite of the Right, exhorted the Boy Scouts to “[r]emember that nature is your great restorer.” Conservatives and libertarians across the nation favored protection of Mother Earth through private conservation efforts.

For a long time, though, environmentalism remained outside of the public eye. That all changed in the 1960s. Some of the liberal activists of the 1960s, like Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich, decided that the status quo wasn’t enough; the planet needed saving. Environmentalism and the “back-to-nature” movement became associated with the Left just as much as sexual liberation and banning mandatory school prayer.

But then, the environmentalists went a step further: they blamed the system of property rights for environmental problems. Like most of their other crusades, such as the war on poverty, environmentalists believed the problem was rooted in private individuals acting wrongly; as Leonard Cohen put it, “private property rights have been emphasized, often at the expense of our environment.” Pollution, for example, was blamed on private individuals (especially bigger businesses) selfishly dumping waste into rivers. As a result of these private problems, it was assumed that the cure was to restrict those individuals – and, thus, their rights.

Certainly, there is an argument for government intervention. Since no one person has an incentive to protect a public good, public goods like the environment will be less protected – something that economists term the “tragedy of the commons.” But while there is a case for government intervention, that intervention does not require abandoning respect for private property.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the free market is a silver bullet for saving the planet. We can certainly debate the limits of market solutions to environmental problems, just as we do with other areas. What I argue, however, is that if we decide to intervene to protect the environment, conservatives and libertarians must begin arguing for viable, effective, rights-based policies – and that policymakers must begin to listen.

The philosophy of property rights

Conservatives and libertarians don’t, or at least shouldn’t, defend property rights solely on ideological grounds. Certainly, the Right defends natural, inalienable, individual rights under a deontological framework. For ethical and moral reasons, private property rights are still widely recognized as something all humans deserve.

But at the same time, there is a strong pragmatic argument for the free market. When conservatives oppose “free” government health care, they do so because they believe that market incentives will resolve the health care crisis better than the bureaucracy. When libertarians oppose government regulation of business, they do so because they believe market incentives resolve economic crises better than the bureaucracy. And when the Right opposes welfare, they certainly don’t do so because they hate the poor. They do so because they believe that market incentives work better than wealth redistribution.

The classic argument against bureaucratic regulation that applies most directly to protecting the environment is the Hayekian “pretense of knowledge.” This is Nobel prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek’s theory that the social engineer can never possibly calculate all the variables. As Hayek explained in his Nobel lecture, “While in the physical sciences it is generally assumed, probably with good reason, that any important factor which determines the observed events will itself be directly observable and measurable, in the study of such complex phenomena as the market, which depend on the actions of many individuals, all the circumstances which will determine the outcome of a process… will hardly ever be fully known or measurable.”

At the end of the day, then, conservatives and libertarians may agree with some of the goals of liberalism, but disagree on the means. Rather than government regulation, the Right believes that, often, the best way to get things done is through respecting private property rights. It should be the same for the environment.

The property rights solution

An excellent case study in property rights-based environmentalism is the preservation of wildlife. Endangered species are often used in the main argument against conservatives – that conservatives hate wildlife. But upon further examination, we can see that, oftentimes, respecting property rights provides better conservation efforts than attacking property rights.

The liberal solution to conservation centers on the Endangered Species Act, regulated by the almighty Fish & Wildlife Service (F&WS). Certainly, the bureaucrats at F&WS are good people who do what they believe is best. The problem, however, is the Hayekian pretense of knowledge. By attempting to restore species through centralized regulation, the government has failed to foresee unintended consequences. In order to protect habitats, the government restricts landowners from doing any development that could damage the wildlife’s habitat. Partially because of the act itself, and partially because of the bureaucratic enforcement, landowners now see endangered species as threats to their profit. How have they responded? As Brian Seasholes of the National Center for Policy Analysis noted, landowners respond to these negative incentives in two different ways: “either directly, by killing them… or indirectly, by applying a ‘scorched earth’ policy that makes actual or potential habitat unsuitable through such activities as plowing, prematurely cutting trees or clearing brush.” One researcher from the Western Economic Association found that, “a landowner is 25% more likely to cut forests when he or she knows or perceives that a [red-cockaded woodpecker] cluster is within a mile of the land than otherwise.” By promoting regulatory policies, environmentalists, ironically, create a larger problem. And the tighter the regulation, the more perverse the incentives.

Conversely, conservatives and libertarians believe that protecting the environment requires taking property rights into account. Not only do these types of mechanisms better uphold individual rights, they also better protect wildlife because they give property owners incentives to cooperate. If a landowner is ensured that his property will be secure, he will be more likely to cooperate. For example, in the early 20th century, private conservation groups partnered with landowners to help preserve the endangered wood duck. Since the landowners never had to fear punitive regulatory measures, they were more than willing to cooperate. As the Center for Private Conservation’s R.J. Smith noted, “Landowners were not afraid to help the wood duck recover. However, today under the Endangered Species Act, if someone devised a nest box for spotted owls and asked landowners to deploy them, nobody in his right mind would say yes.”

Other examples of smart, rights-based solutions to conservation abound. In particular, fishing conservation through market mechanisms has become extremely popular. In the United States particularly, overfishing is a serious problem; as one scholar put it, “the current management regime for U.S. fisheries is dangerously unsustainable.” But the solution isn’t more government regulation. In fact, government caps on fishing were the problem in the first place. The government shortened the fishing season, which led to a “tragedy of the commons”: an increase in haste, a decrease in caution and a lack of incentive for fishing under quota. To fight this, some government fisheries have rejected pure regulation and instead implemented a private property solution: “Individual Transferable Quotas,” or ITQs. Instead of hard quotas, ITQs divide “[divide] the quota up and [give] shares to fishermen as a long-term right.” Fishermen now have incentives to conserve and underfish, rather than overfish, because it increases the value of their ITQs – their property. And the program has been met with applause from everyone: even fishermen now support lowering fishing quotas because they have long-term private property assurances.


The conclusion that conservatives and libertarians must take away, then, is that we should protect the environment. At the same time, however, we must recognize that saving the planet does not necessarily conflict with ideals of limited government, free enterprise, or private property. In fact, Hayekian ideals often work flawlessly in tandem with environmental protection.

And we need not restrict free-market environmentalism to the right side of the aisle. After decades of regulation, even some environmentalists have begun realizing the multitude of problems with centralized solutions; the Environmental Defense Fund, for example, currently advocates ITQs to help conserve fish.

At the end of the day, both the Left and the Right should want to protect nature. Often, the best way to protect natural life is through another natural solution: Adam Smith’s “natural course of things.” Adding in artificial devices like bureaucratic regulations just makes things messy.

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