Friday, June 18, 2004

Progressives' Environmental Legacy

Fred L. Smith ("The Progressive Era's Derailment of Classical-Liberal Evolution" in The Freeman of June 2004)offers the most cogent summary I have seen lately of the problems that go with the environmentalist view and the politics it prompts. He concludes, "We must repair the impoverished state of our instititutional framework for addressing the environmental concerns that we all share. To fail in this task is to risk further losses to economic liberty. Eco-socialism is even more complex than traditional socialism. It will fail. Our challenge is to ensure that as this occurs, a free-market alternative is available and is understood. There is much work to do."

Smith reviews the policies of the Progressive era that set aside reliance on the accumulated common law of trespass and nuisance in favor of abridged property rights, statutory law and regulation. He notes that, at the time, this was quite acceptable as economic growth was a priority and environmental priorities secondary -- and much was simply misunderstood.

With Progressivism and the like, we put aside the evolutionary mechanisms whereby we had managed to innovate ways to bring what had been common properties into the exchange economy. Smith notes that underground oil rights were sorted out pre-Progressivism while underground water rights were not. "The result of those different treatments of comparable underground liquid resources is striking: The relatively scarce commodity (petroleum) has become ever-more abundant, while the relatively abundant commodity (water) has become ever scarcer."