11.07.2013 0

The tragedy of the elites


By Robert Romano

One of the most influential works that advises today’s brand of excessive environmental regulations by federal regulatory organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was written 45 years ago in 1968. In “The tragedy of the commons,” Garrett Hardin set forth arguments against overpopulation, resource depletion and pollution.

Although it predated modern concern over carbon emissions now regulated by the EPA, he still laid forth a framework that can give everyday Americans an idea of at least an intellectual basis for the radical ideology that today threatens economic growth and the ability to provide for ourselves.

On the resource management side of the equation, Hardin made the Malthusian assumption of scarcity, using the example of overgrazing of cattle on the frontier to argue against Adam Smith’s implicit presumption that everyone working in their self-interests would enhance the common good.

Argued Hardin, “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the devastation toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

By “commons,” Hardin is essentially referring to natural resources, and access to them. He worried about a “pasture open to all.” Except, there was no such pasture. Lands are either public or private, a detail he later gets to.

To navigate the problem, he argued, “We might sell them off as private property. We might keep them as public property, but allocate the right to enter them.” This reflects the permitting system that was already in place for resource extraction on public lands, and the general concept of private property that long predated Hardin’s essay.

Here, he is using property, whether held privately or publicly as a matter of law, to show that a problem without what he said had “no technical solution” that might otherwise be solved through scientific means required further action — i.e. the coercive power of the government.

Which brings us to pollution, and the primary concern of this essay, what I shall call the tragedy of the elites. His views on resource management being dealt with via property, whether public or private, leave far less to be questioned than his views on pollution, and what happens when the two concepts are married and the government begins to view the resources as the source of the pollution.

“[T]he air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by a different means,” Hardin wrote, adding, “by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated.”

Here, one can begin to see the intellectual framework for proposals such as a carbon tax, or for requiring coal-fired power plants to burn “cleaner,” or for carbon sequestration (i.e. requiring emitters to “store” carbon emissions without releasing them into the atmosphere). How did we get here?

The EPA was required by the Supreme Court in 2007 in Massachusetts v. EPA to reinterpret the Clean Air Act. Under that decision, carbon emissions were defined as a “harmful pollutant,” even though the statute never even mentioned carbon dioxide, a gas necessary for the very existence of life.

Here, again, Garrett was prophetic. “The law, always behind the times, requires elaborate stitching and fitting to adapt it to this newly perceived aspect of the commons.” What better articulation of the preferred tactic of the radical environmentalist movement? Whether it’s sue and settle arrangements or the Supreme Court decision, the EPA’s powers have been vastly expanded through what can only be called an “elaborate stitching” of the law.

The beauty of the judicial route, from the environmentalist perspective, is that it is inoculated against almost any potential legislative remedy. Now, the agency can regulate carbon emissions on motor vehicles, power plants, and everything else — at will — without any vote in Congress.

At first it will be, as Hardin suggests, “coercive laws or taxing devices” to combat perceived “man-made,” carbon-induced climate change. But ultimately, being an advocate of population control, Hardin foresaw even more drastic means to deal with the problem since, as he noted, “The pollution problem is a consequence of population.”

That is why, ultimately, he viewed the solution to pollution is “by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon.” Have you signed up for your parental licenses yet?

The population explosion over the past 200 years is entirely owed to the Industrial Revolution that was fueled in large part by increased energy output, particularly carbon-based energy. The necessary consequence of dramatically reducing carbon-based energy consumption — and the food production, medical advancement, and economic growth that depends on it — would have to be a commensurate, significant decrease in the human population.

Really, it all depends on just how draconian the agency’s restrictions of carbon emissions are. How much of a price will be placed on carbon emissions by the agency? If it’s too high, the impact could be devastating, resulting in the means of sustaining the world’s population being suddenly restricted or gradually reduced.

Moreover, even if all of the resources, particularly energy, are indeed finite or if the impact of carbon emissions were truly impactful on climatic conditions—both questionable prospects—an arbitrary restriction of consumption and economic growth will not permit or at least severely reduce the possibility of market-based solutions to these problems.

Instead, Hardin’s approach, once resources become “pollutants” and the law is perverted to restrict extraction and use, knowledge itself is compartmentalized.

Solutions become dependent upon an a priori, top-down, regulatory approach utilizing fewer individuals to achieve innovation and sustainability for a growing population.

Hydraulic fracturing of shale oil and the proliferation of nuclear energy as a public utility are both market-driven solutions to resource problems. Both assume that resources can be expanded if people choose to chip in and pay for them. But they will not be permitted, the moment the government decides that accessing these resources somehow they will destroy the environment.

How many more innovations will be suppressed in an environment where the government will eventually not even permit the economy to grow? The solutions are more likely to be found in conditions that permit the freedom to innovate in areas thought to be daunting today.

Therein lays the tragedy of the elites, for Hardin’s central premise is that the government knows better now — the future be damned.

Robert Romano is the senior editor of Americans for Limited Government.

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