Want to Protect the Earth? Then Protect Private Property!

Posted on Freedom Advocates on May 23rd 2003

By [post_author] –

SUMMARY: Do we have to choose between protecting the environment and growing the economy? J. David Breemer from the Pacific Legal Foundation argues that we don’t. In fact, he says, “environmental improvements happen because of, not in spite of, private property and free enterprise.”


Earth Day, April 22, was a good occasion to revisit the question: Do we have to choose between protecting the environment and growing the economy?

Whether they’ll admit it or not, a lot of environmentalists think that the answer is “Yes”–that more factories, jobs and homes and greater economic freedom, necessarily mean dirtier water, air and land. So they busy themselves fighting new construction projects, protesting industrial expansion and trying to micromanage how property owners can use their land.

But evidence from around the globe suggests their basic assumptions are off. The truth is, hindering the economy hurts the environment. In fact, there may be no greater environmental threat than a stagnant GDP.

At its extremes, this phenomenon was o­n display in the old Soviet Union and its colonies. While the economy was in suspended animation under communism, raw sewage went untreated in Poland; acid rain dissolved the gold roof of Cracow’s famous Sigismund Chapel; East Germans lived under a permanent, dark fog of pollution; and Czechoslovakian sulfur dioxide concentrations were eight times U.S. levels.

During these same decades, the United States and other industrial countries were making great strides in purifying both water and air.

Recent economic research quantifies the relationship between health in the economy and the environment. Princeton University scholars have demonstrated that national environmental quality begins to improve o­nce per capita income exceeds $9,000. More importantly, their study finds that the greater the income, the better the environment.

The reasons for this correlation are simple: Economic growth fuels a popular demand for environmental protection and leads to technological innovations that minimize environmental harm. Indeed, another study by University of Chicago professor Don Coursey, found that for every 1 percent increase in income, the demand for environmental quality increases 2.5 percent. It should come as no shock that the income of Sierra Club environmentalists is much higher than the national average.

Economic growth is critical for advancing material and environmental well-being, but such growth does not occur spontaneously. An economy that is continually creating more jobs and opportunities requires a legal system that respects and protects private property rights. When these rights are guaranteed, individuals have an incentive to create and build. Certainty of ownership facilitates the transfer of resources to those who will put them to the most economically efficient and socially desirable use. When these rights are absent, as they are in most third world countries, investment dries up and governments strive in vain to secure national economic health. No o­ne has the time, will or means to fix environmental problems.

Uncertain private property rights imperil the environment. This is because secure ownership carries incentives to care for property, whether it’s a field, a forest, a farm or a factory. Experiments in collective property ownership in America and abroad have underscored this truth time and again. Where will you find more litter — o­n your private driveway or the public highway? Or compare rentals with owner-occupied homes. Which are more likely to be clean, tidy and well-maintained, signaling the residents’ engagement, pride and concern?

More environmentalists need to open their eyes to the fact that environmental improvements happen because of, not in spite of, private property and free enterprise. If they really want to protect the earth, they should support, not subvert, private property rights–and export this fundamental doctrine around the world. By doing so, they will help feed the hungry, house the poor, and generate the public demand and tools necessary for cleaner air, land and water.

—– J. David Breemer is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation. At a news conference held o­n April 21 outside the Seattle office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PLF released its “Earth Day List of Top Environmental Lies,” providing factual evidence to counter false claims by environmentalists in five major areas. Click o­n the press release link o­n PLF’s homepage (http://www.pacificlegal.org/) to read those environmental lies.

Established in 1973, PLF provides a voice in the courts that speaks for less government and the preservation of free enterprise, private property rights and individual liberties. PLF is the oldest, largest and, in the words of the Washington Post, “perhaps most influential” public interest law foundation of its kind. PLF is a tax-exempt, charitable organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and relies entirely upon private donations for its support. To learn more about PLF’s legal program, visit our web site at http://www.pacificlegal.org/.


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