Surowiecki Swings …
June 25, 2007 Environment

… and hits one to the warning track.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, the typically excellent has a nice review of Indur Goklany’s new book on the Improving State of the World. However, he slips into all too easy dogmatic territory with this critique:

The environmental transition hypothesis is the most striking example of this view, since it postulates that environmental improvement happens, as it were, naturally. The reality, of course, is that the fight over environmental regulation, at least in the United States, was — and remains — a fierce one and that environmental skeptics and businesses have done their best to prevent regulations such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts from ever becoming law. It is also the case that without those regulations, the “cleaner planet” Goklany sees today would not exist. Goklany attempts the argument that air and water pollution in the United States were declining long before regulations were put into effect. Unfortunately, his own evidence shows that emissions for a host of pollutants peaked right around 1970, when the Clean Air Act was passed, or after, and myriad studies demonstrate that the United States’ rivers and lakes are dramatically more swimmable and fishable today than they were before the Clean Water Act.

Yes, perhaps Goklany is too reticent to point out the potential limits to growth, and other difficulties the world faces today, but Surowiecki spins the all too tired market failure argument for how today’s environmental quality would be horrible absent the benevolent actions of government.  I do not disagree that government has an important role to play when “negative externalities” are present, but its role should be limited to the clear exposition of property rights, and little more.

The problems that Goklany and I have are three fold: First, who watches the watchdogs?  Even if the government has the prerequisite knowledge and information to design appropriate policy, who is there to make sure that they are being implemented properly?  Here is one view. Second, it is far from clear that regulators have the necessary imformation, or can create the correct incentives to influence private actions in a way that is socially optimal. This institution is dedicated to demonstrating these failures.  Third, environmental regulation is typically drafted and hijacked by the powerful special interests in the classic Bootlegger & Baptist fashion – there is no guarantee that the legislation written is in the best interests of the environment. For example, much of the push for global warming regulation is coming from the energy companies themselves! 

I undertsand Surowiecki is trying to write a balanced piece, and to show that the world, for all its wealth, has its difficulties. But I think he misses the boat here.

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