Why did the Greens Win?

A Symposium With Fred Smith, Jerry Taylor, Richard Belzer, Victor Porlier, And Kenneth Green

Fred Smith: The energy bill, which currently prohibits oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), gives environmental activists much of what they wanted. It blocks oil development in most of the United States, it subsidizes noncompetitive energy sources, and it takes the first steps toward enactment of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. It did little for free market approaches to environmental problems.

Why did the proponents win? Perhaps the greatest source of environmental activists? power is their ability to tap into the displaced religious values of the intellectual class. On ANWR, Congress voted to ensure that the moneychangers (read, energy firms) were driven from the temples of nature. Arguments about how much wealth was locked away in ANWR actually strengthened the Greens? position?sacrificing billions demonstrates morality, especially when the sacrifice is borne by others. (As we all know, when environmental activists own property, they act responsibly, sometimes drilling for oil). Free market proponents have created no counter-argument with equivalent appeal.

These ?religious? values carry weight among the public, even though some polls indicate that environmental values rank fairly low on most people?s priority lists. Because most people think that business will pick up the tab for environmental policies, they assume that they themselves will not have to pay the costs. Thus, it is easy to take these positions.

Another reason why the environmental activists won is that public opinion does not always hold sway; the link between popular opinion and actual policy is weak. America is not a pure democracy?we?re an interest group democracy. Green campaigns, even when they lose, frighten businessmen and politicians into seeking accommodation, and they energize the environmental groups? membership base. The ANWR issue was wonderful for the Sierra Club. Thus, we have the seeming anomaly of environmental issues ranking very low when voters are asked to list priorities but a firestorm arising when efforts are made to rethink the arsenic rule, to open ANWR, or to walk away from Kyoto. Politicians don?t want to be on the ?wrong? side of anything.

Jerry Taylor: Environmental groups have lobbying power only to the extent that they can convince legislators that a vote against Green interests will hurt them at the ballot box or, conversely, that a vote for a favored position will help them win votes. Environmental groups thus spend a great deal of time boasting of their electoral strength, commissioning polls, and demonstrating grassroots muscle. It is my contention that their true electoral strength in many districts is greatly overestimated. Ironically, going on and on about the invincible Green lobby makes the environmentalists? lobbying job easier.

Fred Smith: The real problem isn?t the strength of the Greens, it?s the weakness of property rights-based environmentalism. After more than a decade, we?ve gained only limited ground. Most people now view pollution taxes and emission quotas as the ?market? solution. If that policy area becomes dominant, we will face even worse environmental policy.

Richard Belzer: How do you square the ?greenness? in the energy bill with the absence of genuine awareness (much less, interest) in the public? A poll taken today would show less than 1 in 100 even knowing that there is an energy bill, never mind what?s in it?green, brown or lavender.

I suggest that the phenomenon in question is cultural, not economic or political. And that?s why the Greens? campaign succeeded, for they never had a chance on economic or political grounds.

Greens have changed how the public?superficially? looks at environmental issues, in large part by making it culturally unacceptable to disagree. That doesn?t translate into individual action unless that action is free, paid for by others, or subject to cultural opprobrium. I am the only homeowner on my block who does not recycle. I get The Look, and many of the people giving me The Look don?t care about the environment but they care very much how they are perceived by their neighbors. More and more people are now pretending to recycle?taking the blue boxes out to the curb with a few bottles and such but burying the rest in the Supercan where the neighbors can?t see it.

Free market environmentalists have done a fine job of doing the research and laying out the arguments, but we have yet to find a way to engage the culture and challenge its green facade. Frankly, the FME culture overdoses on earnestness. Humor, satire, and parody have not been fully utilized here?even our jokes are too serious. We should lighten up.

Fred Smith: The question of lobbying power must be evaluated by considering how people arrive at their views on environmental policy. Are political judgments really the same as market choices? I think not. Market choices express values. But, as Richard suggests, political opinions have no consequences; there are no tradeoffs or sacrifices involved in merely expressing an opinion about recycling or saving ANWR. Political opinions relate more to cultural values. As some of you know, I?ve been working to extend the research that Aaron Wildavsky was involved in during the decade before his untimely death. Wildavsky sought to understand what explains the opinions people hold about things they haven?t thought about.

Wildavsky believed that people?s opinions about policies such as recycling reflect the way they perceive that policy affecting their values. To affect those opinions, we must find a way to frame our policies in ways that appeal to the disparate cultural values of our society.

Wildavsky suggested four primary cultural values: Individualism (the value focused on freedom), which appeals to libertarians; Hierarchy (the value of order), which appeals to conservatives, business executives, and the religious community; Egalitarianism (the value of fairness)?the environmental laity and many liberals fall into this camp; and finally Fatalism (the value of ?you can?t fight city hall?). Fatalists aren?t politically active?the other cultural groups are.

Consider a policy of mandatory recycling (Washington, D.C., has just decided to enforce its mandatory recycling law; individuals who fail to separate their trash will be fined $400 per offense). We know that mandatory recycling is wasteful and costly; how might one argue against this policy?

The Individualist argument would focus on the restriction of freedom of choice. The Hierarchical argument would focus on the costs of the program, the amount of police enforcement, the risks of increased littering. The Egalitarian argument would point out the difficulty of separating and storing wastes in low-income homes where rats and insects are already a problem, where space is at a premium, and where other demands are paramount.

These might not be the ideal ways to frame the arguments, but my point is that one needs a cultural values-based strategy to reach most people. This does not mean that we should neglect the policy analysis work, but as Richard notes we?re pretty good at that part of the policy struggle.

Victor Porlier: Granting Wildavsky?s groupings, and granting that messages appropriate to each could be effectively scripted, there is still a difficulty. What media would we use to persuade or even access one group without alienating the other groups who may be reading or viewing the message as well? Conceptually, I can agree that these viewpoint groupings exist, but in practical terms how would you determine which messages go into which media if most mass media are viewed by members of all the groups?

Jerry Taylor: My problem with this talk of a cultural war is that the focus seems to be on convincing people that they shouldn?t value, or shouldn?t want, or shouldn?t prefer goods and/or services that they obviously do prefer. . . strongly.

First, is our movement capable of convincing millions of Americans that they shouldn?t prefer wilderness in Alaska over a slight drop in oil prices? Probably not, particularly since, as Richard Stroup has noted, demands for a cleaner environment correlate with rising personal wealth.

Second, is it a particularly libertarian position to argue with subjective preferences? Preferences for tundra?as for forestlands or wetlands?are subjective. Some people value them highly, whether for rational reasons or simply from a dewy-eyed romantic love for wild and desolate places. You can no more objectively establish that tundra isn?t worth preserving than you can objectively establish that vanilla isn?t worth eating.

Kenneth Green: I agree. I?ve long been leery of anyone who tries to tell the public what they should or shouldn?t want, environmentally or otherwise. If the majority of the public keeps voting for pristine air and ever-larger wilderness areas, that?s pretty much their choice. How clean is clean enough? As clean as people are willing to vote for directly, or to elect politicians who promise ever-greater environmental cleanliness.

For our part, we should be working to make sure that:

  • There is no fraud involved?that the public is actually getting what the government says it?s providing with one rule or another;
  • There is no theft involved?that the group demanding any nonhealth-based environmental amenity is paying for it;
  • That punishment for harming someone else?s health (in situations that can?t be handled well by tort law) emulates the ideal outcome of a tort-law system; that is, the polluter remediates or pays in a way that a jury would find reasonable;
  • That government spending of tax dollars avoids waste, and hence, prioritizes spending toward larger, more-certain problems with cost-effective remedies, rather than low-certainty ?problems? with expensive and draconian ?solutions.?


Jerry Taylor: And we should keep our goals in mind. Is our prime goal the establishment of free markets where people can ?maximize their utility??that is, secure their preferences regardless of whether I like them or not? Or is it a society that chooses tangible wealth creation over preservation of ecosystems? I suggest that a libertarian should be more inclined toward the former than the latter.

Fred Smith: Now wait a minute. People are not inherently anti-development nor anti-drilling. Yet the Sierra Club and its allies have demonized energy development in supposed ?wilderness? areas. We have not been able to advance a neutral process (for example, by privatizing ANWR), nor have we conveyed the fact that the environmental movement is denying the American taxpayer economic gains that organizations such as the National Audubon Society have accepted on their own lands (as in the Rainey Wildlife Refuge).

With respect to ANWR there are several messages. The dominant one is that energy development should be viewed as a legitimate option. A more basic message would be that a range of choices (not ?preservation trumps all?) better reflects the varied values of the American public. ANWR belongs to all of us, not just wealthy elites who can afford the high costs of a trek to the Arctic tundra. The environmental activists pushed the egalitarian strategy by claiming that the traditional lifestyle of the Gwich?in would be destroyed, even though the outcome may well perpetuate poverty. I?m not sure about the exact content or phrasing of the relevant value messages. But I?m sure that our side failed at the communication challenge, and their side succeeded.

Participants were: Fred L. Smith, Jr., President, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.; Jerry Taylor, Director of Natural Resource Studies, Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.; Richard Belzer, President, Regulatory Checkbook, Washington, D.C.; Victor Porlier, President, Center for Civic Renewal, Inc., Delmar, New York; Kenneth Green, Chief Scientist, Reason Foundation, Harker Heights, Texas

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