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The Road to an Epiphany

  • Matt Ridley
  • In 1987 I became chief correspondent for the Economist in Washington. My predecessor gave me a few tips as he moved to London. One of them was: “If you get an invitation to a PERC meeting in Montana, grab it! You’ll have a great time in the Rockies watching elk and, although they’ve got some crazy ideas, they are worth listening to.’’

    He was right. I went to a PERC journalists’ conference, right in the middle of the infamous Yellowstone fire, which proved to be a big distraction. Still, I recall Terry Anderson bugling to elk, Aaron Wildavsky making no sartorial concessions to the West, and some great late-night arguments about the role of the state.

    It came at a time when my eyes were opening. Aged 30, I was a keen conservationist and enthusiastic naturalist. I had briefly been a field research biologist before I became a journalist and I was born on a farm in northern England. But it hardly occurred to me until then that conservation could be done by anybody other than governments. And like most Europeans, I knew all about “market failures” and not nearly enough about the perverse incentives and bureaucratic momentum of government failures.

    Meeting PERC and reading Terry and Don’s book set me thinking. The following year I found myself covering the Clean Air Act revisions as they passed through Congress, and I was very struck by how most of the environmental organizations dismissed emissions trading in sulfur and nitrogen dioxide. It sounded to me (and later proved) to be a very good idea.

    But it was November 1989 when the penny finally dropped. Not only were communism’s appalling human crimes bared for the entire world to see, but its environmental ones were as well. The day the Berlin Wall came down, I recalled a conversation I had a few years earlier on an airplane with a prominent British pop star (now a respected leftist politician) about how happy East Germans really were under communism and how much freer and more sustainable their lives were than those of Americans. He’d been there. He knew. I resolved the day the Wall came down to stop tolerating such excuses for all forms of state domination.

    Ten years later I was plowing a lonely furrow as a pro-environment, but pro-market, newspaper columnist in Britain. My stance baffled people. I met (and still meet) absolute incredulity rather than opposition from state-employed conservationists. It is not that they think command-and-control is the only way to conserve; it’s that they have never even considered an alternative—never imagined markets generating incentives. Grimly they repeat the mistakes of Gosplan (the committee for economic planning in the Soviet Union), wondering why their central planning, nationalization, and confiscation of people’s interest in wildlife and amenity doesn’t seem to generate enthusiasm.

    Here is an example. To convert a barn into a house in Britain today you must survey it for bats before you apply for permission to convert. The bat survey must be done by an “accredited” bat group and only in the summer months. Guess what? Bat groups are very busy in the summer and charge very high fees. If the survey says there are rare bats in the building you may be refused permission to convert; as it turns out, the bats, not you, own the building. So what happens? People respond to incentives. Most barn owners resent and detest bats— I’m told playing Wagner at full volume clears a building of bats in short order. A simple scheme of small tax rebates for owners of barns who add bat-roosting boxes to their houses would achieve good will as well as bat babies. But it would not make paid work for bat groups.

    PERC inspired me to see the world differently. The vision of free market environmentalism is inspiring because it is optimistic, and the solutions it suggests are voluntary, diverse and (for the taxpayer) cheap. The only things standing in its way are vested interests of politicians, bureaucrats, and pressure groups.

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