For over a decade, FREE’s weekly columns, usually on environmental policy, have strived for consistency. We work and write to harmonize ecology, ethics, and economics, while respecting the right of free and responsible individuals to make choices.
FREE approaches environmental policy from a political economy perspective. This means we are alert to the reality of tradeoffs among competing values. Just as a church must choose between energy conservation and sending funds to its foreign missions, a nation must budget among competing alternatives, e.g., subsidizing research or Green energy.
The political environment, like the natural environment, is highly competitive. A political economy perspective explains how interest groups game the system. And, as government grows, so do its parasites.
For the past 16 years, we’ve brought some of America’s most respected scholars to share their political economy perspective with the federal judiciary. Since we are sensitive to the influence of culture, our programs have also included opinion leaders, such as Jim Fallows of The Atlantic and Paul Gigot of The Wall Street Journal.
Now we are reaching out to another influential group, religious leaders who have expressed an interest in environmental policy. The Evangelical Environmental Network and Creation Care magazine have issued an “Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation.” It reads in part, “… we believe that biblical faith is essential to the solution of our ecological problems. Because we have sinned, we have failed in our stewardship of creation...” Here’s why we believe reaching out to religious leaders is a worthwhile undertaking.
Judging from their websites and publications, many religious leaders rely on activist Green groups for advice. The environmental movement has its roots in the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Ever since The Greening of America, a 1970 Earth Day manifesto, some environmental groups have denounced globalization and consumerism. They are opposed to people exercising individual choice. This is a profoundly reactionary position. Their alternative is to favor heavy bureaucratic management. This Green vision is fundamentally at odds with America’s founding principles. It is also quite likely to be ineffective and counterproductive. As we learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union, one-size-fits-all policies often lead to unintended harm to the environment, the powerless, and economic progress.
Many religious leaders have adopted this Green approach. They feel inadequate motivations and an absence of government management are the primary barriers to a better, more environmentally sensitive society. Their implicit solution is to place ethical, intelligent people with “good” values in positions of authority and empower them to implement sound policies. Alas, no society is governed by Green Platonic Guardian Angels.
There is, however, a positive role for government. Indeed, as Nobel economist Doug North has explained, government has a critically important role in defining the rules of the game. Aligning self-interest with ecological goals is the defining feature of intelligent policy design. Institutions, information, and the incentives they generate together guide behavior. A political economy approach also promotes individual freedom and economic progress.
This perspective can help religious leaders see through self-interested “solutions” that harm the environment and disproportionately affect the worst off. Even good intentions have unintended consequences. If we subsidize ethanol, farming patterns and food prices change. The increasing price of corn tortillas, a staple of the Mexican diet, is partially the result of successful special interest group pressure in the US. Farming K Street is lucrative indeed.
The push for biodiesel is another example of good intentions gone awry. Production mandates in Europe ripple through to the third world where natural landscapes are being converted to palm oil plantations, displacing peasants.
Here’s the key thought underlying our new program: if religious leaders are to successfully champion Green virtue, they must know that good intentions alone do not promise success. Reformers should ask what incentives are generated by proposed environmental reforms? Economics and political science help explain why some choices have profoundly negative consequences for social wellbeing—and often for the environment as well.
FREE wants to foster the success of religious leaders as they address environmental problems. Political economy provides tools essential for implementing good intentions. Our new program will present these tools in a constructive, open, and honest manner. The results will be in their hands.