The Obsolete Progressives

Print Insight

The Obsolete Progressives

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on December 11, 2014 FREE Insights

My colleagues and I have devoted four decades to the  important mission of showing people who care about parks, wildlife, wildlands, and water how to foster their conservation goals.  We have explained the causes of problems with existing management.  These manifold problems rarely result from corruption or gross incompetence of agency personnel.   Rather, these problems flow from poor information and even worse incentives, not bad agency people. 

We have also explored and described creative alternatives to the bureaucratic command-and-control management and regulations that thwart constructive innovations.  Our approach is called the New Resource Economics (NRE).  It offers fundamental improvements over the bureaucratic system the Progressives adopted a century ago when creating federal agencies. 

These include the US Forest Service, the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and historically related bureaus.  Some work much better than others.  All manage resources and amenities we value. 

While providing greater and more sensitive protection of ecological systems, the NRE arrangements generate more innovations. The NRE is also more sensitive to changing circumstances.  An important example is increased respect for the role of predators in ecosystems.  Another is the value of in-stream water flows to protect fish habitat. 

Here are important questions for conservationists.   What institutional arrangements will recognize and then have the flexibility to act responsibly on cultural, ecological, and economic changes?  Why is it prudent to expect large bureaucracies to be unresponsive?  What arrangements are more likely to reward special interests and thwart goals of ecological sustainability? 

These questions offer fundamental challenges to the bureaucracies created by the Progressives a century ago.  In marked contrast with these agencies, NRE proposals foster responsible liberty and modest prosperity.  They also encourage environmental entrepreneurship as people gain knowledge and identify new goals.  Returning wild bison to their native areas is one example pioneered by the American Prairie Reserve.   

Another example is helping ranchers benefit from wildlife by marketing wild-animal friendly lamb and beef. Ramona and I enjoy the deer, elk, and trout on our place but they do generate costs and produce significant problems.  Wildlife benefits are not free to the parties that produce them.  Consider the obvious examples of  predation on livestock by predators and the consumption of forage by grazers.

Progress of the NRE has been Slow

Dozens of academics and analysts have given thousands of talks, produced thousands of papers, and published scores of books advancing alternatives to the century old, largely discredited bureaucracies of the Progressive Era.  Exemplifying the criticism, Francis Fukuyama of Stanford recently stated, "... many regard the Forest Service as a highly dysfunctional bureaucracy performing an outmoded mission with the wrong tools.... These days, books are written arguing that the Forest Service ought to be abolished altogether."

 (fn. Francis Fukuyama, Foreign Affairs, Sept.-Oct. 2014

Despite decades of robust and recurrent criticism of federal resource management agencies, a great many proposals for reform, and operating examples of successful alternatives, the New Resource Economics (NRE) model for reform is generally ignored, derided, and neglected. However strong their credentials as conservationists and environmental stewards, none of the NRE spokesmen are considered "Green". Greens view NRE advocates as alien and suspect their motives. 

This is not surprising for few Greens are classical liberal or libertarian.  In contrast, nearly all NRE advocates are.  Further, few Greens stress the value of liberty and appreciate the market process.  Again, nearly all NRE advocates respect the positive power of liberty and market coordination.

Yet Greens and NRE advocates share important values.  Both appreciate conservation and sustainable ecosystems, for example. And as the failure of political management with bureaucratic command-and-control becomes undeniable, sincere environmentalists will seek alternatives.

When this happens the NRE perspective could become widely accepted.  We will explore this possibility in future FREE Insights.

Enjoy FREE Insights?

Sign up below to be notified via email when new Insights are posted!

* indicates required