Monday, August 20, 2007

Ron Paul and the Environment

I've been a longtime admirer and supporter of presidential candidate Ron Paul. My initial interest in him was a result of his well-known opposition to the war. However, I believe that he has much more to offer than merely a saner foreign policy.

With the exception of global warming, environmental issues have often been under the political radar in this age of open-ended wars, hyped-up “terror alerts” and eroding civil liberties. But these problems have hardly gone away. I recently had an e-mail discussion with thegoldencompass which prompted me to really think about what effect a Ron Paul presidency, or, more generally speaking, a more truly free-market economic policy might have on the environment.

When I look at the range of environmental problems, one theme keeps jumping out: subsidies.

Overfishing, one of today’s gravest environmental threats, is heavily subsidized by governments. Without subsidies, fishermen would face the natural result of hunting their prey to collapse: they would be out of a job and have to find something else to do. Instead, governments finance ship construction, deploy diplomats to open up Third World waters to Western fishing, and pay for fishermen to keep their boats and equipment in the absence of any fish. The result: huge fleets of fishing boats prowling the globe or lying in wait, ready to sail forth at the first sign of a fish recovery and immediately wipe out said recovery.

I picked up a National Geographic the other day and started reading about the Tongass forest in Alaska. These ancient trees were said to be under threat, having lost a large percentage of old growth in the last several decades. Why would loggers travel all the way to a remote, unpopulated area to get these particular trees? Because the government subsidizes this otherwise uneconomical venture. Back in the 1940s, the government decided that in the interests of ‘national security’ it needed to have people (i.e. loggers) in these remote Alaskan wilderness areas, so it built roads and paid timber companies to go in and establish that presence. Government paying for companies and people to do things which they otherwise would not do (or would do less of) is the cause of environmental degradation in one case after another.

Whatever one thinks of global warming, there’s no question that coal, oil and other fossil fuels are heavily subsidized. Mining is subsidized, undercutting recycling efforts. Inefficient agriculture is subsidized, allowing them to waste huge amounts of water and run unsustainable fertilization and pesticide schemes instead of taking care of the land. Heck, even at the local level, garbage collection is free in many places. If people don’t have to pay, what is their incentive to reduce waste, and thereby to pressure companies to produce less waste? Or roads: it hardly matters how fuel-efficient your car is if you’re sitting in traffic for two hours a day. Again, the roads are “free” but in fact it’s a perverse subsidy that results in unmanageable overuse.

I honestly think that we could address many of the most serious environmental issues by ending these special handouts to industry on the one hand, and ending various “Tragedies of the Commons” on the other. I don’t believe it’s so much a lack of government control that’s the problem as the fact that government is in the pocket of big business; it is not simply a case of letting businesses do as they please, but of politicians actively assisting their favored contributors to avoid the costs and gain an unfair advantage over the alternatives to some of their most destructive activities.

So I think Ron Paul has the right idea:

What would you do about the environment, especially on public lands? Would you sell off Yellowstone and other national parks to the highest bidder, even if it meant the land would be drilled for oil?

This is a multi-faceted question. As a medical doctor, I took an oath to do no harm. Similarly, I have worked with the Green Scissors coalition to eliminate harmful government spending and regularly rate or near the top of Congressmen on their scorecard. Obviously, I would never to go war over oil. Also, I would end special interest favors and subsidies that harm the environment; I have opposed programs to subsidize development in environmentally fragile areas with taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance, etc. One of the lessons of Katrina is that oil exploration and development have progressed in ways that environmental concerns are mitigated even under severe natural disasters.

1 comment:

Eleven said...

Hi Exon,
Do you think that there shouldn't be government-managed national parklands? Or, do you think national parks should be sold off to individuals, assuming that these people might somehow protect and preserve the land better than governments? Or, are you mainly suggesting getting rid of government subsidies to big energy companies? I could go for that, and I think if Ron Paul's platform stated that, he might get my vote if not lose all major big-pocketed donors. :-) '11 of 7'