Environmental Public Goods Not Securable by Markets or Networks: A Partial Response to Scruton and Iannone

Environmental Public Goods Not Securable by Markets or Networks: A Partial Response to Scruton and Iannone

John J. Davenport (Fordham University, Bronx, USA)
Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/IJT.2018070103
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Roger Scruton and others argue that market-based approaches and voluntary civic organizations can solve many environmental problems. The author argues in response that there are significant limitations to quota systems and similar market fixes, while NGOs and civil society “networks” are not effective in overcoming certain kinds of collective action problems. Even when they work to some extent, network-based solutions such as certification schemes or charity ownership of lands may also cause new problems, such as trends towards excessive concentrations of power, unhealthy dependencies, and lack of choice about which groups act as guardians of our interests.
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Introduction: Scruton's Free Market And Civil Society Solutions

In his recent book, How to Think Seriously about the Planet, Roger Scruton argues that many environmental problems can be solved either by free-market approaches, or by voluntary cooperation schemes at more local or regional levels. Reminding us that Paul Erlich was wrong in his 1968 predictions of massive famines due to overpopulation, Scruton even suggests that some environmentalists are being overly alarmist about climate change because they like “a politics of top-down control” (Scruton, 2012, p. 39). He also misleadingly compares today's alleged climate-hype to the “global cooling” scare of the early 1970s (2012, p. 39), which was not backed by even 1/100th of the evidence that now exists for massive, anthropogenic climate change.

Despite these exaggerations, Scruton's hopes for markets and local or national civil society groups are reasonable and should be taken seriously by everyone interested in sustaining environmental goods. He offers many plausible examples, such as establishing “territorial fishing rights in tidal waters” around England that helped protect fish spawning grounds (Scruton, 2012, p. 141), and “transferrable property rights in the grazing units” of lands controlled by the US Bureau of Land Management (2012, p. 146). In these cases, a Tragedy of the Commons is overcome by creating a missing market.

Scruton also recommends this strategy for various risks now covered by “the modern regulatory state:” when instead “costs are borne by those who create them, human beings exercise responsible stewardship over the goods that they enjoy” (Scruton, pp. 137-38). It is hard to disagree with his point about flood and hurricane insurance in particular (pp.176-76) in an era where Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Louisiana have collected hundreds of billions of aid dollars from federal taxpayers across the US, and yet are still building in vulnerable areas (Alvarez, 2017). However, fixing this problem will require stricter laws prohibiting people from building in coastal areas without adequate insurance, much as it takes legal limitations on market share to prevent corporations from becoming 'too big to fail' (Scruton, pp.180-81). Markets will not spontaneously stay within such limits: freedom from corporation sizes that endanger entire sectors of the economy is a public good.

I will evaluate more of Scruton's cases in below. But he is certainly correct that technological innovations and voluntary partnerships may ameliorate many environmental problems. In their book, Abundance (2012), Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler survey a trove of recent and coming technologies that will help with energy sources, minerals, water, food supply, and a speedier end to population increases – which cannot be achieved by “top-down population control” without barbaric results (2012, p. 8).

However, they frankly recognize that new technologies and economic growth cannot bend the population curve sufficiently by themselves. This requires developing the basic human capabilities of the world's poorest people by providing access to real health care, education, and civil freedoms – which all still depend on significant coordination through government, even though free or cheap information through the internet1 will play an increasing role (2012).

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