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Destroying Nature: Libertarianism and Unregulated Free Markets

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Message Bill Willers

"[T]he first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos. So the prime task of government is to establish order; organized central force is the sole alternative to incalculable and disruptive force in private hands."
– Will & Ariel Durant, 1968, The Lessons Of History

Unregulated free markets of the corporate-backed New World Order, and the "freedoms" demanded by political libertarianism, are both paths toward a plundered natural world. The former is based ruthlessly on profit, while the latter is presumably well intentioned in its opposition to state intervention in a world of private property, but the two overlap and are similar in their impacts on the planet. For both, a government of the people acting in the interests of wider social and ecological values -- the "common good" -- is a barrier to their activities and "liberties". 

Libertarians, in a kind of argumentative trickery, have sought to link Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons" to public lands in order to make their case against public ownership. Hardin, in his 1968 article, showed that in a "commons" owned by nobody, there is overuse because of the incentive to consume as much as possible before others do. An example would be open ocean beyond territorial limits, where fishing fleets have brought global stocks to the edge of collapse. The libertarian answer to this has been to lump public lands along with "commons" and then argue in favor of transfer to private ownership, and to create a "regime of property rights ... described as "a bundle of rights belonging to an individual or groups of individuals." 

And here the libertarian argument against public ownership simply falls apart, because a nation's citizens are "a group of individuals" whose property is as sacred as that of the stockholders of a corporation or of any other private entity. And those citizens have a right to establish codes of conduct and limits on usage, as in the case of the various bureaus that oversee public domain. 

Free-market economist James Beckwith, concentrating on parks, laid out libertarian goals in a 1981 article published by the libertarian Cato Institute. In it, he argued for “…ascending radicalism from reform through volunteerism and privatization of services to the outright abolition of public ownership and the transfer of parks to private parties.” The recruitment of volunteers, what he called an early “tentative step”, was to be followed by “the contracting out of support services to private firms operating for profit; … If the price of recreation is raised, less of it will be demanded by consumers, and overcrowding in the parks will be reduced; … The gate fee could cover such hard-to-charge-for-amenities as the sky, broad vistas, and fragrant flowers; … It is essential that property rights in the parks be defined, transferred, and enforced.”

Charging for the sky? He’s serious. If “customers” — who used to be citizen-owners — are unwilling to pay enough, what then? In such a scenario, Beckwith writes that lands ” … might even cease to be parks at all because recreationists might not be willing to pay enough to bid away the land from alternative purposes”. What alternative purposes? Why, whatever would generate the most cash in an unregulated “free market”. Because ability to pay is no indicator of taste or of understanding the needs of nature or of natural landscapes – and because free market forces have no such concern to begin with – the floodgate is opened to the most mechanized, destructive and vulgar of activities. What has traditionally been managed for an entire citizenry, and in the best interests of the land itself, is quickly given over to “users” providing greatest profit.

Profits to be made in “industrial recreation” are astronomical. Despite a friendly image “green-washed” by the advertising industry, the American Recreation Coalition (ARC) represents the free market at its most destructive to nature. ARC fronts for the interests of every snowmobile, jetski, ATV, 4-wheeler, off-roader and RV interest imaginable, whether manufacturer, dealer or user group, as well as for petroleum interests and such as Disney Corporation. Privatizing management of public lands would demolish any public interest holding at bay a total industrial takeover. But as war in Iraq claimed public attention, the Bush Administration kicked privatization into high gear, so that Bush appointees now move the privatization agenda forward. In 2003, then Interior Secretary Gale Norton, using code terms such as “public-private partnerships” and “competitive outsourcing”, announced plans to privatize 72% of U.S. Park Service positions. In the same year, Bush announced that as many as 850,000 federal positions could be outsourced to the private sector.

Terry Anderson, a senior fellow at the right wing Hoover Institution, attracted attention in 1999 with an alarming policy paper, “How and Why to Privatize Federal Lands”, also published by Cato. His proposal involves giving citizens “shares” of public domain that can then be bought and sold on the open market. The poor would cash out quickly, but even middle classes, saddled with health costs, mortgages, tuitions and the like, would see reasons to sell their shares. Corporations and the billionaire element would gather shares as they appeared on the market and ultimately own what now belongs to all citizens. According to Anderson’s analysis, the transition, once in place, could take 20-40 years. Anderson became George W. Bush’s adviser on public lands issues and has advised Bush to replace governmental regulatory law with free market principles.

All of this is what libertarians and free market advocates have worked toward for decades with a torrent of policy analyses, conferences, articles and books funded by a dozen or so foundations, e.g., Bradley, Scaife, Olin, JM, Lambe, Earhart, Koch, Carthage, Castle Rock. These have worked to forge national policy favorable to deregulation and privatization. Joined by large corporate interests such as RJ Reynolds, Shell Oil, Pfizer, etc., the collective, with its virtually endless financial means, pictures government not as an entity of, by and for the people but as an oppressive force of incompetent, thieving bureaucrats intent on thwarting creative enterprise.

There is another fatal flaw in claims of private ownership and free market "magic" as guaranteeing care of the natural world. Large corporations, in the quest for profit, diversify, and when one line dwindles, they invest elsewhere. If the price of lumber is such that other investments can earn more, it's time to "cut and run" and to plow cash into what can bring increased profits -- cars, sneakers, whatever. Just consider the millions of acres of Maine woods leveled in the 1990s by corporate owners who then sold off denuded lands and moved on, or of the ravaging of the last large expanse of redwoods under Charles Hurwitz. 

Libertarian and free-market extremists are cultists devoted to simplistic theories that collapse in the world of corporate conduct where privatization in a regulation-free environment guarantees rapacious behavior and therefore disintegration within nature and its processes. As to corporate ethics and behavior, simply consider the Enron saga, Big Tobacco's generations-long campaign that ruined the health of millions and the global implications of ExxonMobil's multi-million dollar program to contradict warnings of climate scientists of impending global warming. 

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Bill Willers is emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. Founder/former director of the Superior Wilderness Action Network (SWAN), editor of 'Learning to Listen to the Land' and 'Unmanaged Landscapes', both from Island (more...)

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