Principled Hayekian Environmentalism

Suppose that we grant for the sake of argument that DiZerega, Gamble, and O’Neill are correct about the need to protect ecological systems as a matter of principle. What would this mean in practice? Let us begin by saying something about what it would not mean. According to DiZerega, a proper commitment to protecting the natural environment would compel us to fundamentally rethink individuals’ rights to degrade natural resources under their control. As he sees it, “there should be no right to indulge in extractive use of a sustainable resource in ways that impair its indefinite renewal” (1996a, 11). Instead, societies should adopt principles whereby “In using an ecosystem for resource extraction, actions such as polluting ground water, destroying soil fertility, and eliminating ecosystems such as salmon rivers and old growth forests would be inadmissible” (1996b, 731). In DiZerega’s view, people should ensure that every resource system they utilize “not be left worse off, in the sense that its basic role within the environment should not be seriously compromised” (1992, 356). And this should be done “regardless of how inconvenient we find the changes it will require in current logging, fishing, and agricultural practices” (358).

If humanity relied for its prosperity on the functioning of every natural ecosystem, then DiZerega’s suggestions might be warranted. For even if it looked like some environmental protections would sacrifice significant benefits for the sake of avoiding merely possible harm to key systems, a principled devotion to environmental protection might demand such sacrifices. However, in truth our future prospects are not nearly so fragile. Humanity may rely on the protection of “the natural order as a whole,” as DiZerega puts it (1996a, 4), but this does not mean that prosperity depends on the preservation of specific ecosystems like individual forests, fisheries, and croplands.

Here Hayek’s analogy to manufactured capital is illuminating. Societies must have an adequate portfolio of productive capital in order to prosper, but this does not mean that they depend on the preservation of any particular capital assets. The mark of a successful economy is not the ability to preserve all of its initial capital endowments. Rather, it is the ability to deal effectively with the deterioration and loss of assets over time. In the same way, dependence on ecological systems does not mean that every natural resource should be preserved intact.11 Instead, it implies the more overarching commitment recognized by Gamble: “to prevent the fatal undermining of the ecosphere on which all human activity ultimately depends” (2006, 130).

Threats to this order would look more like catastrophic global climate change than like the destruction of a particular forest or river. And these threats could be resisted as a matter of principle without opposing all insults to the smaller-scale ecosystems involved in everyday economic affairs. If Hayekians were serious about preserving the complex systems on which humanity relies, then a principled stance of this kind would seem straightforwardly attractive.

What measures could a Hayekian recommend to address threats to “the natural order as a whole”? In previous sections, we have seen Hayek advocate responses to environmental problems that would work by strengthening market institutions or remedying their gaps through political interventions. To this point, the rationales behind these suggestions have revolved around making markets more effective on their own terms—that is, by making economic activities more sensitive to the knowledge and desires of citizens. But if we grant that crucial ecological systems should be protected as a matter of principle, then similar actions might also be undertaken in order to sensitize individuals to the need to preserve overarching ecological systems as well.

Extending Hayek’s theory to demand protection for ecosystems on which we rely would not have to change much about the kinds of policy prescriptions that could be reconciled with his account. But it would have significant consequences for the circumstances under which particular proposals could be embraced. Earlier it was said that proposed interventions would need to be shown expedient before their adoption could be recommended. But if critical natural systems were to be protected as a matter of principle, then this criterion would need to be relaxed. More appropriately, proposals would need to be assessed on the basis of whether they really would protect systems on which humanity relies, as well as whether they represented the most efficient and effective means available for delivering such protections.

In line with our previous discussion, a crucial desideratum for environmental policies would continue to be the preservation of the functionality of the market process. For it should not be forgotten that markets are essential to societies’ abilities to prosper, and to the coordination of natural resource use more specifically. Insofar as critical ecological systems could be protected while also maintaining economic decentralization, allowing prices to fluctuate, protecting individual liberty within the bounds of known general rules, honoring property rights, and preserving individual accountability, then this is plainly what a Hayekian approach would recommend.

Of course, there are interesting questions to be asked about what a Hayekian should say in cases where critical ecological systems cannot be protected without undermining the market order. But given the wide range of options for advancing ecological goals without eroding markets, Hayekians should be highly skeptical of allegations that such choices must be made. In practice, it seems likely that such dilemmas will be exceedingly rare. Hence, as a general matter, Hayekian environmentalism can safely define itself by its refusal to sacrifice economic functionality in the name of environmental protection, even though in certain exceptional cases this position might need to be qualified.

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