Two weeks ago I heard my colleague, Paula, in the office next to mine, exclaim, “I hate my sister.” The sister inspired this remark by sending a taunting e-mail that included Martha’s Stewart’s Going Green Checklist: 101 Ways to Get Started.” Apparently these siblings share a love for Martha Stewart, and the younger one wanted to rub it in my colleague’s face that “Martha is on my side.”
“But I do all these things,” Paula shouted at the monitor, listing her checks on the checklist: “Eat what’s in season,” “Find new uses for old things,” “Don’t charge your phone overnight,” “Line dry your clothes when possible.” Paula’s younger sister presumed that her big sis was anti-green because she is a conservative. Indeed, on at least one of Marths’a 101 Ways, Paula isn’t on board: “Vote for change.” In this context, this clearly meant: “Vote for politicians who will use the might of government to mandate or subsidize these activities, and prohibit or punish their alternatives.”
The younger sister’s view seemed to be: you are either for more government, or you are against the environment. Put even less pleasantly: you have to choose between liberty and being green. She’s not alone. When free-market policy wonk Susan Dudley of the Mercatus Center was nominated to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, one environmentalist website pointed out that Dudley opposes regulations of auto emissions but herself drives a hybrid: “In Dudley’s worldview,” the blogger wrote, “there’s no inconsistency between making the personal choice to save on gas, while opposing standards to keep our air clean and our cars fuel efficient. Seems bizarre? It’s called Dudleynomics.”
It’s probably evident to all readers here that there certainly is no inconsistency between trying to be a good steward of the environment and opposing environmental regulations. At least 98 of Martha Stewart’s 101 suggestions make this clear. There is absolutely nothing contradictory about “Fix[ing] leaky faucets” or even “Dress[ing] sustainably,” and opposing increased state control over our lives.
In fact, when you read down Martha’s list, almost all of her ideas save you money (okay, not “buy[ing] organic food”) and many of them save enough money that they’re even worth your time. But many businesses have taken this “what’s good for the environment is good for business” line too far. Sure, using less energy can often save a company money and thus fatten the bottom line—providing bigger returns for shareholders and saving more coal for the rest of us. But when you hear General Electric or Chevron talk that sort of talk, usually they mean: “We invest in worthless technologies, lobby for the right subsidies or mandates, and get rich.” This, too, provides returns to shareholders, but at the expense of the taxpayers and our liberty.
These types, and their political patrons, often call for “market-based solutions” to environmental problems. But conservatives and libertarians aren’t supposed to love every “market” that comes our way. We like markets that are freely entered or exited. If the government starts rationing carbon dioxide emissions, sure a market to trade CO2 credits will emerge, but, heck, government food rationing in the Soviet Union created all sorts of markets that wouldn’t have otherwise existed—and we don’ think that was good.
On the other side of things, we ought to resist falling into the temptation many conservatives and libertarians face, and decide that concern for the environment or waste is a flighty thing for dirty hippies. Younger conservatives, used to being contrarians on campuses dominated by imbalanced lefties, find it cute to advocate paving the rainforests. One prominent center-right activist in town likes to joke in his off-the-record meetings, “Kill trees because trees killed Sonny Bono.” As jokes or barbs to rile up self-righteous debating partners, these might be fine, but we shouldn’t forget that conservation and stewardship of creation really are good things.
Libertarianism is a philosophy about government, not about a way of life. It doesn’t prescribe which decisions you freely make. And conservatism tells us we should be wary of modernity’s project of conquering nature. Simple morality tells us that it’s wrong to use more of a scarce resource than you have to, and traditional ideas of virtue teach that sacrifice and frugality are good habits for our soul.
Indeed, reflecting on conservation as a virtue impels us to reject both extremes—disregard for the environment and heavy government intervention in the name of protecting the environment.
The impulse towards state action often arises from the frustrated realization of the guy who bikes to work to reduce his pollution, but realizes that his own little contribution won’t reduce smog by any appreciable amount. He thinks he’s not doing any good, because he’s not noticeably changing the world. Therefore, he concludes that through politics—through government’s ability to coerce the masses—is the appropriate way to show stewardship.
But this way of thinking is wrong because it ignores two important aspects of virtue. First, the nanny-stater forgets that coerced virtue is barely virtue at all. Freedom is a pre-condition of morality.
More importantly, doing the right thing is still doing the right thing even if it doesn’t “make the world a better place” in some way we can see. Virtue is virtue not because it ensures the greatest good for the greatest number, but because a life lived according to virtue is a happy life—even if your little sister tries to make you feel like a bad person.
Tim Carney is the author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money. He is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire