Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How Republicans are encouraging command-and-control environmental regulation

The short answer is that Republicans encourage command-and-control environmental regulation because they're stopping environmental innovation that's often market-based, and old-style regulation is what's left. Proof:

  • 1. National level. The big thing is climate change. The Republicans, with the help of some environmentalists on the left, killed cap-and-trade legislation. The carbon tax favored by the left environmentalists never got anywhere at all, and that's it for market approaches. What's left is command-and-control regulation through the Clean Air Act and the EPA. Another example is ocean fisheries, where Republicans have killed environmental attempts to establish "catch shares" that individually reward fishers when fish populations grow. So instead, we go with the old-style telling fishers how much of what to catch, when, and how they can do it.

  • 2. State level. Here in California, the geniuses behind Proposition 26 have made it much harder to charge a fee on polluters for the damage they cause to the environment. (Incidentally, I attended a conference last week where a room full of lawyers could not figure out the effect Proposition 26 will have on government regulation, so fun times are ahead.) But all it affects is fees, not direct regulation and prohibitions, so one effect is to push direct control instead of recovery of externalities.

  • 3. Local level. We've been trying with some success in the Bay Area to reduce the use of single-use takeout bags. The plastic bag industry, even before Prop 26, fought attempts to put a small fee on takeout plastic bags by litigation that argued this promoted paper bags with mixed environmental consequences. The result has been a semi-complete ban on plastic bags, ban on paper bags with no recycled content, and a fee on allowed paper bags. The industry efforts converted the fee into an outright command to ban plastic bags.

Conservatives often like to cite the law of unintended consequences when discussing environmental regulation. Not only does this overlook the unintended consequences of environmentally harmful actions, it misses the unintended consequences of promoting old-school environmental regulation instead.

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