The Case for Small Government

A Libertarian Perspective on Economic and Social Policy

April 15, 2006

Endangered Species

One controversial environmental policy is the Endangered Species Act, which makes it illegal to harm a species that is “listed” by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Act often prevents private owners from developing or using their land if an endangered species is present.

There are two standard arguments for protecting endangered species. Particular species might have commercial or emotional value. Alternatively, “bio-diversity” might provide a social benefit. For example, some scientists believe bio-diversity can be an important source of valuable medicines.

The fact that a species has high commercial or emotional value, however, does not make a case for the ESA. If the species is on private land, market forces give private owners adequate incentive to protect the species. This approach does not work in all instances, such as for whales in the ocean. But in these instances the ESA does not work well either.

The goal of promoting bio-diversity more plausibly suggests a role for government. If everyone benefits from diversity, but no person or group can capture the full benefits, the private protection of endangered species is less than optimal.

Nevertheless, the ESA works badly in practice. The evidence shows it mainly protects megafauna—Bambi—while having minimal impact on diversity. Indeed, the ESA has encourages pre-emptive destruction of habitats that might house an endangered species. And the ESA generates acrimony from owners whose property is “taken.” Such taking are controversial, as discussed in an earlier blog, because current interpretations of the takings clause allow governments to pay less than property owners’ minimum willingness-to-sell price.

If there is a case for protecting endangered species, governments can authorize expenditure to purchase the relevant land. Of course, this approach makes the costs explicit, and many environmentalists fear taxpayers will not ante up. This concern may be accurate. But in a free society, the costs of policies should be more rather than less apparent.

12 Comments:

At 7:23 AM, Blogger Mike Huben said...

Yet another innumerate "three reasons for, many reasons against" argument.

What's particularly nasty about this particular article is the misdirection from the purpose of the ESA: The stated purpose of the Act is not only to protect species, but also "the ecosystems upon which they depend." Endangered species are strong, easily identifiable indicators of ecosystem problems.

Instead, we have repeated focus on private property, with the unspoken presumption that property is absolute. Sorry, the environment is a regulated commons.

The ESA works well, contrary to Miron. Read Measuring the Success of the Endangered Species Act

 
At 10:44 AM, Blogger Chris said...

What exactly do you mean by "we have repeated focus on private property, with the unspoken presumption that property is absolute."

I mean, if it is previously owned by a private individual, is it no longer "owned" because of the exclamation that it will serve the greater good in the hands of the public? Aren't you just inserting your own unspoken presumption that ownership is arbitrary.

I agree though, that the "environment" is pretty much a regulated commons -- with all the national forests and saved farmland and ocean front property owned by the public.

I disagree with your "Endangered species are strong, easily identifiable indicators of ecosystem problems" statement.

If an optimal quantity of animals, plants, bacteria, and other wildlife in an ecosystem exists, what makes you think that zero is not the appropriate optimality?

The environment is both long life and extinction and many animals have gone to their ends by no fault of humanity.

Even though this might not be yours, the underlying assumption is that humanity is entirely influencing ecosystems in an undesirable way. Not only can we not prove that (perhaps it is supposed to be that way), but it is simply a value judgement of those desiring to take a rather static view of environmental issues.

Lastly, we still have to look at the costs and benefits associated with all of this intervention. The fact that we do not begin with a free market on ecosystems, does not take away from this.

 
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