"Free-market Environmentalism": Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Adam Smith

This post at NewMajority.com got me thinking.  I’ve always disliked the term “free-market environmentalist.”  I’m sure part of that reaction is because the term is often used as a fig-leaf for organizations with agendas that are actually inconsistent with environmental protection.  (That’s right PERC, I’m talking to you.)


“Free-market” environmentalist is also a signifier within the conservative movement (that was, I think, how it was being used by Stephanie Herman in the post above).  Saying that you’re a free-market environmentalist tells the listener that while you may care about trees and clean air and all that stuff, you’ve still go your priorities straight.

That’s precisely the problem I have with the phrase.  It fetishizes one tool over another for ideological reasons that don’t have a thing to do with protecting the environment.  Someone committed first and foremost to environmental protection might be quite open to market-based solutions.  In fact, environmentalists have supported any number of market mechanisms (from market- driven air pollution trading programs to tradable fishery quotas).  But those aren’t only solutions that environmentalists will support.  The first question we ask is: what works best?  If it’s a market-based mechanism, great.  If it’s technology forcing, good.  If it’s that old workhorse, command-and-control, that’s ok too.

Now there may be reasons extrinsic to environmental protection to prefer market-based solutions over others (the preservation of property interests; promoting individual freedom from regulation, etc.) but these aren’t concerns about the environment and a heuristic that lets such reasons trump all others may be a lot of things, but a type of “environmentalism” it isn’t.