The Free Market and Environmental Ethics

According to Market Economists, Laissez Faire economics is the acceptable way to interact with the market

According to Market Economists, Laissez Faire economics is the acceptable way to interact with the market

When examining an anthropocentric worldview it is important to note whether or not that worldview incorporates the free market. Market based thinkers often see the world as composed of voluntary exchanges in which all parties involved benefit in the exchange. If economists consider non-human animals as worth moral consideration then the market of today would be radically different in order to accommodate that fact. As of now, many do not.

Two thinkers who believe that environmental issues can take on an anthropocentric viewpoint but also can differ in the way that the free market functions in them are William Baxter and Garret Hardin.

William Baxter (left) used anti-trust laws to dismantle telephone company trusts

William Baxter held the opinion that non-human animals have no moral consideration of their own and any moral consideration of animals is in relation to humans. His highly economic viewpoint dissects human interests with a cost-benefit analysis. He maintained that human beings are inherently selfish and that we should have free market laissez-faireism to determine trade offs with minimal governmental regulation in the market. To him human beings are consumers and if in their consumption of products minimal pollution is created that ensures a product’s creation and does not offset the overall benefit, then there exists optimal levels of pollution. This is in direct contrast with those thinkers who believe we must preserve all natural beauty.

Garret Hardin believed that overpopulation was one of humanity's greatest ecological problems

Garret Hardin believed that overpopulation was one of humanity’s greatest ecological problems

Garret Hardin also maintained that human needs trump non-human animal needs, but his focus tends to be on limiting human impacts on the Earth and future generations at all costs. His ideas were unique in that he actually considered the rights of future, voiceless generations. He did not have the optimism of most economists as he felt that the common good is often worse off in economic exchanges when he looked at the “social costs” of the degraded commons and “ecosystem goods and services” are passed on to them by individual companies. His pet problem was overpopulation and the troubles that it could cause into the future and his solutions included using coercive taxes to forbid having many children and thus using resources wastefully. He also felt, as Baxter did, that the common human was selfish but concluded, more realistically, that none would sincerely look out for the benefit of the commons had there been nothing but market forces acting upon the economic actors.

Garret Hardin discusses the Tragedy of the Commons (above)

In addition, Hardin also includes negative externalities, these are important factors in creating indirect external costs not paid for, or not fully paid for by the companies, and thus not included in product pricing, thus giving wrong market signals of true costs (costs are borne by other parties).

Unintended negative externalities of a highway could be noise, exhaust, or even bright lights at all hours.

One way of categorizing competing approaches to deciding environmental disputes is by dividing them into a group of those who assume the mechanism of the marketplace is the proper means of determining the allocation of resources to different productive uses and those that believe that matters should not be left to the whims of the marketplace.

The economic approach, as evidenced by Baxter and Hardin’s views, is sensitive to facts, it is specific and it suggests a method for resolving questions of trade-offs between ends. As for the economist’s earlier claims of being a social science free of values, I definitely disagree. Economists can range from those Libertarians such as Baxter who believe that interference in the free market is a crime and those more liberal who believe that there is some regulation involved in a fair, efficient marketplace. The former view tends to think that humans are logical enough to look at a resource scarcity and choose to conserve more while the latter view sees humans as only needing to be coerced into doing something with incentives of money. Both see humans as emotionless, droll property holders who ignore matters of spirituality and ethics. When you take the humanity out of humans you create a new valuative position.

William Niskanen, former chairman of the Cato institute, was a libertarian economist who worked for the Reagan administration and looked to promote free trade

Anthropocentric economic concepts of the market such as the Invisible hand or the Pareto criterion perhaps one day may be extended to non-human entities. Just as the rights of slaves were slowly increased due to moral arguments and novel ideas of the day, the same goes with non-human entities that in my opinion deserve to be treated as more than just resources in a marketplace. The mechanisms themselves state that as long as those involved work, they should not be treated as means to an end instead of the end. If, one day, cattle or apes and lab rats are no longer considered means to an end then the same rules will be upheld for them as well. Looking back at Aldo Leopold, it is clear that he would also feel that non-human animals may one day achieve these ends. Leopold believed that all beings in an ecosystem were interdependent in relation to one another, and one group was not more important than another.  If non-humans were given the same legal right I think that he would surely support this choice.

Laboratory rats, much like this one, may one day be forbidden from being experimented on due to their moral status

Unfortunately, it seems that those among the camp of the economic theory of environmental problems, such as moral egoists or social Darwinists, seem to have less empathy for “the losers,” in the end. Judging by their rhetoric and the way they look at those who rely on welfare or those non-humans that are not immediately seen as beneficial means to human ends, they would not care about those who end up worse-off. This is a flaw in my book that the viewpoint has, because it does not seem to account for the sheer majority of people who are directly in need of help due to economic difficulties and thus it also discounts any real empathy that they could have towards something that is not purely economical. Despite the importance of the economy, one must always remember that there is so much more to human existence that goods that are bought and traded.

“She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”                                   -Ronald Reagan on “welfare queens”

The economic approach is practical and realistic in the end and despite the ideas that I hold, it is clear that looking at economic mechanisms are much more practical for human well-being. As for my bio-centric leanings, the view does not satisfy my feelings on that end. I do not agree that only humans morally count and thus only the benefits or harms to humans have weight, but I understand that sometimes this viewpoint forms out of necessity. I only hope that in the future there will be economists who see the inequalities in their own markets and put a stop to the modern oppression of animals and the rectification of environmental problems before it is too late.

Many economists do not see biomes such as this wetland as a useful environment to preserve but it does have inherent benefits


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