Should Environmental Citizenship, Politics and Law Override the Free Market?

Environmental citizens, those who invest in politics rather than consumer fads, are preferred in some ways to certain thinkers

Environmental citizens, those who invest in politics rather than consumer fads, are preferred in some ways to certain thinkers

Despite what previous blog entries have detailed there are many who believe that the Free market should not be a determining factor in politics, and values and politics should override it in terms of environmental issues. The main argument that thinkers such as Mark Sakoff and Ernest Partridge make is that despite the common conception of a person as solely a consumer to economists people are not so one-dimensional and are also ethical and moral citizens.

Mark Sagoff, a philosopher, discussed the ethical decisions involved with enforcing environmental decisions

Mark Sagoff, a philosopher, discussed the ethical decisions involved with enforcing environmental decisions

Mark Sagoff particularly questions, why are political questions not all economic? His answer comes down to the idea that public law cannot be replaced with economic analysis because it does not factor in certain quality of life issues, although there are certain cases in which economic analysis is most useful. He outlines a particular case study of a town of people in Upstate New York called Lewiston around which waste disposal from the Manhattan Project took place. The citizens of the town were infuriated by the frequent radon gas that was blown over to their homes and public spaces by the wind and went to the corporations in charge of it to complain.

Lewiston, NY fought for their right not to be inundated by radon gas

Lewiston, NY fought for their right not to be inundated by radon gas

What followed was a basic denial of their rights as citizens to complain. The local corporation made clear that they were using a cost-benefit analysis to make their disposal decisions and if the townspeople truly wanted to correct this issue they could pay to take it up with them. This scenario thus points out what is inherently wrong with the mechanism of cost-benefit analysis. Though it is well-utilized when economic decisions call for a weighing of the benefits of investment, incentive weighing and more, it is clear that applying cost-benefit analysis to environmental policy will create problems.

The Niagara Falls Storage Site of uranium tailings still stands near Lewiston today.

The Niagara Falls Storage Site of uranium tailings still stands near Lewiston today.

When you look at the way decisions are made in this mind-set you look at the distinction between a consumer and a citizen, but are public goals meant to be private? Most of the time there are certain preferences that are expressed by a person’s consumer instincts as opposed to your thoughts as a citizen, but if we only take a person’s preference to be the one expressed in the market then their political preferences will be neglected.

In the case of the cost-benefit analysis problem, there are certainly limitations to what should or should not be done for the sake of the benefits to the company because of general concerns of human well-being. For example, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute was charged with adhering to certain work safety standards and they were not happy about it. When they contested the standards, stating that the costs of applying them would outweigh the benefits of remaining in the market, the Court asserted that agencies that have to apply a law do not need to justify it on the grounds of a cost-benefit analysis and even though these standards may conflict with the goal of efficiency, they still express the political will of the nation.

Safety concerns over cotton dust during manufacturing led OSHA to charge a regulation in the textile manufacturing business. Dust is a common problem for worker safety.

Safety concerns over cotton dust during textile manufacturing led OSHA to charge a regulation to the textile manufacturing business. Dust is a common problem for worker safety in many industries, as evidenced by this diagram.

It is obvious that there are competing conceptions of how people in the United States should identify themselves. Some people believe that environmental quality and worker safety are more important than the overall cost of the commodities and take on a citizen role, while others who would rather be ruled by the free market take on a consumer role. In the end, it is important, but many times hard to not treat people as merely a bundle of preferences to be judged in cost-benefit analyses. In Sagoff’s view, environmental resources are not simply public goods in the economist’s sense but something much more-value is subjective so people will feel more or less actual emotion towards natural places, beings and phenomena. There is something more important than cost values in this sense.

Ernest Partridge is a researcher and teacher of moral philosophy who holds similar sentiments to Mark Sagoff. He argues that the media, consumer culture and political deadlocks are causing a communication rift between those in power and citizens. To him, there is a difference between the ideal citizen and the ideal consumer and he tends to lean towards the notion that both now operate via mechanisms of “gut feelings,” instead of logically thought-out ideas. When the voter is reduced to a bundle of emotions and impulses then campaigners no longer need to make legitimate debates about issues backed up with evidence. This idea not only applies to matters of environmental policy but to policy in every sense of the word.

Ernest Partridge, a moral philosopher, discusses how the media distorts political issues today

Ernest Partridge, a moral philosopher, discusses how the media distorts political issues today

Both views claim that using free-market principles to drive every political decision on environmental issues would not work, especially with the gut-reaction decisions that people tend to be making nowadays. It would be a grave error to apply the cost-benefit analysis to many decisions in the political realm simply because it does not take into consideration the moral and ethical facets of the decision as well. Oftentimes, free-market decisions may even make the situation worse.

I think that the two thinkers really raise some important points about the ideas of free market and what should be considered an ethical and overall environmentally sound decision. I don’t think that we must completely eliminate certain free-market principles but I agree that having society lean on one side for its decision-making is not a good idea. My question is, how can we get out of this system of thoughtless decision-making and stop being ruled by pundits, as Partridge described our political arena. The answer may be to become more active citizens and consumers by researching environmental issues and the parties involved, and being responsible in electing officials and consuming products. In the end, the power is with the people, consumer or citizen, although sometimes we cannot see it.

Becoming a more active citizen is what is never a bad decision when it comes to environmental issues

Becoming a more active citizen is what is never a bad decision when it comes to environmental issues

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