Environmental regulations and individual rights

May 19, 2015 | By WENCONG FA

Majority rule is legitimate only within the boundaries of an individual’s natural rights. The government may properly legislate on whether cars should drive on the right or left side of the road. But few would view the government’s commands as legitimate if it allowed only those who voted for it in the last election to drive.

Is it any different with environmental regulations? Some say there should be a special rule in that context: A collectivist we-are-all-in-this-together approach that gets honor roll grades in theory but often fails in practice.

Just as it is elsewhere, environmental regulations force everyone to adopt one view among many reasonable ones. It matters not that people have different views on economics, development, and so on. When government legislates on a matter, it has the final word.

And, just as it is in other areas, politically powerful insiders with the incentive to establish barriers to entry may well do so under the guise of protecting the public health. As Professor Todd Zywicki recounts, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s promulgation of cotton dust standards for textile mills effectively prevented the creation of new smelting plants. This led to increased profits for existing plants—and higher costs for everyone else.

Thus, even in the arena of environmental regulations, one should be wary of the dangers of government overreach. Often times, the best way to protect the environment is by respecting individual rights.