The EPA is being roundly, and deservedly, attacked for the recent spill of toxic chemicals into the Animas River in Colorado—a nasty accident that’s turned the picturesque waterway an ugly yellow-orange. Locals are especially angry that the Agency hasn’t been forthcoming about precisely what damage has been done. The EPA itself seems confused, as today’s Guardian notes:
On Monday…Joan Card, an adviser to the EPA, announced [on a conference call] that no public water systems were affected in Utah and that a total of four were closed in Colorado and New Mexico. As if to demonstrate the disorder plaguing the agency’s response, Ron Curry, a New Mexico EPA administrator jumped in to correct Card, saying that five public water systems were closed in New Mexico alone.
Now, accidents happen. But many are pointing out that the Administration is nowhere near as fast to condemn the EPA as it was to condemn, say, BP after the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At that time, President Obama was quick to boast of his plans to “kick” BP’s “ass,” and keep his “boot” on their “neck[s].” But now, the Administration and its supporters seem to regard the EPA’s spill as an unfortunate but unusual event—one to be calmly rectified—whereas BP’s spill was evidence of the evils of capitalism and proof of the need for more government. [Update: Note that the Sierra Club calls for only the mine owners, not the EPA, to be punished.]
And the double-standard runs deeper than that. A citizen who commits even an accidental discharge of a pollutant into a river faces extremely severe penalties. The government, however, is typically immune even from its own environmental laws. And while the EPA might be held liable here if it can be shown to have committed severe negligence, the most likely outcome is what usually happens: congressional hearings, with self-aggrandizing politicians scolding red-faced, apologetic bureaucrats, who aren’t fired, suffer no really meaningful punishment—whose excuse is that they don’t get enough funding—and who go on a few weeks later with Government-As-Usual.
The problem with the EPA isn’t that it spilled pollutants in the river. That’s an accident. The problem with the EPA is that, unlike a corporate wrongdoer, the EPA isn’t really responsible to anyone. As a bureaucratic agency, staffed by unelected “experts” who wield extreme powers to make the law, enforce the law, and punish violations of the law, the EPA is fundamentally unaccountable. BP has to answer not only to regulators but to stockholders and consumers, who can deprive the company of its income, can shop elsewhere, and can sue it for breaking the law. Administrative agencies like the EPA are typically immune from lawsuits—or are effectively shielded from serious risk of lawsuits by a thicket of procedural delays—and are staffed by bureaucrats who do not answer to voters and often enjoy powerful government-union protections. Worse, consumers can’t shop somewhere else. The EPA is “single-payer” environmentalism.
One reason we’ve always argued for less federal involvement, and greater state involvement in environmental protection is because such policies improve the chances that local citizens will get the ideal balance between environmental protection and industrial progress and development. Federalism encourages competition of a sort. For the same reason, increased competition among environmental groups is preferable to a system that puts the job of protecting the environment into the hands of a single entity—the government—against whom competition isn’t allowed. You wouldn’t want to do that with the nation’s food supply, for instance: competition produces greater variety, more choice, lower prices for food. As a result, Americans are the first people in world history to suffer a crisis not of starvation, but obesity! So why not treat environmental protection the same? It’s is a service like any other. And already, private environmental groups tend to do a better job of protecting the environment than the government, which is paid even if it gets things wrong. Maybe that’s why nations with the weakest property rights and the largest amount of government control over the economy and environment, tend to be vastly more polluted than freer societies with open markets and strong property rights. Such institutions empower consumers to choose cleaner options, instead of leaving those decisions with politicians and bureaucrats.
True, the EPA has often abused its powers in disturbingly high-handed ways, but in the end, it’s not that EPA-people are bad people, any more than private industry-people are bad people. It’s about the incentives. Making people responsible means making them pay for their mistakes (and letting them keep the rewards of their good choices). Putting something as crucial as environmental protection into the hands of administrative bureaucrats, who do not pay for their mistakes—who are paid even if they get it wrong—is a very bad idea. Private industry can be greedy, dishonest, and nasty. But so can government. What, then, makes you think you can trust the government more?—an entity over which you have far less practical control than you do over private industry? Private industry should be accountable, and tort law and competition help keep it accountable. Government should be accountable, too. But it’s immune from most tort law (even when it is liable, it pays with our money), and there’s no competing against it. That’s why single-payer environmentalism is a recipe for disaster(s).