Environmental Justice – Why Conservatives Should Care

Environmental Justice (EJ) is back in the news this week as Democratic members of Congress introduce legislation that would codify President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 and establish requirements for federal agencies to address environmental justice.

While EJ has become a talisman and rallying cry for many liberals and social justice activists, for many on the political right it represents everything that’s wrong with the EPA and the anticapitalist socialism polluting American culture today.  So what are conservatives to think about EJ?  Why should conservatives care about the disparate impacts of environmental pollution on the poor and minority communities?

Strip away all the political baggage, EJ is an issue that conservatives should care about, because it is a emblematic of both market and government failures, both of which conservatives have something to say and care deeply about.  But, more importantly, it involves a concern for the “common good” and everyday people whose lives are adversely impacted by conditions – similar to gang violence and drug-infested neighborhoods – over which many are powerless to fix without the help of others.  To care about these issues is the same instinct that compelled Jack Kemp to champion the idea of “enterprise zones” for inner cities or that motivates EPA Chief, Scott Pruitt, to focus on accelerating the cleanup up contaminated properties.

While the EJ activists have largely turned their sights on Corporate America as the bete noire of capitalism, EJ issues are oftentimes the consequence of failed government, including for example failing instructure that results in unsafe drinking water (think Flint Michigan), polluted surface water, and raw sewage basement backups.

At a minimum, EJ is an issue certainly worthy of a deeper dive to understand the causes and possible solutions, conservative solutions rather than more big government.  And toward that end, I would direct you to a great piece of scholarship by Dr. Spencer Banzhaf, a professor of Economics from Georgia State University, which was part of a PERC series.   Dr. Banzhaf advances several interpretations of the correlation between pollution and local demographics.

  1. The simplest interpretation is that [companies] react to demographics in determining the pollution patterns we observe.  That is, [companies] may discriminate out of racist motives, may seek out areas with weaker political power.  For example, companies that expand their processing of hazardous wastes in areas with lower voter turnout.
  2. A similar interpretation is that [companies], while not reacting so much to local demographics per se, are attracted to other factors that happen to be spatially correlated with the demographic composition of neighborhoods.  Factors might include low land prices, access to transportation corridors, and proximity to suppliers because of benefits derived from clustering activities related to [corporate] operations.
  3. A third interpretation focuses attention not so much on firms as on governments, and their failure to enforce environmental standards and regulations equitably.  Governments might enforce standards more rigorously in areas with higher levels of political support for the current administration.  Or, government enforcement agencies might lack the incentives to enforce standards unless forced to do so by stakeholders.   Since the squeaky wheel gets the grease, agencies would be more likely to respond to better organized, better connected, and more politically powerful citizens. If so, this might also be a further reason [companies] would be attracted to areas with less political power.
  4. A fourth interpretation, known as “coming to the nuisance,” essentially reverses the causality.  [Companies] site their facilities and make other production decisions for many reasons, and demographics may be a negligible factor.  But pollution in any given location makes the place less attractive to residents.  Wealthier households especially will move out or avoid the area.  Land and housing prices will fall.  Poorer households may move in, attracted by the low housing costs despite the pollution.
  5. The final interpretation is that the geographical pattern of local environmental nuisances arises from negotiations between [companies] and local residents, in which [companies] compensate communities for hosting unwanted facilities.  As Ronald Coase (1960) argued, such negotiations would arise when the right to pollute (or to be free of pollution) is clearly defined and when the costs of negotiation and transacting compensatory payments are low. In this Coasian world, other things equal, [companies] would locate in neighborhoods willing to accept lower payments as compensation.

Continue reading PERC Report on Environmental Justice.

As the conservative icon, Russell Kirk, once wrote, “only the unscrupulous or shortsighted can defend pollution and degradation of the countryside.”