April 22, 1999
By Becky Norton Dunlop
Neither the federal agents nor the independent environmental
engineer hired by Ms. Cragg could find any scrub jay nests on the
property. Nonetheless, buyers were stalled for 18 months, paying
property taxes all the while on property they couldn't use.
Finally, to settle the matter, Ms. Cragg agreed to buy four acres
offsite for every acre developed onsite. This cost her more than
$100,000, yet the scrub jay, by all available evidence, was no
Common sense says this is bad public policy. Research on
environmental regulations tells an even more disturbing story. To
cite just one example, Heritage Foundation analysts have calculated
the opportunity cost of preventing one death under the Hazardous
Waste Disposal Ban at $4.2 billion. This isn't the budgeted cost of
the program but a statistical projection of what businesses would
have to spend to avert just one fatality. For the same $4.2
billion, America could incarcerate 47,890 criminals for
And what are the opportunity costs of not incarcerating 47,890
criminals for three-and-a-half years? Crime statistics suggest that
if left on the streets for that period of time, those criminals
would be charged with 22,680 violent crimes, 1,035 homicides, 7,711
robberies, 658 kidnappings, 586 rapes, and 1,191 other sexual
assaults. The trade -off: $4 billion to avert one death vs. $4
billion to avert more than 1,000 homicides - to say nothing of the
In short, environmental regulations of this type do not save
lives or enhance the quality of human life. On balance, they cost
lives and diminish the quality of life.
Anecdotes and statistical studies such as these provide the
common-sense argument against fringe environmentalists. The thing
to notice, though, is that these cost-benefit arguments are moral
arguments and, more specifically, utilitarian arguments.
Utilitarianism says the action that would yield the greatest
happiness for the greatest number of people is the one you are
morally obliged to choose.
By this standard, environmental regulations are only appropriate
when they would protect human lives. But the growing body of
evidence shows that environmental regulations cost lives.
Environmentalists lose the utilitarian debate.
That is why they are shifting their argument. They no longer say
environmental regulations save lives. They say such regulations are
necessary to protect fundamental rights - not human rights but the
rights of animals, trees and even majestic purple mountains.
To dismiss such thinking as bizarre would be a mistake. Many who
harbor such ideas are serious people with serious objectives. They
mean to alter core legal precepts and thereby restrict human
freedoms traditionally protected by law.
Return to Anita Cragg and her Florida subdivision. Development
was halted because her land was "suitable for occupation by scrub
jays." Such a restriction of the landowners' freedom could not be
justified by the utility of doing so. But that won't settle the
matter if the debate shifts to rights. If animals have rights, our
rights are not superior to theirs. Indeed, if jay birds have
rights, then their rights trump our utility. Suddenly, utilitarian
arguments have no persuasive power.
My point is not to preach doom, but reality. Radicals ideas
shouted from the streets in the 1960s entered the mainstream and
became embedded in our nation's cultural and legal fabric. By
extension, today's thinking that bird rights trump human rights
could enjoy a similar elevation, with equally serious
Common sense is no longer enough to thwart the aims of those who
put the Earth First and people about seventh - after snail darters.
What we need is a restoration of the legal precept that
regulations, environmental or otherwise, must produce some benefit
for human beings.
Norton Dunlop, a former secretary of natural resources for
the Commonwealth of Virginia, is now Vice President for External
Relations at The Heritage Foundation.
Distributed nationally on the Associated Press Wire
Coming Down to Earth Day
Becky Norton Dunlop
Vice President, External Relations
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