Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Discouraging Tree-Cutting And Other Harmful Behaviors

Checking into several instances of illegal, improvident or misconceived tree-cutting in Durham, NC, where I live, has reminded me of a recent survey this year revealing that:

  • 2.5 to 1 Americans are very concerned about the state of the environment,
  • yet by 2 to 1, they don’t believe that their government is working hard to make sure we have a clean environment.

There is much we don’t know about in dendrology, the study of trees, but what we know so far is that they are incredibly valuable, far beyond aesthetics, and especially as what Jim Robbins terms “eco-technology” in his excellent new book The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan To Save The Planet.

They clearly warrant societal efforts to curb deforestation and incentivize reforestation and afforestation (a little-known term which means planting trees where they have not existed.)

As a political Independent, I’ve been bugging my Republican friends  with questions designed to gain a better understanding of their party’s obsession about regulations.

I’ve been frustrated myself during the evolution of such regulations and certainly here in North Carolina where a majority of citizens believe it was a very misguided piece of legislation that passed last year in their state that suborns thousands of acres of publicly-owned roadside trees to the interests of out-of-state billboard companies, a view shared by Republican-candidate for Governor, Pat McCrory.

In 1859, as the United States of America was unraveling, only a generation after its formation, John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty provided the utilitarian rationale for when government should limit individual freedom whenever there is no other way to prevent harm to others.

One Republican friend and former elected official theorizes that regulations have become increasingly complex in direct response to the failure of executive branches at all levels of government to enforce them in the first place, creating a sort of ever-tightening feedback loop.  I can certainly see his point.

Based on my recent experiences and investigations, I’m even more persuaded though by Cornell economist, Robert H. Frank, who argues in his excellent 2011 book entitled The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good that:

“…it’s generally better to discourage harmful behavior by making it more expensive than by prohibiting it outright. Society’s interest lies in reducing the the total amount of harmful behavior, not in reducing harmful behavior by specific individuals.”

I found in examining instances of illegal tree-cutting here in Durham that prohibitions are virtually worthless because it is so incredibly easy (and inexpensive) for violators to claim the cutting was “inadvertent.” The penalties are rarely applied and when they usually involve some form of replanting of very dinky trees that will take decades before they compensate for the harm to the public.

Frank argues that taxation is a far more effective way to curb behavior when directed at things that harm society, groups and individuals vs. taxing productive activities.

By that he means activities that genuinely add value and create wealth, not rent-seeking behaviors such as those by outdoor billboard companies whose only value is parasitically-reliant on public roadways and the destruction of public property or leveraged buyouts that strip out value for private equity firms.

We need to make these and other bad behaviors very expensive.  But instead, we tax them little or not at all and far less than we do for productive behaviors.

We’ve learned the hard way that indiscriminate deregulation isn’t an answer.  But I believe Professor Frank’s overview of both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin and their insights about both the upside and the downside of the free market and consumerism is well worth a read for anyone.

But as Professor Frank famously tells students:  you should never underestimate the “power of ideology (at any point on the spectrum) to disable critical thinking.”

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