Protecting the Environment Through the Ownership Society — Part II

Policy Reports | Energy and Natural Resources

No. 295
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
by H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D.


President Bush's innovative concept of the ownership society is indebted to Western intellectuals. Great thinkers from Aristotle to Locke to the American founders recognized that secure individual property rights are an effective means of promoting both individual happiness and social welfare, and of maintaining political liberty. However, they did not recognize that property rights could also be used effectively to protect the environment.

People typically use their property to increase their well-being, which, as Adam Smith argued, redounds to the benefit of society. But property use comes with responsibilities. First, property owners bear the costs of the bad decisions they make with their property if their choices result in economic losses or in the destruction of the property itself. Secondly, they have the responsibility to use their property in ways that do not violate the rights of others - and should be penalized when they do.

Government ownership and management of natural resources severs the link between the decisions of those using the resources and the negative consequences of their choices. It leads to a variety of economic ills, but also results in environmental destruction. Applying the concept of the ownership society would reduce incentives to destroy the environment. Indeed, it could create positive incentives for entrepreneurs to provide or expand environmental amenities on privately owned land, including former federally owned land, and to protect and enhance the world's fisheries.

NOTE: Nothing written here should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the National Center for Policy Analysis or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.

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