Protecting the Environment Through the Ownership Society — Part I

Policy Reports | Energy and Natural Resources

No. 282
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
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 founders of this country recognized that secure individual property rights are an effective means of promoting both individual happiness and social welfare, and of maintaining political liberty. However, neither they nor the Bush administration have recognized that property rights could also be used quite 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 that 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 not to use their property in ways that violate the rights of others — and are penalized when they do so.

"Property owners have incentives to make wise choices."

Government subsidies for agriculture and coastal or floodplain development, and policies that discourage the promotion and protection of wildlife on peoples' lands, have severed the link between the decisions of individual property owners and the negative consequences of their choices. These policies lead to a variety of economic ills, but they also result in environmental destruction. Applying the concept of the ownership society to these policies would reduce incentives to destroy the environment and, indeed, could create positive incentives for entrepreneurial efforts to provide environmental amenities on privately-owned land.

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.

Read Article as PDF