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On Going Through the World with Our Hats Off

R&L: At the heart of any discussion about the environment is the question, “What kind of world do we want to live in?” What, to your way of thinking, is the best environment for man?

Dennis: The best environment for man is the environment for liberty. This is an environment that has been hard-won over the years and was somewhat accidental in its occurrence; that is to say, one thousand years ago, men did not go out and say, “We want to live free,” but they learned through trial and error that freedom is a better way for human beings to live. It gave them an opportunity to act like men rather than as slaves, to free their creative capacities, and so, as a by-product, it has created substantial wealth and brought many material benefits and other blessings. Further, it is an environment that, over time, has led to greater amounts of peace among peoples and nations. It is a true, scarce resource.

R&L: What does this environment for liberty consist of?

Dennis: To describe it simply, such an environment consists, first, of limited, balanced, and checked government that does not try to do too much and that leaves most of the responsibilities for daily life in the hands of individuals who may then act freely--alone or together with others--to pursue what they conceive of as the good. Second, it is an environment that is based upon secure, well-defined, transferable property rights, because the manipulation of property is the means by which people exercise their freedom. And third, it is based upon some understanding of the rule of law--not law as a positivist thing, promulgated by the judges and the legislators, but law grounded in the nature of things.

R&L: Many are skeptical that a free society, such as you have described, is good for the natural environment. How would you address that skepticism?

Dennis: If we look at the very earliest archeological explorations of the origins of human beings, we see, right from the start, human beings manipulating the environment to suit their own wellbeing. With the development of agriculture around ten thousand years ago, people began farming the fields and living in towns and villages--that is, living apart from the natural world. So, I think it is in our nature to live apart from the natural environment. As human beings expand their capabilities to manipulate the world for their own interests, the natural world will be changed. This has been happening for a long time; it seems to be a part of the nature of things, and I do not see it as a crisis in and of itself.

Furthermore, until fairly recently, the natural world was a real threat. It brought hardship that made the difference not only between survival and well-being but between life and death. It has only been within the last two or three hundred years that human beings have really had the material luxury of looking upon the natural environment as something that might, in and of itself, be of interest to them. The fact that we now have the material means to approach the natural environment in a way in which we can appreciate and enjoy it is something that ultimately will be good for the natural environment, because now humans include substantial contact with open spaces, wildlife, and wild areas as part of living the good life.

R&L: How can markets contribute to environmental conservation?

Dennis: Markets do two things: They make you take account of the real costs of things, and they make you consider other peoples' interests and demands. On the first point, it is very easy to say, “I want lots of wilderness,” but it is very different to say, “What sorts of costs am I willing to entail to have that wilderness?” Costs are opportunities forgone, and markets make you think seriously about the costs of your demands. On the second point, the market price for something is established through competition for scarce resources and allows human beings to express imperfectly understood and differential interests in a particular resource. If you look at wild nature as a resource about which people have different attitudes, markets allow you to make some rough comparison between apples and oranges.

Another thing, of course, that markets and private property do is give the owner of a particular resource an incentive to do good things with it. “Good” here is defined by the owner--that is true--and all owners will make decisions about their property with which some other people will disagree. However, if the owner makes a decision about the use of his property radically out of step with the market value of that resource, he will see that it quickly depreciates in value, that he is losing value as other people assess things. What we need to remember, though, is that private property and markets help us make decisions, but they do not ensure good decisions. Some people are sure to make bad decisions, but those decisions will be paid for largely by those people themselves through the decline in the value of their property. On the other hand, their good decisions will be largely rewarded through the appreciation by others of what they have done with their property.

R&L: But markets are not perfect.

Dennis: No, they are not perfect, but they are much better than the alternative, where the government comes in and says, “We believe that in our infinite wisdom we know what the ranking values of different resources should be, and we are going to assign relative ranks to them.” We see again and again that when governments do that, they will almost certainly, at some time or another, make a mistake, just as individual property owners do. And when they make a mistake, it is usually a massive one. Look through the history of the world and you see that most massive environmental destruction has been caused by governments.

R&L: Then, a free market institutional arrangement is superior to a command economy. Having said that, though, are markets enough?

Dennis: That question can be answered on two different levels. On the one hand, do we need other kinds of values than market values? And on the other, are there some things that, when it comes to the natural world, governments have a responsibility to do? Let me say something about governments first. One thing governments are capable of doing is defining and protecting property rights. I am not saying that property rights are a governmental construction, but they are a social construction, and once constructed, it helps to have governments enforce them.

There may be another function for government; there may be a few things that government should own and control in the name of the public good, but we need to be very cautious in thinking about what those things should be. For example, there may be a governmental role in preserving the great natural treasures of the nation that somehow define who we are as a nation--Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains--but that is a long way from saying that the u.s. government should own over six hundred million acres of our land, much of which could be ably managed in private hands.

R&L: What about the other part of that question? Do we need other kinds of values in addition to market values?

Dennis: Of course we do. This is a beautiful world we live in, and we are immensely fortunate to live in it. We should have respect for it. We should take care of it. There are different ways to approach that and different people have different ideas of how best to do that. Some will want golf courses, some will want wild woods, some will want carefully tended gardens. These are all good landscapes that human beings can admire and enjoy. For many people, that appreciation, that aesthetic understanding, will be rooted in a religious view of the world. And that is to be applauded.

R&L: In speaking of peoples' appreciation for the natural world being rooted in a religious viewpoint, it seems that you are addressing the Judeo-Christian concept of stewardship. How do you understand the religious foundation of man's responsibility for the care of creation?

Dennis: The Judeo-Christian view of man is that he is God's creature, that he belongs here on this planet. More than that, he has a special place on it, he is made in God's image, and therefore, to some extent, it is not incorrect to say that the world was made for man. That does not mean that man can do anything with it he pleases--quite the reverse. It means he has great responsibilities toward it. It seems to me that the understanding of the Old and New Testaments is that all of this world is God's creation, that all of it is good, and that, to some extent, it is a part of God's mind, His vision. Therefore, human beings who believe in and love this God owe it to Him to treat His vision with respect.

R&L: This perspective differs vastly from most environmental thinking. How would you address these differences between the spirituality of the Judeo-Christian heritage and most environmental thinking?

Dennis: Well, suppose man does not have a spiritual root? Suppose there is not a creator of some personal loving sort, but merely a spiritual presence that put it all into action? What is there to keep man from exploiting the land as he sees fit? Professor E. O. Wilson, whose writing I admire, thinks that a biocentric view of the world will lead us to appreciate it more, to love it better, and to keep the ants and the beetles that he cares about in better shape. I think such a view is just as likely to lead us not to care about ants and beetles at all. I think there is a way you can care about ants and beetles, by seeing that they are a part of God's creation and, because of that, human beings should not treat them carelessly.

R&L: Stewardship is tremendously important, then. How can we faithfully observe this stewardship mandate from both a Christian and a free-market perspective?

Dennis: I realize that when economists talk about the environment, it seems like all they see is the raw stuff out of which to increase economic productivity. It looks like the materialist, acquisitive approach to things, and, of course, that is true for some people. For the great bulk of people most of the time, however, economic prosperity is important because it provides the means to create better physical environments around us. We paint our houses, we plant our rose gardens, we reduce the sewage we throw into the nearby creek, we plant trees. We do such things with the world we live in because we enjoy doing them and we can afford to do so. Such things only a relatively wealthy and free people can do well, and the market allows that to happen.

When I get talking about free market environmentalism, I am afraid people always see me as someone who wants to cut it all down and turn it into factories and suburban housing developments--quite the contrary. I would like to buy some of that wilderness and own it myself and take good care of it and teach people why it is fun to go out in the woods. With the great wealth in this land, the money available to environmental groups, and the vast private fortunes we have among us, it would be good for people to start thinking about how they can own their own wilderness, so to speak, and to use that ownership as good stewards to teach others about those higher values and better ways of life.

One can begin in simple ways, like planting native shrubbery in your lawn, joining a garden club, putting out bird feeders in the winter, contributing to the local conservancy group that purchases private parkland. There are hundreds of groups around the country who are ready with advice about how private things can be done to preserve our environments.

R&L: And the point, I suppose, is that a regime of private property rights and markets best fosters creative ways to conserve wilderness.

Dennis: It leads to creativity, it leads to diversity in that creativity, and it leads to the production of wealth upon which that creativity and diversity can act.

R&L: One thinks of Rosalie Edge and the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

Dennis: What a wonderful example. She was a woman of vision who saw an opportunity to save an important piece of real estate, and long before the Audubon Society saw the importance of preserving the hawks migrating in central Pennsylvania every autumn. She was able to do it because she could get together a group of wealthy contributors and because she lived in a regime in which it was possible to purchase private land and turn it to alternative purposes. Hawk Mountain is now the world's leading center of scientific raptor study and one of America's great private preserves. America has lots of private preserves of one sort or another, and we need to tell the stories of these private efforts of preservation.

R&L: Tell us some of these stories, then. What are some of the exemplars of this kind of stewardship?

Dennis: An example of this kind of private conservation is Avery Island, Louisiana, owned by the McIlhenny family, the producers of Tabasco Sauce. One of the family members created a preserve to protect the snowy egret, which was on the verge of extinction because it was being hunted for its feathers for the manufacture of women's hats. They preserved a sufficient breeding population of snowy egrets so that the egrets survived and could eventually be released back into the wild. It is a great private preserve.

Another great example is Sea Lion Caves in Oregon. These caves were preserved as a tourist attraction by a private entrepreneur at a time when sea lions were being exterminated because fisherman were afraid they were destroying the fishing along the Oregon coast. It is still there today, with a great elevator down through the cliffs to the ocean where you can see the sea lions come in out of the water onto the rocks.

These private efforts and others like them are at least equally significant--and much more creative and diverse--than the national government's great public land-owning agencies.

R&L: These sorts of efforts do generally go unreported. Most seem to want the government to do this job.

Dennis: I get impatient with environmentalists who view their attitudes toward the natural world as so obviously superior and who think that superiority gives them the moral high ground and the right to force others to support their values. I think one of the real principles of liberty is that you should support what you are about with your own resources and efforts. Whenever I say this, they reply, “Oh, we are just small humble people. The great corporations of America will run over us.” Well, that is not true. In the kind of world we live in, humble people banning together and making their contribution toward the preservation of natural beauty can have just as much effect.

R&L: On occasion, you have used the phrase, “We shouldn't go through the world with our hats on.” Could you unpack that a bit for us?

Dennis: It is a phrase I heard from the economist Paul Heyne, who teaches at the University of Washington. It used to be that when you entered a church, you took your hat off as a means of respect. It used to be that you took your hat off when the flag came by. Such formalities are ways in which we can make some kind of expression about the things that we feel are important and deserving of our special attention.

That is the way I think we should go about this world. Every day when we get up, we should be in awe. We should listen to the bird calls and insect noises and identify the plants around us and begin to grasp not only the world's physical beauty but how all the different parts are related to each other and how there seems to be something good about it all. When you build human things, when you put in a road or dig a hole, you should take that natural world into consideration. You should try to bring a good bit of it close to you and care for it as you care for human artifacts. Many people do not look at the world that way, but I think it is a superior value, just as I think Mozart is better than Rock-and-Roll. People with real understanding see that some things are better than others, and living in this world with respect is better than treating it with contempt.