I have a bumper sticker on my desk that reads “I’m an environmentalist, but NOT the anti-human, collectivist kind.” In Washington state, too many believe that to be one you must be the other. In fact, however, wherever we look, we see people working in a free market doing more for environmental sustainability than politicians and government programs. Unfortunately, much of our current environmental approach sees the only solution coming from collectivist approaches like public transit and sees humans, and especially human freedom, as the enemy.

As we celebrate his birthday, we can also celebrate Milton Friedman’s fundamental commitment to the reality that even as politicians tell us we cannot make progress on environmental stewardship without them, individuals in a free market system are already doing it.

Perhaps Milton Friedman’s greatest insight is recognizing the power of free and voluntary interactions between people to improve lives and find ways to be better stewards of resources. Those voluntary interactions exist whether we recognize them or not, even when politicians might wish to stifle them.

As Friedman notes in Capitalism and Freedom, even as McCarthyism sought to blacklist some for their views, the power of people’s desire to make quality films allowed one blacklisted writer to win an Academy Award using a nom de plume. Jim Crow laws in the south are another example of politicians using the power of government to limit voluntary interactions between people.

A similar pattern emerges with environmental policy. Politicians promise their schemes will yield benefits but when they fail, those same politicians push for more of the same – at the expense of individual liberty.

The City of Seattle claims success in meeting the Kyoto Protocol’s carbon reduction targets but quietly admits that “economic factors,” i.e. individual efforts to save energy, rather than government regulations created the reduction. Metro buys soy diesel to cut carbon emissions in its buses, only to dump it a year later when it turned out the cost was too high and it didn’t help the environment. And rather than allowing school districts to find the best way to cut energy costs, legislators required schools to meet a cookie cutter “green” building standard the legislature’s own auditor says costs more than it saves.

Perhaps the area where Milton Friedman would have most to say about the green movement is in the claim that “green” jobs will create prosperity. When visiting China, Friedman watched as laborers worked to build a dam with shovels and picks. He asked why they weren’t using modern equipment. When his Chinese hosts explained that this was a jobs program, Friedman responded “Then why aren’t they using spoons?” Green jobs work in a similar way.

Greens brag that it takes more labor to produce a kilowatt hour of green energy than traditional energy. This is like bragging that banning tractors would create more agricultural jobs. Workers would be poorer, prices would be higher, but politicians could claim they created more “jobs.”

Indeed, we could probably create an even greater number of green jobs by putting those workers on a treadmill to create “renewable” energy.

Despite a record of failed environmental policies, some see the solution as more government intervention, not less.

For example, in her book Green Gone Wrong, Heather Rogers laments the fact that there isn’t “social control of capital,” saying the failure of environmentalism to make a bigger impact is due to the lack of government power to make decisions for the planet. Ironically, she also laments the failure of the Indonesian government to protect mangrove swamps in that country, saying the political leaders side with big companies rather than indigenous peoples. Her philosophy comes down to something like “the government should be in control of key decisions, except when it shouldn’t.” Indeed, this is the only philosophy those who believe in government power can have. They can only make it up as they go, hoping the imposition of this regulation or law will work out better than the last and assuming the very people who often turn out to have their personal interests in mind, not the planet’s, will make good decisions.

People in a free market consistently do better than politicians because they can harness the creativity of millions of people, each looking to reduce the amount of energy and resources they use, rewarding those who come up with the best solutions.

This pro-human approach, respecting the voluntary choices of individuals and their relationships with each other, is not only more successful, it is more moral.

Each of us has an incentive to use as few resources as possible to attain the lifestyle we want to live. We don’t want to waste energy, food or resources because such waste is antithetical to the efficiency that is central to a free market approach.

It is why an economic mindset is so critical to offering the environmental amenities we in the Evergreen State love. Environmentalism is born of a concern about scarce resources. Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources. What could be a better match?

It is why environmentalism should leave the government-heavy mindset of the 1970s behind, and honor the contributions Milton Friedman made not only to human freedom and prosperity, but to future environmental sustainability.

This year we celebrate not another year of the man, perhaps, but another year of the man’s ideas that make such a difference for people and the planet.


Guest contributor Todd Myers is Director of Washington Policy Center’s Center for the Environment. He is one of the nation’s leading experts on free-market environmental policy and is the author of Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism is Harming the Environment, Five Years of Environmental Policy: Are We Making a Difference; Promoting Personal Choice, Incentives and Investment to Cut Greenhouse Gases, and more.  Todd’s in-depth research on the failure of the state’s 2005 “green” building mandate continues to receive national attention.  Todd holds a Master’s degree from the University of Washington.