Donald Boudreaux, a professor of economics at George Mason University, has been a great defender of individual liberty for a long time. One of his favorite projects is pointing out how innovative and usually unnewsworthy market activity, to the extent that government keeps out of the way, increasingly helps us to live in cleaner, healthier surroundings. In other words, if “the environment” matters for human well-being — and it certainly does — the freer that markets are, that is, the freer that we are, the better for everyone. Freedom and the wealth it generates on net make our world better.
This has been known for a long time, but many people have never learned it. (Disclosure: Boudreaux hired me to edit The Freeman magazine in the late 1990s when he became president of the Foundation for Economic Education. Working for him was a pleasure.)
I should stop there and let Boudreaux explain what he means by the environment. It’s not immediately obvious. He writes that
the relevant environment for humanity is not exclusively the outdoor and often-distant environment that we think of today when we encounter this word. Humans’ environment includes more than just the likes of the outdoor air that we breathe, the condition of the oceans and of far-away tundra, and the average temperature of the globe; humans’ environment includes also the cleanliness of the buildings in which we live, of the furniture on which we sit and sleep, of the clothing that we wear, and of the foods that we eat.
By implication, the world was pretty dirty before markets prevailed in the West. Just for example; think of all that horse manure, not to mention those rotting equine carcasses in the sometimes-dusty-sometimes-muddy streets before oil and the internal-combustion engine rescued us. Most cases are not as dramatic but are just as important.
Boudreaux explains that nine years ago he began a feature on his blog, Cafe Hayek, that he called “Cleaned by Capitalism.” He writes, “Each post describes – and is typically accompanied by a photograph of – an affordable and familiar modern good that makes humans’ immediate environment cleaner, safer, and more pleasant. Each of these goods is made available to the masses by innovative, competitive markets.”
Keep in mind that the spread of at least semi-free markets made mass production of clothing and other basic household goods a feature of everyday life for the first time in history. Before that, production was for the aristocracy only. The rest of the people made do with a paltry number of homemade goods. That was the case for millennia.
Boudreaux wants to do more than broaden the definition of the word environment. As noted, he wants to illustrate “the practically countless ways that innovative capitalist markets cleanse our personal environments of filth and perils that pose a far greater and more immediate threat to us than do global warming and the other the environmental conditions that are today regularly featured in the news.” (There’s plenty of evidence that catastrophic warming or climate change is not happening. Look up the writings or YouTube videos of Stephen Koonin, who was a top energy physicist in the Obama administration.)
And, further, Boudreaux wants to
encourage readers to understand that, while capitalist production does indeed emit pollutants into the air and water, it also – and in the process – produces goods many of which make our everyday lives less polluted. Whatever are the costs of the “seen” environmental effects of industrial production – effects such as carbon emissions and the risk of oil spills – these effects must be weighed against the benefits, including the unseen environmental benefits, of the very industrial activities that have as a by-product these “seen” environmental effects.
Here Boudreaux reminds me of Julian Simon, the late economist who documented how much richer and cleaner the world had become because human beings (“the ultimate resource”) are intelligent and enterprising. (See Simon’s classics, The Ultimate Resource II and The State of Humanity.) He’s also making a point that the philosopher Alex Epstein makes online and in many writings. (See Fossil Future.)
“There’s no question,” Boudreaux winds up writing, “that the environment in which modern humans live is immeasurably cleaner, safer, and more pleasant than was the filthy and dangerous environment in which all of our pre-industrial ancestors lived.” Amen.
But stay tuned. Boudreaux isn’t resting on his laurels. He has promised to start a new series on his blog: “Soiled by Socialism” and is soliciting reader help in finding examples. He doesn’t mean just socialism in other countries. See his article for a preview.
Additional reading: Saving the Environment for a Profit, Victorian-Style, by Pierre Desrochers, The Freeman, May 2003.