Why Don’t Republicans Support Many Environmental Policies?

I post my answer to Tom Friedman’s piece in this cross-post.   Many environmental policies seek to increase the quantity of a non-market good such as “clean air” or “clean water”.   To measure the benefits of such a policy, we need to estimate two separate parameters.  1.  How much will environmental quality improve because of the regulation?  2.  How much do people value this improvement in environmental quality?   A large number of environmental economists seek to answer these two questions.  If I could poll Republicans, I would like to ask them to answer these two questions.  Do those who oppose regulation view government as ineffective at achieving a specific goal or do they reject the importance of the stated goal?  Or, do they view regulation as part of a cumulative process such  that an unintended consequence of successful regulation is that this will lead to more regulation and a larger government that displaces free market interactions?

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

13 thoughts on “Why Don’t Republicans Support Many Environmental Policies?”

  1. Short answer: because Democrats also support those policies, and if Democrats support them, then Republicans must oppose them.

  2. Matt, do you mean Republican voters, Republican-leading academics, or Republican politicians? As to the last, I couldn’t possibly gue$$.

  3. The Republican party is the party of choice of corporatists whose vision is not only narrowly focused on their bottom line, but also is limited to only the very near future. As long as their next quarterly report shows favorable numbers, it’s all good in their view.

    The corporatist world also self-selects for those who view money as the world’s only measurable (and therefore, real) good, and they typically have little or no background in science or history, so they come at the enterprise without benefit of context. They simply assume that water, air, and food have always and will always be in ample supply in their lives, and so they have no need to look any deeper–whether that would be into the future or into the lives of others on this planet. Surprising numbers of people cannot explain how it is that drinkable water reaches their kitchen sink, or what happens to outflows going down their drains and toilets. They also believe that “dilution is the solution to pollution” and that therefore, their pollution contributions have no real consequence but would cost them real money to reduce or eliminate.

    Republicans also do not view air and water as being held in common by all life. Financially tradeable “water rights” are real to them, but an inherent right of access to water is not. Air and many of its pollutants are invisible, and difficult to definitively correlate with actual harms (like reductions in crop yields, increased pest damage, health problems), so what’s the big? When all kids have asthma maybe they’ll care, but as long as they can move their own kids out of harm’s way (or fail to admit that asthma is a result of degraded air quality), why fix what ain’t broken? Pollution causes suffering to others? Well, life is tough; deal with it. Not their problem.

    Ultimately it all comes down to denial, especially when it means they personally get to keep more money (or think they do). When a culture’s underlying philosophy becomes fixated on quarterly profits, long-term thinking is out the window, but long-term thinking is the basis of all environmental concerns. They are temporally blind.

    1. You’ve mostly covered it, I think. The denialism is huge as well. And this maybe goes to the in-group bias of the right, and the unwillingness to take ownership of problems we ourselves contribute to.

      One classical, Fox-news watching Republican I know is an avid diver. He will talk at length about the beauty and sanctity of marine life, and how it must be protected. Yet when I raised the issue of CO2 emissions and ocean acidification, he denied the science, and insisted that “the greatest threat to ocean ecosystems” was over-fishing of shark populations. I asked if he thought there ought to be regulations, and he agreed, yet placed the blame on rogue Japanese fisherman (he loves Whale Wars).

      This is the same man who agreed with me, when I recounted the troubles at poor schools I’ve worked at, that their underfunding was a travesty. He then – literally – proposed that we make corporations pay for education. I told him he was sounding like a Democrat. But in his mind, the Democrats wanted to raise *his* taxes.

      A libertarian co-worker of mine hates the fact that her son makes too much money for state health care, but not enough to afford it privately, while teen mothers – “many of whom are illegal” get benefits, etc.

      “My people”, “people like me”, seems really important.

      1. I have been impressed with the number of conservatives and libertarians (I include myself at one time) who began moving in a more progressive direction not through encountering a better rational argument, but by encountering an event that opened their heart a bit.

        I think the ultimate failing of conservative American is a failure of the moral imagination, an inability or unwillingness to empathize with people different from themselves. This is a widespread human weakness of course, but with huge variations in what counts as like oneself. Conservatives are on the most restricted end of that continuum.

  4. When you live a long way from the factory you tend to care less about pollution.

    Capitalist mobility.

  5. Free waste disposal is a prime Republican desideratum. They want to make lots of money, imposing the costs of their despoiling the environment on others. So, what else is new?

  6. “As long as there’s plenty of acorns,
    what do I care about oak trees?”
    said the pig.

  7. “We’re pretty conservative — we don’t recycle.” I think it’s become a macho thing as much as anything else.

  8. Political bickering aside, requiring that everyone in favor of an existing (or proposed) environmental regulation as the two questions (i.e. “1. How much will environmental quality improve because of the regulation” and “2. How much do people value this improvement in environmental quality”) is actually an extremely wise and prudent exercise as it requires that our politicians actually think about the impact the laws I they want to pass will have, either positive or negative.

    1. Sure, except that given these alternatives posed these way society seems to make terrible judgments, for example it democratically decides to use Mountaintop Removal to turn Appalachia into a toxic slag heap so as to use less skilled, lower-paid labor and to make already-cheap coal even cheaper. Extracting the coal with decent wages and some minimal care for the environment would have imposed a slight cost on everyone, not that they’d notice it much, and would have made a few people much less insanely wealthy; but getting the coal out of the ground the shortsighted way imposes its terrible costs only on a bunch of poor people no-one much listens to, and of course on the planet.

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