In Illinois in the 1970s, I was an environmental and consumer activist, an all-purpose liberal Democrat and a founding director of the state’s Naderite/Alinskyite radic-lib umbrella organization that harbored some of Barack Obama’s fellow community organizers.
Fortunately for me, I continued to read, learn and grow; got over statist liberalism; and now oppose it due to the grim benighted future it holds for our children. Unfortunately for the world, many of my fellow Boomers and younger folks they’ve influenced still peddle it aggressively.
The opening of my eyes and my recovery from it began at our founding convention, for which I developed a proposal based on my expertise in energy economics and utility ratemaking to support “life-line” electric rates. Life-line means that monthly customer charges and modest usage levels were priced low to help poor people, with higher usage levels priced higher to encourage conservation.
I presented the logic and finely balanced details to the convention’s energy and utilities session: a $3.50/month customer charge and seasonal rates of a few cents per kilowatt-hour (kwhr) for the first 400 kwhr each month. Then lightning struck.
The founding director from the United Auto Workers, who didn’t know anything about energy economics or ratemaking but a lot about radic-lib street organizing, erupted: “I don’t know or care about any of that! Let’s just give everybody 1000 kwhr a month at two cents and zero customer charge! Screw the utilities!”
His demagoguery and the reaction to it made glaringly obvious the extent to which the consumer and environmental movements had degenerated and to which other such causes eventually fall, as I’ll explain. While such special-interest movements always couch their rhetoric and demands under fairness, justice, legitimate grievance and the public interest, eventually they’re really driven more by selfishness, ignorance, envy and greed to preying upon the public interest.
In becoming an enviro, I had been a research engineer for the university’s node of the Club of Rome informal network, the forerunners of today’s zealots who want to take over and shut down the world based on their claims about man-made global warming. There, I encountered a full range of environmentalism and limits-to-growth theory, literature, research and dogma.
I learned that commercial and industrial practices back then often produced unduly high “negative externalities” such as pollution — the founding legitimate insight of environmentalism. Thus, completely unfettered markets don’t always maximize aggregate human well-being and fairness (the primary public interests), and some legislation, regulation and other public intervention is justified. Similar observations originally motivated public policy in education, civil rights, public health and safety, and even labor and other markets.
So, the early proposals of such groups are often reasonable and get adopted; witness the regulation of air and water pollution in the 1970s. But as that convention showed, true believers cannot be satisfied by mere reasonable reforms, and all such movements invite hijacking by political hustlers seeking a cause to ride. For example, essential principles of equal rights before government yield to racial, ethnic and gender spoils systems. Child-labor laws are necessary, but labor bosses really want union shops so they can wield great political power and get paid like corporate moguls.
Similarly, reasonable consumer and environmental demands have metastasized into the extreme destructive policies proposed by Obama’s appointees. In four decades, these activists have achieved their real goal by co-opting government and large corporations to become institutionalized in jobs that pay them well for promoting their ideology and politicking.
America’s air, water and landfills are, overall, cleaner today than 40 years ago. However, enviros obscure those key facts by always making new policy demands for two reasons. For some zealots, environmentalism is a bizarre religion that sees mankind as a despoiler, and to varying degrees they want to roll back civilization to restore wilderness. For the larger fraction, most advocates and those with jobs in the enviro industries, admitting such facts would mean that most of them should get jobs that deliver enough real value to others to earn revenues in market competition, instead of getting paid for their politics.
After their early and just successes, such movements, seeking gravy trains to support their adherents, degenerate to being special interests with ever more extreme demands, as predatory upon the general public interest as politicians, judges and bureaucrats will let them be. Usually, they quickly get big enough to offer sufficient job opportunities and campaign contributions to folks in government to co-opt it.
These special interests’ successes, plus those of others seeking to increase public spending and taxes, have continually increased the deadweight burden on our economy. So, our children face a future of very slow economic growth and reduced opportunity, social mobility and human flourishing. Our only hope is to greatly roll back the huge accumulated public-sector excesses.
Ron Knecht is an economist, engineer, law school graduate and Nevada higher education regent.