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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Preston goes green, and then goes crazy...or maybe not

Reform Party founder Preston Manning challenged conservatives with his vision for a free market environmental political movement in Alberta. Now he's calling for policies that will reward rural land stewards and punish environmentally harmful enterprises.

In “Preston goes green,” former Western Standard columnist Colby Cosh examines Manning’s theory that the next wave of political reform in Alberta will come from a political party that combines environmentalism with conservative principles. The concept is free market environmentalism, and much of the work in this new paradigm has been done by Terry Anderson and Donald Leal with the Montana-based Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). Anderson and Leal coauthored the definitive work in this area called Free Market Environmentalism.

While Manning is no doubt right that the environment is a growing concern in Alberta, I would not count on this concern manifesting itself politically in a free market form. Environmental conservation is a tempting excuse for politicians to expand their regulatory powers, with few objections coming from a public that has been taught to believe that rapacious capitalists are out to destroy the planet for private gain, and that only the state can stop this.

And as for whether or not we can expect a green movement to take hold in the province, I guess time will tell. But even if Manning has failed to predict the future of Alberta politics, he has raised the possibility of applying free market principles to environmental problems.

"The market in its purest form," he says, "is a neutral device for bringing demand and supply together and using pricing signals to communicate [collective value judgments]. The market doesn't care whether the demand is for a widget or oil or clean air or clean water. The law of supply and demand, properly organized, can operate on it. So you see groups that are advocating environmental conservation in a private-enterprise framework."

Manning wrote this in 2004. In his most recent op-ed, “Rural Canadians need to find their voice,” he seems to be taking his green agenda even further, and away from the principles of free market environmentalism.

Manning wrote “The time has come to rediscover and redefine those Canadians who occupy rural Canada and to value and compensate them accordingly....

“As Canada and the world become more environmentally conscious, a vitally important role is emerging for those who occupy rural Canada - that of environmental stewards who are recognized and compensated for their work in protecting and conserving soil, plant life (including forests), watersheds, and wildlife. How to compensate those involved in conserving and providing ecological goods and services and to penalize (perhaps by taxing) those whose practices damage the environment is a policy challenge that urgently needs to be addressed - a challenge made even more onerous by growing concern over the rising price of food in the global marketplace.”

What exactly is Manning advocating here?

In the private sector, rural Canadians, like urban Canadians...like all Canadians, are compensated according to their value in the free market. Is Manning asking for wage controls and rural wage subsidies? What policy would increase rural incomes within a free market? Targeted tax relief perhaps?

As for taxing those who damage the environment, free market environmentalism is about extending private property rights to public resources and creating financial incentives for private stewardship and conservation. It is not about taxing bad behaviour and subsidizing good behaviour.

I respect Manning a great deal, but it has always been my view that he is not a free market advocate. He’s a technocrat of sorts who is captivated by the idea that public policy objectives can be carried forward in public-private partnerships that serve the public good in a manner more efficient than a big, tired bureaucracy could ever hope.

Manning is often ahead of the curve so his ideas should never be quickly dismissed. This time, however, he seems to have let statist ideas creep into his otherwise sound green agenda.

Posted by Matthew Johnston on September 7, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink


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It may not be perfect but it's infinitely better than the Green Shift, which is the Second NEP put into the Liebral/NDP/Green alliance's platform. Why don't they just wear signs that read "don't vote for me." Of course that would be redundant in Alberta.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2008-09-07 7:11:10 AM

I agree with the concept of free market environmentalism, but government interference and regulation is the total opposite. At present we simply do not have a free market economy due to government interference and meddling, so perhaps Preston is taking that into consideration when reaching his conclusion.

Present government policies promote what I call industrial agriculture which is certainly not "environmentally friendly". As long as the government insists on meddling and interfering, then it would make sense to remove the protection for industrial agriculture in exchange for policies favouring environment friendly (whose definition?) agriculture. However in light of the influence and power of the big corporate owners of industrial agriculture, I think it is unlikely to happen regardless of the political party.

Posted by: Alain | 2008-09-07 12:39:27 PM

I wish Manning well on this initiative but unless I hear him promoting private ownership (along with property rights) of much more of the land and water involving resources, I won't take him seriously. Public land is political land. Free markets on political land don't exist. There's no guarantee that private land doesn't become political land either but if a privatization model is employed which ensures a large number of ownerships, it becomes politically tougher to screw with people and their land and it also ensures diversity of land uses.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2008-09-08 10:13:44 AM

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