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Matthew Stokes: Conservatism and conservation aren’t mutually exclusive

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News columnist

I was born into a conservative family and, unlike a lot of Southerners my age, my parents didn’t just join up with the GOP during the age of Reagan.  We chose Nixon over Wallace and one set of grandparents even voted for Barry Goldwater.

All the same, my own introduction to politics came through talk radio, and it wasn’t long before I heard Rush Limbaugh go on one of his regular rants about “environmentalist wackos.”  He wasn’t always wrong, especially when mocking naked hippies camped out in redwood trees or enviro-terrorists spiking trees and killing forestry workers. The whole Mother Earth-Gaia worship business was a bit much, too, even if I watched Captain Planet while waiting for WCW Saturday Night to appear.  

As a cultural sensibility, you don’t have to go far to find GOP voters who think environmental issues are mostly a joke. The truth, though, is that conservative views on the environment are rather complicated.

Most voters recognize that one of the central premises of conservatism is small government.  This is often portrayed as sort of a “get off my back” sensibility, but the posture has deeper roots.  Conservatives are reluctant to embrace any sort of central planning – for whatever reason – because we simply cannot predict the outcome of such plans.  Individuals and groups (including businesses) respond to incentives, but often in ways that we cannot predict. Recognizing that people are flawed, even sinful, we often deem it best to have fewer, simpler laws and regulations in order that people might sort out their problems naturally.  In economics, we recognize this as Adam Smith’s invisible hand, though tariff-loving Republicans seem to have forgotten how this works. Environmental regulations can often have negative consequences, such as zoning restrictions leading to an increase of housing costs and a decrease in housing supply.  

There has been a lot of ink spilled around Alabama on these issues in recent months.  I don’t feel comfortable discussing the details of recent court cases, but I do think a couple of thoughts should start to circulate among conservatives and Republicans.  First and perhaps most essential, we must support the rule of law. Where it can be established that laws are being skirted, we should hope that justice is done upon both the guilty and the victim.  Yet we should make sure that laws are construed in such a way that they are clear and easy to follow. Confusing regulations only invite manipulation and misbehavior, as powerful entities work to skirt regulations.  The author and political commentator Jonah Goldberg has often said that “complexity is a subsidy” and burdensome regulations, even if well-intended, ultimately benefit well-established economic actors and stifle innovation.

In that same vein, we should make clear that our reluctance to constantly enshrine regulation is not borne out of a lack of concern for creation, but instead a very real concern that regulation could have unforeseen consequences.  Conservatives believe that people are complicated, fallen, and even sinful. People are unpredictable in the abstract, but we do know that we respond to incentives. While we know that people respond to incentives, we cannot know how they will respond to incentives.  Consequently, conservatives prefer to let the complex web of civil society, business and individuals work out these problems on their own. More often than not, it works out pretty well.

As a final matter, I will grant that conservative rhetoric on the environment has often been counterproductive.  I started this piece recalling Rush Limbaugh mocking really bizarre environmental activism. That’s well and good, but most folks just want to preserve the woods and make water is clean for drinking and recreation.  

Conservatives and Republicans should not shy away from touting their support for the same, and explaining why liberal regulation will only exacerbate the environmental and economics problems they are intended to heal.  Let’s stop mocking these concerns, and work to find common cause with those who would protect our land for beauty, for sport, for recreation, while holding true to conservative principles of governance. At its core, conservatism is about protecting and preserving, and working to preserve our land for future generations is a good goal.  We shouldn’t let the missteps of the left stop us from using conservative ideas for a worthy end.

I’ll say again that environmental regulations are difficult and fraught with unseen consequences. Republicans and conservatives are right to be skeptical of them, particularly when they are promoted with little regard to potential outcomes beyond their narrowly defined intent.  One need only look to parts of California to see the sort of limousine liberal who is indifferent to the human suffering brought about by haphazard regulation.

Still, we ought to support a body of principles and law that protect the environment while allowing for economic innovation and a clear, concise and limited regulatory agenda.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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