The Irony in Trump's Attack on the EPA

The agency actually arose as a defense against harsher anti-pollution measures.


Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

A crucial irony has been lost on President Donald Trump and Republicans as they seek to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency in the name of greater freedom: The agency they so dislike actually arose as a defense against a harsher, libertarian approach to eliminating pollution.

In the 1960s, libertarian economist Murray Rothbard championed a view shared by many of today's Republicans: that the private sector can provide all services more efficiently than the state, and that the state should therefore limit itself to protecting property rights. An individual, he believed, should be allowed to do anything unless that action harms others, at which point the government should step in to right the wrong.

Following this logic, Rothbard reached a conclusion that flies in the face of the Trump administration's current environmental policies. As he saw it, pollution -- such as the chemicals that coal mining companies can now dump into streams after the Trump administration rescinded the Obama-era Stream Protection Rule -- represents aggression "pure and simple," because it harms the interests and property of others. Thus, he wrote, it should be illegal, and courts should "enjoin anyone from injecting pollutants into the air.”

As economic historian Robert Nelson relates in his book "The New Holy Wars," this kind of argument gained legal credibility in the late 1960s amid growing awareness of environmental issues. Major polluting industries started worrying that they could be sued under existing nuisance laws -- a prospect that could result in chaos if tens of millions of people went after thousands of companies in the courts.

To insulate itself from legal redress, as Nelson tells it, American industry lobbied the government to create the EPA -- which was launched by the Republican administration of Richard Nixon -- and then to pass the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. The idea was that clear and fixed national standards would be better than a free-for-all in the courts. In other words, the advent of the EPA was, on some level, a reaction to purist conservative thinking about property rights and pollution.

Hence the irony: When industry, Republican politicians or conservative think tanks lament the devastating economic damage of EPA regulation, they are in a sense complaining about their own creation. And they forget that their stated devotion to personal freedom, if taken seriously, might well lead to more stringent environmental protection.

Of course, the interests and ideologues behind the Trump administration's environmental policies aren’t necessarily aiming to preserve freedom for everyone. More likely, they want to preserve their own freedom, profits and power, regardless of how their actions affect others.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Mark Buchanan at buchanan.mark@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.