Government’s power over the environment threatens our liberty: an interview with Walter E. Williams

Published February 1, 2000

“We as Americans . . . do things that are wrong, but we ultimately, sooner or later, seem to get our act together. And I think we better get about getting our act together while we still have the liberty to do so.”

Dr. Walter E. Williams is chairman of the economics department at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he is the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics. Williams earned a Ph.D. in economics from UCLA. A nationally syndicated columnist and the author of several books, he nevertheless may be best known as a radio talk show host who frequently substitutes for Rush Limbaugh.

Williams’ most recent book, More Liberty Means Less Government (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1999), is a collection of thoughtful and hard-hitting essays on a wide range of topics, including environment issues. In one such essay, written in late 1997 and titled simply, “Environmentalists’ Agenda,” he calls to task such leftist environmentalists as Barry Commoner and Murray Bookchin for their attacks on capitalism and the American dream.

“Not all environmentalists share this anti-American, anti-capitalist agenda,” writes Williams. “They’re honest, well-meaning people, but they’re also useful idiots for the leftist agenda.” “Decent People Helping Tyrants,” the title of another essay in the book, sums up his position well.

Williams pulls no punches in his writing . . . nor in his interviews. He spoke recently with Environment News Managing Editor Tom Randall.

Randall: It seems that a lot of environmental policy has little to do with the environment and more to do with social and economic control. EPA’s environmental justice policy seems to be one that is particularly so-directed. What are your thoughts about that?

Williams: Now that communism and socialism have lost all respectability, I think in general those people who have those inclinations have changed their agenda and call themselves environmentalists. But their agenda is still control and regulation of peoples’ lives and economic activity. The whole idea of environmental justice is in keeping with that agenda.

Randall: What justice could there be in denying jobs to people who particularly need them?

Williams: There’s no justice whatsoever, and there are several places where jobs were going to be located in areas where black Americans could seek employment and EPA has put those companies through a lot of hoops.

Randall: I believe Detroit has had particular problems in that respect.

Williams: Yes, and other places down south. I think one has to recognize that there is a trade-off between clean water and clean air and economic welfare. That is, one-hundred percent dirty air and water is not good and one-hundred percent clean air and water is not good. The cost of having one-hundred percent clean air or water is reduced economic activity.

Pollution is a necessary by-product of production. However, we want to take advantage of the technology that exists to keep pollution to a minimum.

Randall: And isn’t it true that economic well-being is one of the big determinants of health?

Williams: Absolutely. As you look around the world, it is poverty, as opposed to dirty air, that has implications for health.

Randall: Doesn’t it seem strange then that many leaders in minority communities support the environmental justice argument?

Williams: Minority leaders support many things that go against the interests of the people they purport to represent, and environmental justice is just one of them. They are against educational vouchers, while the overwhelming majority of blacks are for educational vouchers. They are against the death penalty, even though the majority of blacks are for the death penalty. You can cite several other things where black leaders have sided with white liberal organizations, many times to the detriment of their own people.

Randall: Moving to a broader topic, global warming also seems to be a theory that contradicts real-world observations and is intended to control economic growth.

Williams: What I do think is that it’s bogus science. In earlier periods, I believe around 1400 or 1500, the Earth was warming much faster than it is today, and you wonder what kind of cars they were driving then.

Randall: Probably not many.

Williams: No, and they probably weren’t putting many refrigerants in the air, either. And then, moreover, Thomas Gale Moore, at the Hoover Institution, has pointed out that if there is global warming, it may indeed save mankind, because we are overdue for another ice age, and global warming would create more agricultural areas.

That is speculation, of course, but the point is that the global warming movement’s arguments are based on bogus science, and you can’t get many reputable scientists to sign on to them.

Randall: It seems curious that, while most people agree that limiting greenhouse gases will have a negative economic impact, global warming theories are advanced most strongly by the Europeans who have many economic problems that we do not. Why would they do this?

Williams: I don’t have any particular insights into that. But the Europeans do tend to be far more socialistic than we are, and so they want to control economic activity to a greater extent than we do. Countries like Germany and France are socialistic and their agendas call for regulation and control.

Randall: In this country, many large corporations, such as Monsanto and Amoco, have been climbing on the global warming bandwagon. Could this just be an attempt to limit competition?

Williams: Oh yes. Companies can use the law and regulation to accomplish what they cannot accomplish in the market. If I’m a CEO, without principle, of a company that produces gasoline products, and I see another company that wants to drill for oil off Santa Monica, I would surely contribute to an environmental group that would tie my competitor up in court, thereby gaining for me a greater market advantage.

Randall: Along with global warming, control of land use has been growing as a popular tool of so-called environmentalists. “Urban sprawl” has become a major issue . . .

Williams: It’s just another example of totalitarianism. An attack on our Fifth Amendment guarantees.

Many cities have high crime rates and rotten schools, so people are voting with their feet and leaving the cities. There are people around who want to stop this process so, of course, they want to control where we live. I think that is something all Americans should fight against. It’s starting out now as just talk about urban sprawl, but talk, if not repudiated, leads to actions that aren’t to the benefit of most Americans.

Randall: It actually sounds contrary to the American Dream.

Williams: Oh, absolutely! I think if a person wants to buy property and build a house, that is his right, and it has always been an American right to do so.

Randall: Part of the argument revolves around the notion that we are losing too much farm land. Yet farm prices are at an all-time low and we have huge surpluses.

Williams: Yes, that is utter nonsense. Farming is far more efficient than it used to be and, with all the technological advances, we need far less land for farming than was needed previously.

An abundance of food is not our problem as a nation. If we do have a problem, it is with an over-abundance of food, whereby the government gets involved in buying up farm surpluses and restricting farm output–such as the California Navel Orange Administration and all these other collusive cartels that have quotas on output. Some years ago, for example, you could see, literally, mountains of oranges that could be sold for only $10 per ton to by-product factories and for cattle feed. The production of food is not our problem, whatsoever.

Randall: In the long run, such restrictions would seem to be harmful to both the farmer and the consumer.

Williams: Well, that’s part of it. But more importantly, I think it is a threat to our liberties, more so than anything else. Forget about the wealth effects of it–it is a threat to our liberties as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

Randall: Speaking of liberties, there seems to be a truly bipartisan effort to control land use . . .

Williams: By the federal government.

Randall: Isn’t land use at the very foundation of our liberty?

Williams: Oh, yes, yes. And, and to a very large degree, the Republicans aren’t that different from the Democrats in their desire to control our lives. I think the Republicans just aren’t quite as bad. They don’t pursue that agenda as rigorously as do the Democrats, but both of the parties want to control our lives.

I think it’s important to point out that most of the blame lies with the American people, because politicians are doing precisely what various groups of American people want them to do. It’s just that there are some people who want land use restrictions and they are able to use the political mechanism to get them, while other Americans just sit silently by. Since it doesn’t affect them right now, they don’t wage war against it.

Randall: It’s interesting that you should say that. There are a number of Eastern and Midwestern legislators who have introduced bills affecting land use in the West.

Williams: Yes, and many times there are economic factors involved. For instance, Eastern coal miners would want coal mining restricted in the West, because the Western coal burns cleaner than the Eastern coal. So Eastern factories would buy Western coal to meet environmental regulations, thus reducing employment opportunities in the East.

That’s just one example of how people use the political system to accomplish what they can’t accomplish in the free market.

Randall: Do you believe the press plays a role by introducing the fear factor regarding the environment?

Williams: Of course. I believe it was [H. L.] Menken who said that a politician loves to create fear so the people will call on the politician to make things right. Thus, we’ve found the unfounded fear of second-hand tobacco smoke, as the result of a fraudulent study. We’ve had the unfounded Alar scare, which the news media supported. Back on the first Earth Day, in the early seventies, they had us afraid of global cooling. Using some of the same data, they have now switched to global warming.

Randall: . . . and I believe some of the same people were involved.

Williams: That’s absolutely right. There was also the asbestos scare. We have now found that if the asbestos is not actually hanging loose, it is best to just leave it. There is a lot of fear-mongering and it has been aided and abetted by the news media.

Another example is the Three Mile Island scare. Nobody, but nobody, was harmed, and the system worked just exactly as it was supposed to work if there was a problem. Yet, there was a lot of fear created among the American people.

Randall: You seem to be suggesting that fear motivates people to give up their liberties.

Williams: I think that’s true. They are willing to say, “government take care of me. There’s an ugly monster after me.”

Government always gets more power with fear. With the fear of running out of gasoline, we had people saying gasoline would be $5 a gallon. That gave government more power to control our lives. People willingly give up their liberties as a result of fear.

Randall: Do you think there was a turning point where the American people became more willing to give up their liberties, or has it been a gradual slide downhill since 1776?

Williams: From what I know, I would surely say that the Great Depression–which was actually caused by government–was perhaps the beginning of this; when people feared losing their homes, losing jobs. They easily ceded a lot of power to the government.

As a matter of fact, if you look back through history, the kind of power the government wanted to get during the 1930s the Supreme Court routinely ruled against. They ruled against Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation until he threatened to pack the court. There was then what legal scholars call “the switch in time saves nine,” where Justice Roberts broke a tie and voted on the side of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

Randall: And, now we have the courts upholding environmental policies that cost liberties.

Williams: That’s right. Liberty has been jealously guarded, but today we Americans have such trust in our government–a trust that our founders, the framers of the constitution, did not have at all.

If you read through the Constitution, there are, I believe, close to 40 negative statements about the Congress of the United States–statements such as the Congress shall not disparage, the Congress shall not prohibit, the Congress shall not do this, the Congress shall not do that. That is to say, the framers were very suspicious of Congress and wanted to limit the scope and limit the authority of the United States Congress.

What has happened now is that we have an unconstrained Congress. Congress can do just about anything for which it can get a majority vote.

Randall: What do you see as the hope for reversing this process?

Williams: I don’t know. Other great nations of the past have gone down the tubes. One might just ask one’s self, what is there about Americans that makes us different from anyone else? Are we that different from the Romans, the French, the Spanish, the English, great empires of the past that have now gone down the tubes?

On the other hand, the most optimistic thing about the American people, that gives me some hope, is that we as Americans haven’t done the wrong thing for a long time. That is, we do things that are wrong, but we ultimately, sooner or later, seem to get our act together. And I think we better get about getting our act together while we still have the liberty to do so.

* The section of Amendment V of the Constitution to which Dr. Williams referred reads, “No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”