The Tragedy is “the Commons”

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Since Roman times, it has been held that certain resources, such as air and water, could not and should not be privately owned, but instead held “in common.” Today, “the commons” movement seeks to destroy private property rights by equating air and water with such man-made values as the Internet and the electrical grid. This booklet examines the ideas behind “the commons” and demonstrates how property rights can be applied to air and water.

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The EPA’s RRP Rule isn’t About Safety

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I wrote this in May 2010. It remains relevant.

On April 22, 2010 an EPA regulation governing renovation, repair, and painting (RRP) took effect. The regulation governs any activity that will disturb paint containing lead and applies to all homes built before 1978 and “child-occupied facilities”. On Wednesday I took the certification course mandated by the EPA to perform this type of work.

I expected the material in the course to be disgusting, and in that regard it greatly exceeded my expectations. (Exceeded in the sense that it was far more disgusting than I imagined.)

The instructor described RRP as a “program” designed to benefit children, who are the primary victims of lead poisoning from the dust of paint containing lead. The consequences of lead poisoning in children are indeed tragic–learning disabilities and brain damage being the most prominent. But combating lead poisoning is not a proper function of government. And RRP is going to do little, if anything, to combat it. It will however, grant the government greater control over the lives of contractors and cost consumers a lot of money.

For example, RRP stipulates the procedures that a contractor must follow to contain paint chips and dust, as well as clean up procedures. After clean up, the contractor must conduct a test to determine if lead dust is still present. This test consists of using an electrostatic rag to wipe a surface and visually comparing it to a card. If the surface does not “pass” you must repeat the procedure. If it fails again, you simply wipe the surface a third time and walk away without any further testing. In other words, it really doesn’t matter if lead dust is present or not. We must simply take the time to clean the surface up to 3 times. This time of course, translates to higher prices for the consumer. I estimate that a typical job that my company does will cost 15% to 20% more because of RRP, and some jobs could double in price.

Consumers will not be eager to pay these additional costs, and many won’t. Which means, contractors who attempt to play by these “rules” will lose work to contractors are willing to risk fines from the EPA.

The containment requires the use of disposable plastic, and far more than we would typically use. This plastic must be placed in a garbage bag of at least 4 mils thickness, and the bag must be secured in a particular fashion. The bag can then be tossed in the trash.

For those of us in Houston this is particularly ironic. The city has mandated the use of disposable lawn bags in an effort to keep petroleum based bags out of the landfill. The EPA is now mandating that we use more plastic, which will find its way into those very same landfills.

If all of this seems completely arbitrary, you would be right. And the instructor essentially said so. For example, on exterior work, the instructor admitted that containing lead dust is impossible. We are simply to “do our best”. But what does this mean? I could make every reasonable effort to do “my best”, and if some EPA bureaucrat disagrees, I am subject to a fine of $37,500 per incident, as well as jail time. And I won’t know that I didn’t do “my best” until after the fact. My life literally rests in the hands of some faceless bureaucrat, who will make his decisions based on his own subjective feelings at the moment.

The arbitrary nature of these regulations was driven home in the opening minutes of the course when the instructor announced that the EPA didn’t have everything figured out and was “making things up as we go along”. Somehow contractors are supposed to operate under these shifting rules. And based on the comments that I heard, they are more than willing to do so.

While jokes about the absurdity of the regulations were common, the general attitude seemed to be an apathetic acceptance. “What do you expect from the government?” was said more than once. In other words, we have no choice but to accept the fact that our lives and livelihood depend on our ability to satisfy the arbitrary, shifting demands of Washington.

I have long been aware of such injustices, but this one really hit home. I run a small business, offering quality, conscientious service to my customers. My life just got immensely more difficult, not because of some error or transgression on my part, but simply because some bureaucrats decided to save “the children”. And in the process, they are going to destroy the lives of a lot of adults, not to mention the children who depend on them.

We aren’t Running out of Resources, We’re Running out of Freedom

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For the past 200 years, doomsayers and environmentalists have been predicting imminent disaster for the human race. The cause of this alleged disaster has varied. In the early nineteenth century Thomas Malthus said that it would be overpopulation. In the twenty-first century, environmentalists have argued that it will be climate change (or whatever they are calling it today).

With global warming discredited, Paul Gilding, former chief executive of Greenpeace, claims that the Earth is full, and that we need 1.5 Earths to sustain current economic activity. He writes,Belief in infinite growth on a finite planet was always irrational, but it is the nature of denial to ignore hard evidence.”

Certainly, the Earth and its natural resources, like everything in the universe, is finite. But before we go into panic mode, let us consider a few facts that Gilding conveniently evades.

For years, we were told that the world couldn’t sustain current levels of oil consumption. And guess what happened? Oil companies discovered new technologies to make use of oil sands. They developed fracking to unleash previously unreachable resources. In short, innovative individuals found ways to make use of resources that are here.

In addition, the universe is nothing but one giant resource, just waiting for some greedy capitalist to discover an efficient way to exploit it. Granted, the nearest such resource—the moon—is a long ways away. But we can travel to the moon in a much shorter period of time than Columbus spent sailing across the ocean.

History is replete with examples of creative individuals discovering new resources and new technologies. But creative individuals require freedom—the freedom to think and act on their own judgment—in order to make such discoveries and bring them to fruition. And it is freedom that Gilding and his ilk wish to destroy.

Likening this “threat” to World War II, Gilding implies that we need a similar response:

They [government] directed industry to support the war–banning civilian auto production just four days after Pearl Harbor. They raised massive amounts of money to fund investment and technology research at an extraordinary scale–indeed, U.S. spending on the war rose from 1.6% of GDP in 1940 to 37% just five years later. To achieve this, they curtailed personal consumption and drove remarkable behavior change to free up financial and other resources for the war effort.

In other words, Gilding wants massive government intervention. He wants government to curtail personal consumption and mandate “remarkable behavior change.”

It is not a coincidence that every prediction of catastrophe is accompanied with calls for more government controls and regulations. Environmentalism isn’t about saving the planet; it is about creating a political environment that is inhospitable to human life.