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Friday, January 31, 2014

No Party Owns the Message

My friend Ron Beitler recently announced on his FaceBook page that he has become a contributor to the website, www.smartgrowthforconservatives.com. Some of the other contributors are heavyweight Smart Growth advocates like Charles Marohn (www.strongtowns.org), Jim Bacon (Bacon's Rebellion) and Joe Minicozzi (Planetizen). In Ron’s words, Smart Growth for Conservatives provides center-right perspectives on transportation and land use issues in the United States as well as analysis of these issues from a center-right perspective with an emphasis on fiscal conservatism and market-based solutions.

I'm more center-left, but I fully embrace Smart Growth principles. So I commented on his post, kiddingly asking him whether there aren’t any liberal Smart Growth websites. Ron’s reply nailed an important distinction about Smart Growth that would probably make the concept more tangible if more people viewed it from this perspective.

Ron said, “No party owns the message! Problem is we (Republicans) have to work harder to get our base to understand that, at its core, Smart Growth is about fiscal sustainability, and that's a message conservatives of all people should flock to. Liberals don't own environmental issues either.”

Then one of Ron’s FB friends commented on Ron’s statement that liberals don't own environmental issues. Ron’s friend said, “The free market left undistorted will value clean water, air, healthy forests, proper developments, etc., and an asset that is valued, is an asset that is well taken care of.” A free-market solution to the world’s problems is certainly a traditional conservative plank.

I don’t buy the argument for a free-market solution to environmental problems. Thirty years ago I would have completely agreed that the free market could take care of the environment, but I was a na├»ve college student then. While many small businesses in the 21st century have been built on a model of public responsibility, some of the biggest players pull every string available, legal or otherwise, to maximize their profits at the expense of public health. Don’t even get me started on Monsanto and their GMOs.

Freedom Industries tank farm on Elk River in Charleston. This was the
source of the chemical spill into the Elk River on January 9,2014.
(photo: AP/Steve Helber)
A very recent example of the failure of the free market to protect the environment is the spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) in early January into the Elk River in West Virginia. The storage tank that leaked had not been inspected by West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection since 1991. West Virginia regulators are claiming that there was insufficient toxicological data on MCHM to require it to classified as a hazardous substance, which would required regular inspections of its storage tanks. Unfortunately, this chemical leaked into the Elk River just a mile upstream from the inlet for the public water supply for 300,000 West Virginians in nine counties. All of those who did not have a private well were forced to rely on bottled water for two weeks. Restaurants and hotels in Charleston reportedly were losing $1,000,000 in revenue per day until the public water supply was declared safe to use again. All of this disruption was the result of MCHM seemingly falling through the regulatory cracks. The free market did not protect Charleston’s businesses or its drinking water.

No one party owns this message:  Regardless of whether people lean to the right or the left, we need to strive for clean air and clean water now for the sake of our children and our children's children. As a civilized society, we have to proactively make decisions based on what is best for future generations rather than passively letting the free market decide whether our wellbeing will be adequately protected. That should be an imperative that transcends political party affiliations. Whether we are deciding if a certain chemical should be classified as a hazardous substance, thereby having tighter standards for bulk storage, or whether we are making land use decisions that could make open spaces more or less attractive to develop, there are some decisions that a properly functioning government must take the lead on for the best interests of its constituency. After the ground rules have been laid to ensure that we all have access to safe air, water and food, the free market then should be free to function without backroom deals or sweetheart regulatory intervention.