George F. Will's observation ("Value-Fixing," op-ed, Jan. 18) -- that surrender of public policymaking to "the sovereignty of the price mechanism" threatens to leave environmentalism intellectually disarmed -- is well taken. However, his solution -- coalition-building among groups that value the "precious intangibles" of life over items of mere monetary value -- is not worthy of him. In a country where, in the blunt phrase of former congressman Michael Myers, "Money talks, bull -- walks," political appeals based solely on aesthetic values lack currency, so to speak. Environmentalists are better advised to rest their case squarely on the connection between resource conservation and the long-term strategic interests of the United States.
For 10 years, environmentalists have based their defense of resource conservation on the "theory of the commons" -- the straightforward idea that individual self-interest in the exploitation of a commonly held resource inevitably leads to destruction of the resource. Even if a user realizes the resource is being exhausted, it is still to his marginal advantage to continue exploitation since restraint works only to the advantage of other exploiters, not the resource. Public intervention is therefore needed to prevent exhaustion of the resource. Through the 1970s, the intuitive logic of this argument helped to enact over 20 pieces of legislation designed to prevent exhaustion of everything from fossil fuels to black-footed ferrets.
Recent public rapture over supply-side theory, however, threatens to anesthetize our collective concern for the commons. Although couched as economics, supply-side theory is little more than a clarion call for wholesale governmental withdrawal from decisions concering the use -- and conservation -- of our natural resource base. Its tenets -- income tax cuts, reduced federal spending, sharp controls on the money supply -- mirror the political reality of 19th-century laissez-faire capitalism, when income taxes were unconstitutional, federal "pump-priming" through budget deficits had not been invented and the money supply was sharply controlled by the gold standard. It was a time, however, when lack of concern for the commons created the dust bowl, extinguished many wildlife species from the passenger pigeon to the Atlantic gray whale, brought the American buffalo and the sperm whale to the brink of extinction, destroyed most of our wilderness east of the Mississippi and all but wiped out a human resource given little consideration by "the price mechanism" -- the American Indian.
Most Americans remember what overdependence on "the market" did to our national and cultural heritage and do not want to make the same mistake twice. But the success of conservative ideologists in packaging their political views in supply-side formulas has prevented broad public debate on the issue.
Additional compelling arguments for selective intervention to protect commonly held or commonly valued resources exist but are presently overlooked. Not the least of these is that non-intervention poses a threat to our national security as dangerous as overregulation. Most wars are not the result of ideological conflicts but of competition for natural resources. Since our next major war is likely to be our last, there is a compelling need to reduce the possibility for conflict through resource conservation. Even if war is avoided, the cost to our public health -- should we destroy our prime agricultural lands, poison our ground water or pollute our air -- is staggering. And there is always the nagging question of whether the passenger pigeon and Atlantic gray whale really deserved their common fate.
Yes, there are answers to "the sovereignty of the price mechanism." But they are strategic, not aesthetic. Until environmentalists raise and forcefully argue these issues, the supply-siders will continue their pillage of our everdwindling nature resources base.