Legislating environmental morality


Throughout the course of history, governments have believed it to be absolutely necessary to legislate morality for the good of society.

The primary goal of government in a republic is to provide and preserve the general welfare of the people. Although we’ve witnessed that can be interpreted in countless different ways, the purpose of the United States’ bureaucracy, legislative branch and judiciary is designed to meet this single goal.

While governments around the world attempt to accomplish this goal in an infinite amount of unique ways, one of the consensus maneuvers to preserve prosperity is the concept of legislating morality.

From a strong pro-civil liberties point of view, the government ‘cannot’ and should not legislate what people should or should not do. Libertarian philosophy would argue for the near absence of government where personal responsibility virtues can assume the role.

Unfortunately for libertarians, macroeconomic principle isn’t on their side. For this reason, most governments find legislating morality a fundamental part of their respective nations’ economy.

For example, there are state laws in the U.S which require that people who ride motorcycles also wear a protective helmet. The law would provide a minimum requirement for protective design, and it’s enforced by the police state.

Why is this necessary to benefit the economy, and therefore the general welfare of the state? The answer lies in social science. It’s statistically far more likely that if a motorcyclist not wearing a helmet is hit by an auto, the driver will have a serious injury. Serious injuries require hospitalization, and if the driver does not have health insurance, the tab is paid for by taxpayers. To most governments, this scenario would be unacceptable to the dilemma of economics (limited resources), and if it can be prevented, then it should. Therefore, they legislate ‘morality’.

Governments have even legislated morality in regards to health. States such as California and Ohio recently banned smoking in both public and private places (as well as heavily taxing it). Because smoking carries health risks to people near the smoker and not just the individual inflicting self-harm, the government felt that secondhand smoke strongly threatened the prosperity of the people, and thus it legislated morality.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with the principle of intervention, governments have been doing this for years, and in most cases, the facts say it does help accomplish their goal. Intervention doesn’t always cooperate of with the interest of, say, a vigilant smoker, but it provides the ‘moral’ stats the government is looking for. In the secondhand smoking case, the ‘moral’ stat would have been fewer people within the vicinity of smokers, which means fewer members of society affected by secondhand smoke, and therefore fewer cases of lung or throat cancer.

In the past, the government has acted similarly in the area of environmentalism. We’ve seen incredibly positive results from conservation laws in the past, starting with the 1970s (the “environmental decade”) and President Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The jewel of the decade, the 1970 Clean Air Act, eventually resulted in the development and adoption of catalytic converters, which greatly reduced auto pollution.

Since then, the EPA, extensive regulation, and laws enacted by the following presidential administrations (with the exception of President Reagan), have had a relatively successful record on substantial environmental issues.

Now, when we speak of the laws placed to limit and confine smoking (and secondhand) consumption, very few actually raise their voice because the laws are generally popular. Today, however, when we raise the issue of legislating morality for the good of the planet we inhabit, the U.S debate flame gets hot.

When cap and trade laws were introduced to limit pollution (greenhouse gas emissions), the legislation’s opposition fiercely opposed it, saying, “Businesses can’t afford it! The economy can’t afford it! We’re in a recession.”
When liberal majorities were elected to Congress, dedicated to environmental causes, clients in the oil and gas industry unleashed a fury of lobbying expenditures in 2009, spending an industry record $175 million. Exxon Mobile led the pack, influencing their favorite politicians with $27.4 million in lobbying funds according to the Center for Responsive Politics analysis.

Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman crafted a bill resembling existing state laws that capped emissions from electric utilities only (essentially a cap and trade system at a much smaller scale).
Several publicly-traded power companies such as Duke Energy have backed the idea of utility-first carbon caps, saying that such a plan would give them certainty to invest billions of dollars in low carbon power. This includes renewables, such as nuclear, wind or solar farms, and other alternative electricity sources.

To the dismay of supporters such as Duke Energy, Republican Senator George Voinovich from former manufacturing-centric Ohio vehemently spoke out against the legislation to reporters. “There aren’t sixty votes for cap-and trade. It’s become a dirty word all over the state of Ohio.”

On July 14th, 2010, legislation was introduced that aimed to boost research funds for “clean coal” technology known as carbon capture and storage. It now sits idly in the Senate, waiting for cloture and therefore cannot make progress and be voted on.

One could say it’s Senators just like Voinovich who continue to bury environmental legislation, or one could say it’s simply the game of politics. Perhaps it’s just the structure of Congress; specifically the unreliability of the Senate to effectively move legislation in any form-not just environmental morality.

Today what we have is a government that’s caught in an incredibly disingenuous paradox that can only be attributed to political ideologues and an intensely polarizing political climate. Congress is more than willing to extensively legislate what it believes to be morals in their effort to provide and preserve the general welfare of the people. However, when writing laws that favor a pro-earth, environmentally friendly standard by which we must apply ourselves, the process is defunct and muddled in political games, red tape, corruption and special interests.

The government either does not understand that the general welfare of the people and the stewardship of the planet are truly synonymous, or its priorities lie in the worst of society’s morals.