Freedom, Liberty, and Environmental Regulation

Freedom is a core American ideal, defended with blood and treasure. But its meaning is contested, and perhaps distorted, especially by special interests trying to protect and enlarge their economic and political power.  These loud voices mistakenly and perhaps deliberately conflate personal and political freedom with free markets. The conflation misdirects attention and energy toward efforts to stop government involvement in the economy and away from personal, political, and environmental dimensions of freedom on which America must urgently focus.

Freedom, first and foremost, must mean the limitation of arbitrary power concentrated in governments, churches, or corporations.  This freedom requires reliable enforcement of laws, so that citizens are treated equally, with justice, and cannot be ignored or exploited by the whim or folly of those in power. Freedom also means having the ability to share in and shape government.  We must be free to speak, free to assemble, free to advocate our values, free to vote, free to hold elected office, free to determine our future.

As importantly, freedom requires access to the American Dream.  The basic building blocks of a successful, modern, America life must be accessible to all citizens, now and in the future. Such basics include education, accessible clean water, healthy food, affordable medical care, and safety from flood, famine, and thugs.  To deny these basics is to deny people the opportunity to succeed. To exploit natural resources and degrade environmental systems that make these basic necessities accessible and affordable is to take away freedom and opportunities from those that follow.

Freedom requires a strong, stable, transparent government that can confront and diffuse power, because concentrated and entrenched power tends not to share, and instead becomes more concentrated and more entrenched, denying access and opportunity to others.  The US Constitution limits concentration of power within the government itself by dividing power among executive, legislative, and judiciary branches.  The rise of government secrecy, the capture of the political process by corporations, and the decline of the independent investigative media should be much bigger concerns to those worried about freedom and America’s future than worries about regulations and taxation.

It may seem counter intuitive that a powerful government intervening in selected areas of commerce and daily life can actually increase freedom.  Consider the humble traffic light.  It limits our behavior, forcing us to wait until red turns to green; but, it actually increases our freedom because it prevents gridlock and allows us to cross a crowded intersection.  In the words of Paul Star author of Freedom’s Power: “No state, no rights.  No law, no liberty.”

Government regulations, particularly with respect to the environment, actually increase freedom to freely pursue our interests while protecting the public goods on which we all depend. Our complex world presents complex challenges that requires strong, capable, and complex bureaucracies. We are over six billion and growing.  Providing each of us with comfort, security, health and opportunity on finite Earth requires a means to define and enforce limits so that we can explore our freedoms while operating within those limits, and hopefully extend those limits with our ingenuity.


Starr 2007. Freedom’s Power. Basic Books. Page 20

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Hull is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability http://cligs.vt.edu/
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One Response to Freedom, Liberty, and Environmental Regulation

  1. Brian says:

    We need to get rid of the silo thinking in our deicoisn making/budgeting and take a more wholistic view of major issues such as transportation. We cannot view public transit and assess the value/cost of their services without considering the whole transportation infrastructure. We subsidize road construction to no end but do not consider how more extensive and cheaper (perhaps even free) public transport may obviate the need for much road construction. Likewise, those who benefit need to pay. Large trucks do thousands of times more damage to roads than do cars but trucking companies do not bear the related cost. This indirect subsidization adversely affects efficient market resource utilization in this case to the detriment of trains who pay their own rail costs. There is no way that trains should not be used more for large shipments and heavy traffic flow between fixed locations. It must be cheaper, better for the environment and certainly safer.

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