Sunday, December 7, 2008

Farm subsidies and ecological destruction, how government conservation can be libertarian, and how Obama's energy plan could make it all much worse

I was reading a pretty sad article in the Washington Post about how federal government subsidies are destroying what would otherwise be more-or-less wild prairie lands, and two things in particular stuck out to me: federal ownership and conservation of land might actually be a more libertarian arrangement on net, and that this sort of creeping ecological destruction could get a lot worse with Obama's plans to subsidize non-food biofuels.

Regarding federal lands: the most obvious libertarian position on federal land ownership is that it's a bad idea, though when you consider the bigger picture, Kevin Carson's distinction between atomistic and dialectic libertarianism comes to mind:

Fighting the trend is an array of hunting and conservation groups. The political circumstances in the West have forced them to try to protect the grassland without making it a national park or a federal preserve. "There is still strong resistance in the West to extending federal ownership of land," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

Scott Stephens, director of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited, estimates that the Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas and Montana could lose an additional 3.3 million acres of native grassland to farming over the next five years if prices stay high and federal policy does not change.

The situation is not ideal – theoretically you'd want to do away with the farm subsidies and the federal ownership, leaving the land's development as an product of its actual productivity – but if federal control will achieve an outcome closer to the free market equilibrium, it's hard to argue that selling the land on the unfree market is a step in the right direction.

Regarding non-food biofuels: this one's a lot scarier. Last month I wrote about an environmental group's warning that non-food biofuels could end up being just as environmentally and economically destructive as corn-based ethanol, and that the definition of "marginal lands" is subjective and prone to exaggeration. And here we have a perfect example of that: this land is land that would not be productive without crop insurance subsidies, because of its inhospitable growing conditions. The WaPo article even uses the same word that the ETC Group told us to look out for: "fragile land that is of marginal use for farming."

These Great Plains climates are exactly the kind that biofuel boosters like Obama intend to use to grow crops like switchgrass. And while switchgrass might be more native to the area than corn and other crops that subsidized farmers are planting now, you can bet that the farming techniques that are eventually used to cultivate the non-food biofuels won't in any way approximate the natural environmental equilibrium or the free market economic equilibrium. The Great Plains might not be the Amazon rainforest, but just because a place looks desolate doesn't mean that it isn't important to the greater ecological balance. I hope that Obama's biofuel investment plan will properly weigh the costs of subsidization of these sorts of non-food fuels against their benefits, though I fear that the chances of this happening are slim to none.


Mberenis said...
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Anonymous said...

Sometimes, environmentalism and libertarianism can intersect. In this instance of farm subsidies, we can agree. Eliminate subsidies. Not protection regulations, though.


Raționalitate said...

What do you mean by "protection regulations"?

Anonymous said...

protection of the water, air, land, soil.

That is: environmentalism intersects libertarianism wrt removing subsidies. It diverges wrt removing regulations that protect water, air, land, soil.