29 April 2012

Clean Water

Here’s a summary of a new research paper that claims the government regulation has had positive effects on the environment:

Levels of copper, cadmium, lead and other metals in Southern California's coastal waters have plummeted over the past four decades, according to new research from USC.
Samples taken off the coast reveal that the waters have seen a 100-fold decrease in lead and a 400-fold decrease in copper and cadmium. Concentrations of metals in the surface waters off Los Angeles are now comparable to levels found in surface waters along a remote stretch of Mexico's Baja Peninsula.
Sergio Sañudo-Wilhelmy, who led the research team, attributed the cleaner water to sewage treatment regulations that were part of the Clean Water Act of 1972 and to the phase-out of leaded gasoline in the 1970s and 1980s.

Three questions that spring readily to mind are:  1) is this correlation or causation?  2) Are there free market alternatives that could have attained similar results?  3) Does this prove, carte blanche, that all government regulation of the environment is similarly beneficial?

Regarding the first question, it’s difficult to answer clearly from the synopsis of the paper.  The lead regulations seem like they would generally contribute to decreases in lead content in the ocean, for lead particles would be in the water vapor that is a by-product of burning automotive fuel.  This lead would then enter the oceans from the atmosphere.  It’s not so clear with the other metals, so it might be possible that these levels had begun to decline prior to the introduction of regulation (much like how automobile fatalities had begun to decline prior to seatbelt laws).  At any rate, it seems likely, though it is not conclusive from the summary, that the environmental regulation worked.

Regarding the second question, it’s difficult to say that government interference is necessary when it would be possible to establish property rights on the coastal waters that were polluted.  Under a system of private property rights, owners of said property—in this case the ocean—would be able sue those who polluted (i.e. altered and damaged) their property. As such, it would fallacious to use this study as proof that the government regulation is necessary for environmental protection.  Governmental regulation may be efficacious, but that is not the same as saying that it is necessary.

Regarding the third question, it seems obvious that many environmental regulations are misguided, to say the least, and often counterproductive.  As such, it does not necessarily follow that one effective, or even necessary, set of environmental regulation proves that all sets of environmental regulations will be similarly effective and necessary.  Stated another way, it dangerous to extrapolate a trend from a single data point.

The conclusion to be drawn from this study is that there appears to be one instance where governmental regulation yielded positive results.  Of course, this regulation was necessary because of a prior failure (i.e. the non-allowance and/or enforcement of property rights), but nonetheless the government did something useful.  However, trying to prove that governmental regulation is universally necessary and effective from this single data point seems rather ludicrous, particularly in light of government’s other failures.


  1. I've often pondered this question but it's difficult to reach a decision in the absolute. The puritan libertarians claim all the improvements could have been accomplished by the private sector but the incentive to do so isn't clear to me. Auto pollution is another area where the government regulations seem to be successful.

  2. @Carnivore- My position is not all that different from puritan libertarians, at least practically speaking. I would argue that most improvements could be accomplished by the private sector (mostly due to increases in production efficiency, which would be evidenced by decreases in pollution, and also by private environmental advocacy groups). I would also argue that the few areas where governmental interference could make a positive difference aren't worth the long-term costs (i.e. giving the government increased power).