Property Lines

Ed Carson's "Property Frights" (May 1996) makes an excellent point: The property rights movement's greatest challenge is convincing urban voters that the issue affects them as much as it does large landowners or rural communities. Unfortunately, the notion of environmental protection still conjures up only the positive goals of fresh air and healthful waters. Few realize the commitment to socialism at the root of the insatiable demand for greater environmental regulation.

Reaching out with accurate information to all Americans is more important than ever, now that the Senate is preparing to vote on the Omnibus Property Rights Act (S. 605), which would provide compensation for property owners if government regulation devalues their property by at least 33 percent. Environmental groups, riding on a perceived wave of public support and arguing the bill will break the national treasury, have vowed to defeat it.

But hard facts belie the scare campaign used so effectively to defeat the Washington initiative. Specifically, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports that passage of the Omnibus Property Rights Act will have a negligible effect on the budget. In fact, it will actually save money by reforming regulatory procedures and eliminating expenses that might otherwise be spent on attorneys' fees, litigation costs, and adverse takings judgments. Also, successful track records for strong compensation laws in Florida, Texas, and Mississippi contradict the "budget buster" myth.

While the public supports environmental protection, they want their civil rights protected as well. Pollster Linda DiVall–whose findings are used to demonstrate support for increased environmental protection–shows that support for many regulations drops sharply when respondents discover their ineffectiveness and disregard for property rights.

In short, there are ample reasons why the public should support property rights reform. The problem is communicating that message.

Nancie G. Marzulla
President and Chief Legal Counsel
Defenders of Property Rights
Washington, DC

Property values and usefulness are undoubtedly diminished by taxes and regulation. Rural property owners bear the brunt of the burden because they do not have the political clout to avoid strict compliance. I suggest that the solution is to let urban and suburban citizens, and, yes, all government entities, feel the full effect of strict compliance. A pothole in the country is a mini-wetland, but in the city it is a street problem to be fixed. Adequate drainage and flood protection are desirable in the city and illegal in the country. A homeowner (or renter) often applies more pesticide to a single rosebush than a farmer might use on many acres of cropland. A single dandelion in a manicured lawn will get more herbicide than an entire farm in the country. Standing water and the mosquitoes bred there are ruthlessly eliminated in urban and suburban areas but mandated in rural areas. Pigeons, sparrows, gulls, and swallows are poisoned in every city at the insistence of the same people who will not allow any pest control in rural areas. When raccoons turn over a garbage can in the suburbs, squads of animal-control bureaucrats eliminate the problem in the name of public health, but rural people are expected to live with the problem or face draconian penalties. The list could go on.

If environmental laws and regulations were rigorously enforced in the city, they would be politically intolerable and quickly repealed. Property rights activists should demand that the laws be uniformly enforced. Filing complaints about a suburban storm sewer or flood diversion might be more productive and cost effective than lobbying legislators or trying to win referendum elections. A few soil samples from the mayor's yard might show his topsoil is hazardous waste to be disposed of in the most expensive manner possible. Maybe the levees, dams, and storm sewers that keep his house from flooding are illegal and must be destroyed. Maybe a drippy faucet has created a wetland in his back yard that cannot ever be altered.

I firmly believe that strict and universal enforcement is the best way to eliminate bad laws and regulations. The purpose of most environmental law is to make everything outside the city limits a free playground for urban and suburban people. Only when the majority feels rank injustice will things change.

John C. Harper

In 1946 I bought a 50-acre resort. Included was a beautiful 20-acre tamarack swamp, a refuge for many wild fowl, muskrats, mink, and raccoons. Deer found it a safe retreat. As a giant sponge it helped maintain the lake level. Continuous upgrading made the resort increasingly profitable. But resort work is endless and confining; and there is more money in developing. So I converted the resort to a condominium. Now, as a developer, I saw the 20-acre swamp as a potential 25-unit extension of the condominium. I no longer saw it as a refuge or a part of nature's grand scheme–I just saw dollar signs. Wisconsin had a wetlands law but I was able to maneuver a variance. A drag line, bulldozer, and rip rapper were ready to go. But the two-year effort gave me time to reflect and when I balanced my dollar gain against the environmental damage I would create, I passed. I did not believe my deed to the property gave me the right to destroy it.

Arch Jaecks
Wenatchee, WA

The Scarlett Letter

Lynn Scarlett's article ("Evolutionary Ecology," May 1996) is a tour de force that should receive wide circulation. She is unquestionably one of the top environmental writers today.

Three issues touched upon by Ms. Scarlett may be worthy of further exploration. First, I would suggest that the significance of recognizing state authority may be far greater than indicated-it may well be the indispensable key to both continued environmental improvement and legal reform.

Second, it is important to note that environmental standards are generally not uniform; states have carefully protected their authority to set standards stricter than national minimums. Nonetheless U.S. EPA has often sought to impose uniform implementation processes, leading to the dysfunctional results outlined by Ms. Scarlett.

Finally one hopes that Ms. Scarlett will begin to outline a language of leadership to communicate and implement her "environmental institutions." The existing public dialogue on these issues is outdated and may well be inadequate for what is now required.

James M. Strock
Secretary for Environmental Protection
Sacramento, CA

Smoking Mad

Jacob's Sullum's article "Smoke Alarm" (May 1996) is putatively an attempt to put the widespread social disapproval for marijuana consumption in historical perspective. It is also, however, meant to provide an argument showing that those social concerns are an overreaction, just as were turn-of-the-century attitudes toward cigarette smoking.

Sullum's argument seems to be: 1) Opposition to cigarette smoking was based on moral condemnation rather than questions of physical hygiene; 2) those moral concerns were spurious; 3) current opposition to pot smoking is also based on moral condemnation; 4) so it, too, must be spurious. Unfortunately, Sullum's argument fails twice over.

First, the argument is fallacious even if we concede the truth of its historical claims. Suppose that the moralistic campaign against cigarette smoking really was spurious. It doesn't follow that the moralistic campaign against pot smoking is spurious unless cigarette and pot smoking are fundamentally similar activities. Sullum produces no evidence for this assumption, simply implying that anyone who believes otherwise is buying into anti-pot propaganda. Unfortunately, this assumption begs the question: Even if cigarette smoking left us morally intact, pot smoking could be different. Sullum never grapples with this issue.

Second, Sullum never explains why the moral condemnations of cigarette smoking were spurious. Nicotine is, after all, an addictive drug. Arguably, addictions do undermine the conditions of rational agency and moral responsibility. There is moral significance to the fact that people sometimes want to quit smoking but find to their surprise that they can't. In many conceptions of morality, a person is blameworthy for voluntarily putting him or herself into such a demeaning position. If that is right, then cigarette smoking is morally problematic.

It's one thing to oppose the war on drugs because it threatens the rule of law and procedural rights. It's another thing to make lame excuses for the moral and intellectual deficiencies of potheads. The former argumentative strategy will help libertarians make the case for decriminalization to a public that is skeptical about the war on drugs; the latter won't.

Irfan Khawaja
Princeton, NJ

Mr. Sullum replies: As I stated, the comparison between yesterday's fears about tobacco and today's fears about marijuana was intended to be suggestive, not conclusive. Obviously, the fact that people once believed things about tobacco that seem silly now does not prove that contemporary concerns about marijuana are unfounded. But given the pharmacological differences between the two substances, the parallels are striking. They illustrate the point that a drug's reputation is shaped by factors other than chemistry. And yes, the way that perceptions of tobacco (and other drugs) have shifted over the years should give pause to anyone who automatically accepts extravagant claims about the hazards of marijuana.

An examination of the scientific record confirms that skepticism is appropriate. As I noted, there is no credible evidence that marijuana in moderation causes brain damage, destroys motivation, saps productivity, contributes to crime, or leads to "hard" drugs. Like any other psychoactive substance, marijuana can be abused, but it is generally used responsibly-a point that Irfan Khawaja's sweeping condemnation of "potheads" obscures.

If by saying that addictions may "undermine the conditions of rational agency and moral responsibility," Mr. Khawaja means to imply a kind of pharmacological compulsion that negates free will, I disagree. In any event, it is one thing to suggest that cigarette smoking is "morally problematic," quite another to say that it damages intelligence, turns boys into liars and criminals, makes students and workers lazy, and fosters opium addiction. I believe that it is fair to say that these ideas have been discredited. If Mr. Khawaja can offer evidence to the contrary, I would be eager to see it.