The Students of Liberty Chapter from Florida Gulf Coast University, known as Eagles of Liberty, hosted the “Free Market Environmentalism Conference” for roughly 50 attendees free-of-charge at the Sugden Resort & Hospitality Center on Saturday, April 2nd. Free market environmentalism is an advocacy approach that promotes the view that free markets can protect the environment better than government regulation, and that private stewardship by certain industries is the most effective way to promote land, water and wildlife.
The broad-ranging topics of the conference were often controversial. “The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the 21st Century” was from Ronald Bailey of The Reason Foundation, while Liesa Priddy of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission presented “Private Landowner: The Next Endangered Species?” Daniel Peterson of The James Madison Institute offered “Balancing Property Rights and Everglades Restoration” while Isaac Orr of The Heartland Institute provided “Friends Don’t Let Friends Ban Fracking: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Explaining Fracking to Normal Folks.”
Ari Bargil of The Institute of Justice began the proceedings with “Chewed Up by Regulation: How Federal Food Policy is Destroying the Environment.” He is an attorney with The Institute of Justice Florida Office, and litigates cutting-edge constitutional cases that promote property rights, economic liberty and other individual rights in federal and state courts.
Bargil postulated that today’s entrepreneur would drive environmental protection, and to never underestimate the ability of free market capitalists to come up with solutions if only government will step aside. He offered as an example small-scale local farming versus national mega-farms, arguing that the better solution economically and environmentally is not to scale up but down. “It is impossible to forge a relationship with the agricultural conglomerate thousands of miles away but you can with the farmer down the road,” said Bargil. “Your options are the cheaper, less-healthy selections from Publix shipped halfway across the nation, or the more expensive but locally fresh-grown ones sold at your Farmer’s Market. Much of this price difference results from government regulation over our food that makes it hard for the small farmer to succeed.”
There is nothing more personal, Bargil offers, than what a person chooses to eat, calling it “our most basic human decision. Government is so deeply into the food industry that consumers can no longer make informed choices.”
He offered a case of private property rights as opposed to government regulation over a local statute to grow food. His husband & wife clients raised vegetables in their yard for 17 years, until an official ordered them to stop. They ruled that it was permissible to grow flowers and even fruit on your private property but not vegetables. “The reality was the vegetables did not ‘look pretty’ so they passed an ordinance to outlaw them, despite that they had no carbon footprint, required no large-scale usage of waste to grow them, and were the healthiest option for the property owners,” Bargil explained. “This shows how government does not allow people to use their own property as they see fit, as long as they are not hurting others.”
Local farming lets the customer connect to the source through fresher and healthier products. Unfortunately, subsidies, tremendous compliance costs and government-defined terms all make these prices more expensive than large-scale processed items. “Why is there corn and soy in everything?” Bargil asked rhetorically. “Because the government pays large-scale farms to grow corn and soy, so we have huge surpluses.” He does not blame these operations for taking advantage of the existing business rules. “I am a firm believer in freedom,” Bargil says with a wry smile. “If someone is giving away money, where do I stand in line? If government gives you free money to grow corn, take the money and grow corn! These farm factories are just playing by the rules as they are.”
Food labeling is a chief culprit; you cannot grow food on your own land and sell it as “organic” because the federal government owns and dictates the use of that term. Another client faced the question of “when is skim milk not skim milk?” Bargil says that small dairy farmers produce fresh and nutritious skim milk, but regulations stipulate that unless they add Vitamin A they must label it as “artificial: you need to identify it as something it is not; that is detrimental to everyone. We must convey truthful information so consumers can make the best-informed decision. Let the entrepreneur drive environmental protection. You still sell safe, healthy, locally-grown skim milk; you just call it what it really is.”
He agrees there must be some government interaction. “If an entrepreneur is lying and deceitful, and causes people to get sick or worse, then you punish those who knowingly hurt others to the fullest extent of the law. This threat will keep business honest. After all, if we enjoy strong personal property rights but no longer have clean air to breath, what’s the point? If you grow vegetables but your fertilizer pollutes my groundwater, you violate the crucial element of personal property rights: do anything on your land as long as it does not infringe on my property rights. There can and must be a happy medium between governance and self-governance.”
Mr. Bargil took questions throughout his one-hour presentation, including several spirited exchanges with area activist Daniel Porter. To their great credit, though far apart in ideology and philosophy, each accorded the other dignity and respect to produce a lively conversation, with the audience the beneficiary. National politicians should note this approach.
Students of Liberty conferences are run by students for students, to educate, empower and develop the next generation of leaders based on the values of liberty. For more information see www.studentsforliberty.org or locally contact FGCU campus coordinator Emily Reynolds at EReynolds@studentsforliberty.org.