CORPORATIONS are often accused of despoiling the environment in their quest for profit. Free enterprise is supposedly incompatible with environmental preservation, so that government regulation is required. Such thinking is the basis for proposals to greatly expand environmental regulation, such as giving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cabinet-level status. So many controls have been proposed that conservative columnist Warren Brookes recently forecast that the EPA could become ``the most powerful government agency on earth, involved in massive levels of economic, social, scientific, and political spending and interference.''
But if the profit motive is the primary cause of pollution, one would not expect to find much pollution in socialist countries, like the Soviet Union, China, and in Eastern Europe, that for decades outlawed profitmaking and private enterprise. Exactly the opposite is true: The socialist world suffers from the worst pollution on earth. Perhaps free enterprise is not so incompatible with environmental protection after all.
In a Jan. 1, 1990, speech, Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel described how his country's communist government had ``laid waste to our soil and the rivers and the forests. ... We have the worst environment in the whole of Europe....'' In parts of Czechoslovakia, hills stand bare because their vegetation has died in air so foul that it can be tasted. Even buildings have eroded in this polluted atmosphere, and some fields are toxic to a depth of a foot.
According to the Polish Academy of Sciences, a quarter of Poland's soil may be too contaminated for safe farming. Ninety-five percent of the water in Poland's rivers is unfit for human consumption; 50 percent of it is even unfit for industrial use, so toxic that it would destroy equipment. In some parts of Poland, trains must slow down to 5 m.p.h. because the tracks have been severely eroded by acid rain.
Industrial dust carrying deposits of lead, zinc, and iron is so heavy that huge trucks drive through towns spraying water to control the inhalation of dust. Pollution-related illnesses are estimated to affect 25 percent of the Polish population.
In the Soviet Union, industrialization has poisoned some of the richest farmlands in Europe. According to the United Nations, many rivers in the USSR are little but open sewers feeding into the Caspian and Aral seas. Industrial effluents and untreated sewage flow into all the major rivers causing mammoth fish kills. The sturgeon population has been so decimated that the Soviets are trying to invent artificial caviar.
In China, pollution is so terrible that by the early 1980s fish had almost vanished from the national diet. Depletion of state-owned forests has turned them into deserts. Over 8 million acres of land in the northern Chinese plains were made alkaline and unproductive during the ``Great Leap Forward.''
United Nations data show that in four of the six East European countries, a quarter to a third of the forests show signs of dying from air pollution. As Jeffrey Leonard of the World Wildlife Fund observed, ``pollution was part and parcel of the system that molested the people [of Eastern Europe] in their daily lives.''
These examples of environmental degradation in the socialist world suggest some valuable lessons. First, it is not free enterprise per se that causes environmental harm. The heart of the problem lies with the failure of legal institutions, not the free enterprise system. American liability laws were weakened over 100 years ago by ``progressive era'' courts that believed that ``economic progress'' was in ``the public interest'' and should therefore supersede individual rights.
The English common law tradition of the protection of private property rights - including the right to be free from pollution - was overturned. In other words, many environmental problems are not caused by ``market failure'' but by government's failure to enforce property rights. It is a travesty of justice that downstream residents, for example, cannot hold an upstream polluter responsible for damaging their property. The common law tradition must be revived if we are to enjoy both a healthy market economy and a cleaner environment. Potential polluters must know in advance that they will be held responsible for their actions.
The second lesson is that the plundering of the environment in the socialist world is an example of what biologist Garrett Hardin called ``the tragedy of the commons.'' Under communal property ownership, where no one owns or is responsible for a natural resource, the inclination is for each individual to abuse or deplete the resource before someone else does.
Common examples of this tragedy are how people litter public streets and parks much more than their own yards; private housing is much better maintained than public housing projects; cattle ranchers overgraze public grazing lands but maintain lush pastures on their own property; the national forests are carelessly overlogged, but private forests are carefully managed and reforested by lumber companies with ``super trees''; and game fish are habitually overfished in public waterways but thrive in private lakes and streams.
The tragedy of the commons is a lesson for all those who believe that further nationalization and governmental control of natural resources is a solution to our environmental problems.
These two pillars of free enterprise - sound liability laws that hold people responsible for their actions and the enforcement of private property rights - are important stepping stones to environmental protection.