Much of the philosophical underpinnings for environmental regulation in the United States and around the world are found in a predominant view that mistrusts private property rights and free markets. Many environmental groups prefer government ownership of land and water, believing that government will do a better job protecting natural resources and the environment than will private landowners. An example of this in Michigan was the introduction of legislation that would have transfer ownership of water from private property owners and given it to state government. Although the legislation did not pass, it was supported by environmental groups that were enamored with the idea of privately owned water being placed in the “public trust.”
A recent study authored by Carrie B. Kerekes, an assistant professor of economics at Florida Gulf Coast University, for the Cato Journal finds that in most cases countries with the most secure private property rights have the best environmental protection. Her findings indicate that there is a strong positive relationship between secure private property rights and both land and water protection. Interestingly she found that secure private property rights are negatively related to air quality. She concludes that countries with more secure private property rights tend to have more manufacturing, which increases air pollution. She also notes that the concept of private property rights does not lend itself as well to air as it does to land and water resources, which could be a contributing factor to the negative air quality finding.
Kerekes has put numbers to what many of us have observed — private property rights help rather than harm environmental protection. People who usually operate out of their best self interests do a better job of protecting what they own as opposed to common property. Michigan lawmakers should continue to resist future initiatives that would place private property, including water, into government ownership.