“Free enterprise, personal responsibility, free markets, limited government, rule of law and, of course, freedom are fundamental tenets to democracy and human progress,” Northwood University President Kent MacDonald wrote in a recent post to the university’s website. These tenets form what MacDonald calls the “Northwood Idea,” and for 60 years they “have guided Northwood in our belief that liberty is the greatest determinant of one’s success in life and of prosperity in the communities where we live.”
In addition to heading up the Mackinac Center’s Environmental Policy Initiative, I am also an adjunct professor at Northwood University in Midland, MI. I work to educate undergraduate students on the issues of environmental science and environmental policy and the invaluable role that free-markets can play in ensuring our environment is well managed. As many students have been taught throughout their lives that markets and the environment are necessarily at odds, they are often unaware that free markets and environmental management pair very effectively.
For that reason, the opening weeks of my classes in Environmental Policy expose students to the purposes and challenges of implementing effective environmental regulation. Each week, students are responsible for completing readings and discussion group questions that weigh the costs and benefits of regulation broadly.
Anyone who takes a quick look at the Mackinac Center’s website can easily see our focus on free-market solutions to pressing regulatory challenges. But in these classes, simply regurgitating the views of a free-market-friendly teacher won’t cut it. Students must determine for themselves where they stand on these issues. And they are challenged to use the information in the readings to openly and politely work through their views on a variety of policy, regulatory, and legislative issues.
A recurring theme in student discussions is the unavoidable difficulty of trying to balance the potential protections offered by regulations against the stifling and costly impacts of overregulating. Despite the difficulties, students are taught that the best way to arrive at an effective policy decision is to engage in open dialogue with people or organizations that hold differing views.
That is no easy task, especially in today’s world. Anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with cable news and social media know that opening up a discussion on topics like endangered species management, energy production, or climate change can quickly descend into outrage. Impassioned responses like this can discourage frank discussion and makes it difficult to engage with dissenting viewpoints.
But these difficult discussions help to open students’ minds to new ideas. Interaction helps each of us to refine and rethink the areas where we may have unquestioningly accepted some concept. At the end of the semester, students are not expected to walk away repeating an approved set of views. The hope is that they will soon realize if everyone in the class unthinkingly believed the same thing, the discussion would be lifeless, no one would learn anything, no innovation would occur, and environmental policies would quickly become outdated and useless.
As part of these discussions, students also shouldn’t expect they will develop the single, “right answer” to the difficult policy challenges they will face. Rather, they should realize that there often isn’t a single right answer to complex policy issues. That’s because changing times broaden our understanding of an issue. New technologies can change what is viewed as an effective policy response. Concepts like the Overton Window demonstrate that what might be a possible policy solution today might not have been imaginable a decade ago. But by reviewing some key environmental policy concepts and seeing how policy solutions have worked or failed in the past, we can get a better feel for how they might fare today.
One concept that should stick with and influence students is the habit of questioning the now common push for increased government intervention, or regulation at the first sign of any environmental problem: the “there oughta be a law!” reflex. Rather than immediately demanding another law or regulation, students are pushed to consider whether there could be another, free-market, response when an environmental challenge appears on our radar. This focus is in keeping with both the Mackinac Center’s objectives and the Northwood Idea.
Over the next few blog posts, we’ll consider some of the examples that students see and explain how they are tasked with viewing the issue from more than one side. The idea is that once students are exposed to various views and ideas, they may learn to resist the “there oughta be a law” reflex and come up with more creative methods of solving environmental problems. Readers can take on a similar examination of their ideas and assumptions, gaining a few of the benefits of attending a class on environmental policy.
Permission to reprint this blog post in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author (or authors) and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are properly cited.
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The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonprofit research and educational institute that advances the principles of free markets and limited government. Through our research and education programs, we challenge government overreach and advocate for a free-market approach to public policy that frees people to realize their potential and dreams.
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