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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:An Infamous Fire Turns Fifty

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Over at Power Line is a discussion of the famous fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. The fiftieth anniversary of that fire was June 21, and it has been misused to symbolize the alleged evils of capitalism and excuse environmental regulation ever since. The blog post takes note of both widespread misconceptions about and little-known context surrounding the fire. Most notably, the river was already on the mend and it had reached its then-sad state in great part due to the law at the time -- law that also hamstrung efforts at remediation:

[T]he Cuyahoga was treated as an industrial stream, and state permits inhibited local clean up efforts. Public nuisance actions and enforcement of local pollution ordinances, in particular, were precluded by state regulation, while federal laws protecting commercially navigable waterways went largely unenforced."
This comports with a post of mine from earlier this year, in which I noted that law that could have prevented water pollution went unenforced thanks to Utilitarianism. I quoted one source there as follows:
Image by DJ Johnson, via Unsplash, license.
Yet the judges were not insulated from broader social developments and thus their decisions reflected changes in values in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Strict protection of property rights in the early nineteenth century was compatible with the early republican thought, which attributed intrinsic value to property; it was the foundation of propriety and political participation in the society and the source of the citizen's independence. Utilitarian values gained prominence throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in the Progressive Era when Gifford Pinchot promoted the use of water and forest resources for "the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers." The mid-nineteenth century case reports indicate that for judges industry was the vanguard of economic development that benefited everybody. [format and punctuation edits, bold added]
One small problem with this approach is that it is not the proper job of the government to guarantee or actively promote anyone's happiness (as if government officials are fit to judge that for anyone). In doing so, the government disregarded its proper job: protecting individual rights, including those downstream of the industries.

I will also note again that the law was far from perfect regarding the rights of those downstream. Likewise, the cleanup efforts weren't, either, funded as they were, for example, with government bonds.

That said, both (a) how the river became polluted in the first place, and (b) the fact that efforts were already underway to clean it, indicate the following: On top of so much of environmental regulation violating our rights (which should preclude the whole idea), the case for it is weak to say the very least, even if we set aside such objections for the sake of argument.

-- CAV

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