Decisional Frameworks

How should decisions about environmental health be made? Advocates of free trade and free markets suggest that market mechanisms can protect public health adequately. However, from the perspective of firms competing for customers, environmental protection seldom makes sense. A manufacturer's plastic toys, for example, seldom are more attractive to customers because the water and air used in its manufacturing processes were purified before being released into the environment. Similarly, catalytic converters on automobiles add to cost but do not improve cars in most customers' eyes. Without government mandates requiring all the producers in an industry to protect the environment, the cost of such protection impairs the competitiveness, or reduces the profits, of conscientious firms that act alone. Thus, the free market discourages the protection of environmental health in the absence of government-mandated regulations such as those administered by OSHA and the EPA.

The EPA and other government agencies have been faulted for their failure to oppose the market-driven activities of private enterprise with sufficient vigor. Three kinds of reforms may be ameliorative. First, agency personnel could be barred for five years from employment, directly or indirectly, by companies that their agency regulates. This would encourage greater independence of agency personnel from the perspectives of regulated companies. Second, campaign finance reform could help diminish the influence of financial interests on the regulatory process. Third, whistle-blowers could be given special job and financial protection (Sanjour).

What decisional framework should those agencies employ? Some libertarians, who stress the importance of individual rights, maintain that any environmental pollution that may harm anyone should be disallowed. The government should "enjoin anyone from injecting pollutants into the air, and thereby invading the rights of persons and property. Period" (Rothbard, p. 5). However, this purist approach seems unrealistic because it would disallow, for example, most manufacturing and almost all uses of fossil fuels, including use in automobiles. Polluting the environment in ways that are potentially harmful to human health is too ingrained in industrial ways of life to be eliminated entirely.

Pointing to the benefits of industrialization—air-conditioning in the summer, heating in the winter, rapid transportation, and sophisticated medical interventions— some people maintain that pollution should be allowed until the risks to people outweigh the benefits. According to this view, government agencies such as the EPA should use risk-benefit analysis to determine permissible kinds and levels of pollution (Ruckelshaus).

Critics maintain, however, that risk-benefit analysis favors continued pollution over health-related concerns. First, current levels of pollution often are assumed to be acceptable and are used as precedents for future decisions. Second, whereas the benefits of current pollution practices are assumed, risks must be proved scientifically, a task that is difficult. Third, risk-benefit analysis depends largely on subjective judgments of "experts" whose opinions may reflect employers' interests (Winner).

Some people suggest avoiding subjectivity by using cost-benefit analysis (CBA), in which all the costs and benefits of proposed pollution-controlling regulations are expressed in monetary terms. The alternative with the highest net benefit should be chosen. Costly health hazards thus would be taken into account. The EPA usually allows environmental impact statements to employ CBA, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission uses CBA regularly.

However, there are many problems with CBA. First, the costs and benefits associated with the length and quality of human life, which are affected by environmental health, cannot be translated reliably into monetary terms. Second, subjectivism remains because there is great uncertainty in projections of health hazards (Shrader-Frechette). Third, by employing money as its standard, CBA takes into account views and desires only insofar as they are expressed in monetary terms. The opportunity for that expression is proportional to the money at people's disposal. Using CBA, then, agencies would give protection to people not equally but in proportion to their wealth or income. In regard to the actions of government agencies CBA denies equal protection of the law. Fourth, using normal economic techniques, CBA discounts the future, making a present cost or benefit larger than an otherwise equivalent but future cost or benefit. This biases public policy toward the short term. If the duty to avoid or minimize harming people is based on human rights, harming future generations is morally equivalent to harming contemporaries. CBA discounts the lives and well-being of future generations (Wenz).

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