Bozeman is nationally recognized for being first on many dimensions, best retirement town for active people, best ski town, exemplar of civic culture, and more. It’s also the founding epicenter of "Free Market Environmentalism" (FME).
This disciplined, analytic approach to conservation and environmental management has captured the intellectual high ground. However, despite its success in achieving conservation goals, it has not captivated the Green movement. Before explaining this apparent paradox, I’ll define a few terms and sketch the origins of FME.
There are two types of environmentalism. The most important to health and wellbeing is pollution, noxious stuff including dioxin, asbestos fibers, and nuclear waste. Essentially, sludge.
The second type of environmentalism concerns nature as we enjoy, protect, and steward it. This includes forests, parks, wildlife, wilderness, rangelands, and water. This is the romance side of environmentalism. Bozeman practitioners of FME quite naturally specialize in romance. If we chose the other we’d likely be in Boston studying its infamous harbor, a mother lode of sludge.
FME, or more formally the "new resource economics" (NRE), is a field of applied economics. It developed at MSU in the 1970s as four academics independently came to Bozeman.
Frank Adams featured this saga 30 years ago in the Great Falls Tribune in "MSU nurtures new resource economics." He observed that MSU "or any place in Montana (is) an unlikely place for an economic think tank of national proportions. But it has become just that."
It’s nearly impossible to plan such success. It’s the result of academic/intellectual entrepreneurship, something that by its nature appears to spontaneously develop. Once established, it’s nearly impossible to eradicate.
Our FME prospered. Success came despite opposition by a troubled governor and a university president who feared and opposed applying economics to the public sector. Still, attacks based on misunderstanding and a strong Green ideology (or religion) occasionally surface.
Fortunately, logic and data buttressed by examples and applied to interesting topics are powerful, relentless, attractive forces. It’s no accident that FME programs, including those I’ve run, first at MSU, then at PERC, and for the past quarter-century at FREE, have brought half a dozen Nobel Prize winning economists and hundreds of America’s leading economists, law professors, and federal judges to Bozeman.
Most return on multiple occasions, one Nobel 14 times, and never for the money. Sophisticated practitioners of FME understand that incentives matter a great deal-but that among principled individuals monetary ones don’t trump the forces of culture, character, and civility, the foundations of every good and productive society.
There is wide agreement that FME is intellectually dominant; no responsible scholar still supports the old command-and-control resource management model of the Progressive Era. Special interest politics and bureaucratic pathology, not incompetence or corruption, generate failure. NRE explains why this is the predictable consequence of sylvan socialism and related bureaucratic schemes.
Still, FME is sometimes misunderstood, even among intelligent, attentive Greens. Actually, FME practitioners understand why sound regulations are beneficial. Governmentally enforced rules are often required to control pollution, an obvious trespass on property rights. Also, state, federal, and even international monitoring and regulating can protect common pools and fugitive resources. Migratory fish and waterfowl are obvious examples. There is an immense amount of economic research and publishing on these topics, much of it by Bozeman political economists.
Another misunderstanding involves entrepreneurship and profits. Much FME writing, especially mine, explains the value and great importance of social or non-profit entrepreneurship. Consider the work of Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, GVLT, and hundreds of similar non-profit conservation and environmental organizations. DU alone, working with private landowners, has preserved more acres of waterfowl habitat than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The most compelling advantage of FME is its success in harmonizing liberty, environmental quality, and responsible prosperity. These features will be increasingly important as federal, state, and local budgets are evermore stressed, a certain outcome.