PERC’s “After Rio” Journalism Conference Spurs Reaction

Tuesday, December 1, 1992

Photo from Liz West courtesy of

Free-lance writer Heather MacDonald wrote the following after the National Conference for Journalists. Jane Shaw, Conference Director, replied.

Heather MacDonald:

You persuaded me that good arguments can be made for why private landowners are the best protectors of natural resources. But you did not definitively refute the counter-argument that government is better able to take a long-range view of resource conservation, nor explain why the examples of private environmental devastation and overdevelopment don’t belie your thesis. There are numerous examples on each side. Which group one ultimately favors probably stems from temperament rather than reason.

You have started me thinking about private vs. public conservatorship, however. An example: On the radio today, the announcer had as a guest a dealer in musical artifacts: letters and scores. He read letters by Sibelius and Ellington, etc. As a plug, the announcer mentioned that everything on the show that day was for sale.

I thought, Hmm… how do I feel about this fragile letter from Sibelius on his wife’s imminent death going from private hand to private hand, some of which may be covered with peanut butter or too rough to safely handle the precious object? On the other hand, I’ve seen the pathetic national archeology museum in Mexico City and a dismal state museum in Venice, neither of which seemed remotely capable of curating their collections. So it all depends on which private owner and which government is in charge.

Jane Shaw replies:

I don’t think that mere temperament determines the proper choice between government control or private control. For one thing, while mistakes can be made by both government and private organizations, government is very slow to correct its mistakes. But the financial pain that comes from poor stewardship forces private organizations to change their approaches.

Second, private owners have incentives to be careful. The person who spends several thousand or even several hundred dollars on a fragile letter from Sibelius is not likely to cover it with peanut butter or handle it roughly. Government “owners” do not invest their own money in purchase of such materials and thus they do not have a similar incentive to treat such objects carefully. Sometimes they have other incentives that help make them accountable, such as a watchdog press. But in many countries, neglect is typical.

You suggest that “examples of private environmental devastation and over-development” belie our thesis. We agree that such examples occur, but often when we investigate an example that people consider egregious, we find that the facts are different than they seem at first. In some cases, the devastation is actually quite limited in time or place. In some cases, “overdevelopment” is a response to what people want and are willing to pay for (such as more housing), even though it may not be what environmentalists or those already living in the area want and are willing to pay for. Often, government regulation has caused the environmental problem.

I have taken the liberty of enclosing three articles that investigate so-called environmental disasters – Love Canal, the “Great Timber Heist” in the Great Lakes in the late nineteenth century, and major oil spills. I have also included an article that compares the investment strategies of government and the private sector, providing both logic and evidence that private firms are more farsighted than governments.

MacDonald responds:

Yours is a good answer to an imperfect analogy. My analogy to environmental problems would have been more apt were there a market not only in lovingly preserved manuscripts but also in manuscripts shredded for confetti.

Before joining PERC, Jane Shaw was a journalist who had developed an uneasy feeling that much of the commentary about environmental policy that she read--and even some that she wrote--was tilted in the wrong direction. The usual solution to an environmental problem was to turn it over to the government. She had become uncomfortable with this...
Read More > More Articles by Jane Shaw >
Heather MacDonald is a journalist and the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In 1992 she attended PERC’s “After Rio” Journalism Conference.
Read More > More Articles by Heather MacDonald >