The right’s resistance to regulation, by Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office: James Watt, who served as Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983, is remembered primarily for a short, business-friendly tenure that ended with his resignation soon after an ill-judged remark about women, minorities and the disabled. And yet, as MIT professor Judith Layzer observes in her new book about environmental politics, “Open for Business,” there is good reason to regard Watt’s impact differently.
For one thing, Watt, among others on the political right, managed to cut government funding for conservation efforts. For another, he installed staff members who emphasized the development of natural resources, rather than just the protection of land. In so doing, Watt was one of many Republicans who instituted fundamental changes in U.S. environmental policy.
“I will build an institutional memory that will be here for decades,” Watt once said of his department, as Layzer recounts.
These kinds of under-the-radar changes, Layzer argues, are one of two ways conservatives have dramatically altered environmental politics since the 1970s, when environmentalists probably reached the high point of their political influence.
The other, says Layzer, an associate professor of environmental policy at MIT, is ideological and rhetorical: Conservatives have gained enormous traction by touting “the virtues of the market system and the horrors of regulation,” thus limiting public backing for stricter government-imposed controls on natural resources. By arguing that the market economy, when left alone, is effectively self-policing and morally sound, conservatives have put environmentalists on the defensive, making them tentative about arguing for environmental protections as a good in themselves. So whereas President Richard Nixon once green-lighted the Environmental Protection Agency, today’s political debates often touch on the necessity of opening further federal lands for oil exploration.
“The set of conservative ideas has really pushed the framing of issues to the point where many people today aren’t even aware of the [older] alternatives,” Layzer says. “Only if you’d been involved or lived through this history would you know it hasn’t always been thus.” ...[continue]...
The one thing I'll note is that "free market rhetoric," which is said to have played a key role in winning (or at least shifting) the battle of ideas, was the vehicle for defending other interests, e.g. business interests in having as few environmental regulations as possible. It (free markets) was not the goal in and of itself.
As to what should be done, for this reason I'm not so sure that “It really was about ideas." And you have to fight ideas with ideas.” It was also about having the political power to make the ideas heard, and to turn them into actual legislation that served the interests of the of those supporting the politicians financially. So I'd say, "It was really about using ideas to serve the interests of those who held the reins of power." Or something like that.