Working Paper No. 02-23:
Baptists? The Political Economy Of Political Environmental Interest Groups

Author(s):

Todd Zywicki

Date Posted: 2002

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Abstract:

It has been argued that environmental regulation can be best understood as the product of an unlikely alliance of "Baptists and Bootleggers" - public-interested environmental activist groups and private-interested firms and industries seeking to use regulation for competitive advantage. It is now well-understood how special-interests can manipulate regulation for competitive advantage. Moreover, economics has provided models of the results of private self-interest in markets and in politics. But, until now, economists have not provided a workable model of private self-interest by environmental non-profit organizations, nor have there been efforts to test a private interest model versus the predictions of public interest models of environmental activists. Some have gone so far as to suggest that environmental activists are motivated by a spirit of "civic republicanism" that causes them to subordinate their self-interest to the pursuit of the public good.

This article provides a first effort at testing the implications of public interest versus private interest models of environmental interest groups. In particular, it specifies three testable implications of a public interest model of the activities of environmental interest groups: (1) a desire to base policy on the best-available science; (2) a willingness to engage in deliberation and compromise to balance environmental protection against other compelling social and economic interests; and, (3) a willingness to consider alternative regulatory strategies that can deliver environmental protection at lower-cost than traditional command-and-control regulation. On all three counts, it is found that the public-interest or "civic republican" explanation for the activities of environmental interest groups fails to convincingly describe their behavior. On the other hand, the evidence on each of these three tests is consistent with a self-interested model of the behavior of environmental interest-groups. Their activities can be understood as being identical to those of any other interest group - namely, the desire to use the coercive power of government to subsidize their personal desires for greater environmental protection and to redistribute wealth and power to themselves.