Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Restore Free Market Capitalism for the Environment

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is well known as an environmental advocate and attorney.  Given his pro-environment position, it is quite unexpected to hear Kennedy advocate for free market capitalism in order to protect the environment.

If you ask many committed environmental folks, they would probably be anti-free market capitalism. If you ask many free market adherents, they would probably be anti-environmentalist.

However, the rather unique pro-free market, yet pro-environment position came during Kennedy’s evening keynote address at the Sustainable Operations Summit, at The Langham Huntington in Pasadena, CA earlier this week. His position at first took the crowd by surprise, but was well received after Kennedy’s digression.

Free Market Capitalism vs. Crony Capitalism
Kennedy differentiated the various flavors of capitalism. The one he favors for the environment is free market capitalism. The one he opposes is the sort of “capitalistic” system we have in place as we speak, crony capitalism.

“Show me a polluter, and I’ll show you a subsidy,” insisted Kennedy, implying that the biggest polluters in the environment are actually subsidized by the taxpayer. Crony capitalism is when the government and corporations collude to divert tax payer dollars (grants or subsidies) and/or create laws that benefit the given corporation. If free market capitalism is upheld, no such collusion between government and corporation is even possible.

“Investing” in Laws
Kennedy further elaborated that the current regime of crony capitalism, rather than a corporation investing money to better a given business, money is (unfortunately) better spent investing the political process, thus to dismantling the free marketplace while subverting environmental laws.

One example Kennedy cited was clear cutting mountains for coal in Appalachia. It was once illegal to fill certain waterways and watersheds with debris. This law was in place for many decades. The law was even upheld against violators when brought to court. So what happened?

If you can’t win in court, maybe you can “invest” in congress.  Lobbyists were hired to not change the law, but redefine the law. The term “fill” was redefined, legally allowing companies to fill local waterways and watersheds with clear cutting debris. Kennedy summed up this travesty as the “demise of democracy.”

Free the Market, Protect the Environment?
Kennedy closed the evening by saying we need to restore free market capitalism, by getting rid of crony capitalism where the corporate and government “cheats the marketplace.” Free market capitalism will not only help us catch the polluters, but it will provide an opportunity towards prosperity for us all.

So, what do you think? Is there merit in Kennedy’s position in being pro-free market as well as pro-environment? Or is free market capitalism a terrible idea from the get go, causing more environmental harm than good? Are free market capitalism and environmentalism compatible or incompatible?

Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.