A habitat for half-truths: World Summit on Sustainable Development and Agenda 21

J.D. Tuccille
for Washington Times

8/23/02

     "Sustainable development" sounds like a good thing one of those noncontroversial ideas over which we need not squabble. Few of us are for things that can't be sustained. So what is there to argue about?
     Quite a bit, actually, as representatives from around the world gather in Johannesburg to address poverty, environmental concerns and economic growth at the United Nations-sponsored World Summit on Sustainable Development. In perusing the fine print published by the organizers of the conference, economists and concerned people from across the globe are alarmed by what is concealed behind a seemingly harmless bit of jargon.
      Agenda 21 is the document that's supposed to be converted into law by the world's governments after the gathering in South Africa. Its many provisions include a general condemnation of the way of life prevalent in developed countries. The document calls on governments to use policy measures, including "environmental charges and taxes," to achieve "reorientation of existing production and consumption patterns that have developed in industrial societies and are in turn emulated in much of the world."
      The document also calls for increased government management of the migration from rural areas to cities that is typical of developing countries. Whether they move to cities or remain behind on the farm, people may well find themselves subject to "national land-resource management plans to guide land-resource development and utilization."
      Agenda 21 is a large document that touches many bases, but its underlying message is one of greater government control over commerce, science and everyday life often with the environment invoked as an overall justification.
      Such a loaded definition of sustainable development is condemned as counterproductive by the contributors to "Sustainable Development: Promoting Progress or Perpetuating Poverty?" A new book from the International Policy Network, Julian Morris, the book's London-based editor, warns that the policies under consideration at the World Summit on Sustainable Development would undermine the ability of people to manage their own lives.
      Mr. Morris says, "the key to sustainable development is the combination of strong institutions, especially property rights, the rule of law, and freedom of contract, and good governance, which entails both decentralized democracy and freedom of speech."
      David Dollar and Aart Kraay of the World Bank agree. For a paper published by the Institut Economique de Montreal, they studied economic development around the world. Among their findings: "Openness to foreign trade benefits the poor to the same extent that it benefits the whole economy. Good rule of law and fiscal discipline are other factors that benefit the poor to the same extent as the whole economy."
      Interestingly, Messrs. Dollar and Kraay found that widely popular government spending on health and education do little to raise the incomes of the world's poor.
      India's Liberty Institute cautions that "lack of adequate property rights in India is slowing growth by up to 1.5 per cent per annum." The institute calls for protections for private property, easy and inexpensive access to courts and reductions in business regulation.
      South Africa's Leon Louw, a crusader for liberty since the days of apartheid, emphasizes what's at stake in the policy debate. He points out that countries which combine political openness with free markets enjoy significant advantages in prosperity and general well-being over authoritarian countries. "[F]reer countries fare better on all welfare indicators, like health, literacy, and so on. The evidence is indisputable: free markets have always won in delivering all forms of development."
     The much-invoked environment makes an especially poor justification for authoritarian policies. As a glance at the toxic wastelands left behind by the old Soviet bloc reveals, not only are free economies better at feeding and educating people, they also encourage efficiency in the use and replacement of resources that managed economies can't equal.
      Drawing from such findings, James S. Shikwati of Kenya's Inter Region Economic Network recommends a new constitution for his country that will uphold political and economic liberty. "[I]t could focus on protecting the fundamental human rights, rule of law and protection of property."
      But these proposals run counter to the ideas that dominate the Johannesburg agenda, where the intellectual climate emphasizes limits on growth, trade and technology. If research from around the world indicates that free markets and personal liberty offer the best route to healthy and wealthy populations, why are the potentates of dozens of nations discussing greater regulation and control over human activity?
      Pulling no punches, Mr. Louw charges that "Through the push for sustainable development, First World elites are launching an eco-imperialism that is far more insidious than any form of colonialism." He insists that the schemes too often summarized by the words "sustainable development" will impede economic growth in the developing world, perpetuating hunger, illiteracy and poverty.
      But why would "First World elites" champion authoritarian policies that can only worsen the plight of disadvantaged people? And why would representatives from Third World countries join those schemes?
     Guessing at motivations is always a dangerous game, but it's worth pointing out that economic liberty and civil freedom minimize the role of government functionaries. As people become increasingly prosperous through their own efforts, their dependence on planners, politicians and bureaucrats dwindles as does the power of those officials.
      The attendees at the Johannesburg conference certainly have sustainability on their minds. But rather than development, it's likely their own authority that they seek to sustain.
     
      J.D. Tuccille is a senior editor of the Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-Market.Net (http://www.free-market.net).



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