Until nearly the very end, Scott Pruitt was considered by movement conservatives as one of the brightest lights of the Trump administration and an up-and-coming political star on the right. He received fawning profiles in the National Review, basked in the adulation of CPAC attendees, and was beloved by right-wing talk radio hosts. Despite a remarkable parade of stories about his small-bore corruption, abuses of power, petty grifting, pathological secretiveness, and personal weirdness, conservatives hand-waved it all. What were these attacks from the left, after all, compared to his outspoken devotion to God, his determination to call out global warming as an anti-capitalist con-job, and his uncompromising determination to tear the EPA apart and “Make America Great Again” by freeing corporate America from the financial burdens of environmental protection?
While we’ve become accustomed to conservatives serving as political gendarmes for polluters—denying that environmental problems exist at all and, in any case, too expensive to do anything about—this was not always the case. It’s therefore worth considering how far Scott Pruitt and his cheerleaders on the right have moved from the conservatism they so loudly presume to speak for.
In 1965, for instance, well before environmentalism took hold in American politics, William F. Buckley ran for mayor of New York City on a platform that could have been written by the present-day Sierra Club. “We all know that air pollution is a contributing cause of respiratory disease—of chronic bronchitis, of pulmonary emphysema, of lung cancer,” Buckley said.
In response, he called for shutting down coal-fired power plants, retrofitting the city’s buses so that they could run on liquefied natural gas, and requiring that all cars in the city comply with California’s stringent new vehicle emission standards. To reduce traffic and the air pollution that followed, Buckley called for tolls to be imposed on cars entering Manhattan and a publicly funded, elevated bikeway spanning 125 blocks down Second Avenue.
And … the emerging libertarian movement agreed. “Among conservatives—in contrast to libertarians—there are two ultimately similar responses to the problem of air pollution,” wrote the godfather of the modern libertarian movement, Murray Rothbard:
One response, by Ayn Rand and Robert Moses among others, is to deny that the problem exists, and to attribute the entire agitation to leftists who want to destroy capitalism and technology on behalf of a tribal form of socialism. While part of this charge may be correct, denial of the very existence of the problem is to deny science itself and to give a vital hostage to the leftist charge that defenders of capitalism “place property rights above human rights.” Moreover, a defense of air pollution does not even defend property rights; on the contrary it puts these conservatives’ stamp of approval on those industrialists who are trampling upon the property rights of the mass of citizenry.
Rothbard was a little unfair to the right, however, given that Ayn Rand and Robert Moses scarcely defined conservative thought in the 1960s. That was the position held by Barry Goldwater, and he likewise had little patience for pro-business arguments for pollution. In Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Majority (1970), the chapter titled “Saving the Earth” could be mistaken for an excerpt from Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance. Protecting the environment, Goldwater wrote, is “a dramatic and all-encompassing task.” Accordingly, “Our job is to prevent that lush orb known as Earth … from turning into a bleak and barren, dirty brown planet.”
Doing so is critical, Goldwater maintained, because “It is difficult to visualize what will be left of the Earth if our present rates of population and pollution expansion are maintained.” Goldwater then asked rhetorically:
Will man be able to curb his lust for material luxury? Will man bring himself to accept a substitute for the internal combustion engine, if that proves necessary, or at least a more expensive, less efficient fuel? Will man be willing to restrict the consumption of electrical power until he is safe and a nonpolluting means of production is found?
And Ronald Reagan, wrote journalist George Skelton, who covered Reagan during his two terms in Sacramento, was “the most environmental governor in California history—protecting wild rivers from dams, preserving a Sierra wilderness by blocking highway builders, creating an air resources board that led to the nation’s first auto smog controls.” Reagan did so with the help of George Livermore, a member of the Sierra Club, who he appointed as California’s Secretary of Natural Resources.
The fact that conservatives once thought differently than Scott Pruitt should not come as a surprise. Liberals and conservatives have to breath the same air and live on the same planet, so why would the former care more about these matters than the latter? If conservatism is about “conserving,” then what could be more important than conserving our most precious inheritance; a natural, healthy environment conducive to human life? And what meaning does the Declaration of Independence really have if I can harm your life, liberty, and property because I can make a lot of money by doing so and marshal government to force you to accept losses and property rights violations for my gain?
Conservatives used to ask themselves such questions. They would be well advised to do so again.