The Endangered Species Act is a wonderfully idealistic law that was apparently written by people who had absolutely no idea about how society works. The law's goals are so noble and uplifting that few could disagree with them. Yet the law's means for achieving those goals are doomed to the same failure as prohibition, the "war on drugs," or any other command-type law.

When the act's authors decided to design the law around a command structure instead of incentives, they built three major flaws into the Endangered Species Act:

It feels good to have a law that appears to make the recovery of all species the absolute top priority of the U.S. government. But, if the law is to do anything other than make us feel good, these three flaws must be fixed. Disappearing species will recover only when subsidies to harmful activities are halted and public land managers and private landowners are given incentives, rather than arbitrary and unpredictable mandates, to protect and improve habitat.

Perhaps because the debate is so polarized, none of the legislative alternatives that we could find attempted to fix any more than one of these problems. Nearly all of the debate, and most of the proposals, center on the third flaw: The unfairness of, and resulting backlash from, imposing large costs on a few private landowners.

The Clinton Administration offers half-hearted remedies to this problem. But these remedies amount to little more than "We promise that, after we take some of your land without compensation, we won't take any more later."

Property rights advocates support repeal of the regulatory aspects of the law, thus removing a disincentive to habitat protection. But most of them fail to convincingly address the misincentives that existed prior to passage of the 1973 law.

Senator Slade Gorton offers a significant increase in authorized funding for species recovery. But he can't guarantee that appropriations committees will actually make that funding available or that they won't direct it to pork barrel species recovery efforts in their districts while other species go begging.

None of the proposals fix the subsidies that threaten most of the species listed as threatened or endangered. Until now.

Different Drummer's "subsidies killer" will protect listed species from harmful subsidies even as it provides more funding for species recovery than ever before. Moreover, it does so in a way that allows Congress to reduce deficits without taking the blame for ending programs that enrich a few special interest groups at the expense of taxpayers in general.

Different Drummer's proposals offer three mechanisms for creating incentives to protect habitat on public and private land.

Different Drummer's proposal to eliminate the regulation of private lands will be most controversial among environmentalists. But such deregulation is essential if private landowners are to become willing partners in the recovery of rare and endangered species. We can save species without sacrificing people's rights or forcing a few people to pay most habitat protection costs. In fact, deregulation may the only way to save many species.

Endangered species advocates must work at two levels to protect wildlife and habitat. At the national level, they should support a law that will end harmful subsidies and save species using incentives rather than commands. To pass such a law, they should give up polarizing rhetoric and sit down with property rights advocates, fiscal conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, and other interest groups to develop a proposal that everyone can support.

At the local level, biodiversity advocates should develop a new set of institutional structures that can protect biodiversity in their own regions without force and without imposing the costs on a few unwilling people:

To create these new structures, activists will have to work with local communities to turn the people in those communities into partners in conservation, not enemies. No one wants to harm wildlife or promote the extinction of a listed species. But people face many different incentives. By accepting one another as friends and potential partners, rather than opponents and enemies, we can change the incentives and work together to recover species and protect habitat.
ESA Table of Contents | Different Drummer | Electronic Drummer