Existence Value and Federal Preservation Regulation

70 Pages Posted: 23 Dec 2003  

Date Written: October 17, 2003


Conventional economic and political theory predicts that the states will underregulate the degradation or destruction of natural resources within their borders when some or all of the resulting adverse effects fall outside their borders, that is, upon out-of-staters. Academic critics of the federalization of environmental law agree with this conventional view at an abstract level, but, in their view, only the physical effects of the destruction of a natural resource on out-of-staters should count as an interstate externality that can justify federal intervention. The federal courts may be moving toward an even narrower conception of what constitutes an environmental externality that can justify federal regulatory intervention - a conception in which the externality must entail interstate market effects in addition to interstate physical effects.

This Article argues that a significant set of the interstate effects of natural resource degradation and destruction on the American populace cannot plausibly be classified as either physical or market effects: some, perhaps many, Americans lose some sense of well-being simply by virtue of the loss of the existence of wetlands, waterways, and other natural resources in states where they do not live. Existence values (or more precisely, the desire to prevent the loss of existence values) provide a powerful positive account of how the federal political process, despite concerted opposition by well-organized business interests, has at times come to restrict the degradation of natural spaces that few out-of-state residents are likely to ever visit or otherwise use. Existence values also provide a strong normative account of why such restrictions are, from a societal vantage, presumptively welfare-maximizing. Indeed, as explained in Part III of the Article, federal regulation is more likely to be necessary to maximize welfare in the context of interstate losses in existence value than in the context of interstate physical effects, such as air or water pollution crossing state lines.

The principal claim of those who reject the use of existence values as a rationale for federal regulation is that existence values are nonmeasurable and hence unsuitable for consideration in public policy. As explored in Part IV of the Article, this empirical objection is inconsistent with the findings of contingent value (CV) surveys in which respondents have been asked how much they would be willing to pay for the preservation of one or more natural resources. The CV surveys completed to date, although admittedly imperfect as measurement devices, suggest significant values for the preservation of a range of natural resources. More important, the federal political process itself provides a comparative measure of the magnitude of the existence-value benefits of natural preservation (on the one hand) and the magnitude of the competing economic benefits associated with the degradation or destruction of natural settings (on the other). If anything, given the core insights of public choice theory and the structural supports in the federal political process for industries whose economic interests often run counter to natural preservation (e.g., the mining, timber, and oil industries), we should expect the federal political process to understate significantly the comparative magnitude of the existence-value benefits of natural preservation.

The current literature also contains a non-empirical objection to existence values as a justification for federal regulation. The essence of this objection is that federal preservation regulation premised on existence value preferences is illegitimate because it violates the principles of respect for private property rights and distributive justice among communities. As explained in Part V of the Article, these principles, at best, support the claim that all sorts of government regulation - and not just federal regulation aimed at preserving natural resources - is illegitimate from a particular (and highly contestable) point of view.

The normative defense of existence values and existence-value-driven regulation developed in Parts III-V provides a useful perspective from which to evaluate the current state of Commerce Clause doctrine. Commerce Clause doctrine has never formally recognized existence-value concerns as a basis for federal jurisdiction, and that is unlikely to change. However, certain doctrinal approaches to the Commerce Clause create room for regulation motivated by existence-value concerns, and others, such as the approach arguably endorsed by the majority in SWANCC, do not. If one accepts that federal regulation premised on existence-value concerns is presumptively welfare maximizing, then one must accept that Commerce Clause tests that preclude such regulation carry a substantial social cost. The normative defense of existence-value regulation also has implications for the choice between approaches to standing that facilitate citizen enforcement of regulations premised on existence-value concerns, and approaches, such as that endorsed by the majority in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, that impede such enforcement.

Keywords: Econonics, law, environmental law, natural resources

JEL Classification: A13, K00, K10, K19, K32, Q28

Suggested Citation

Dana, David A., Existence Value and Federal Preservation Regulation (October 17, 2003). Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 03-19; Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 03-17. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=480188 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.480188

David A. Dana (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
312-503-0240 (Phone)
312-503-2035 (Fax)

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