The dramatic improvement in the human condition, with most of us leading longer and healthier lives, proves that we are creative problem solvers (Simon 1996). We have developed a variety of institutions that made this result possible. A key institution in this success story is the market mechanism which, in turn, rests on the foundation of laws and property rights. Critics deny the record and/or forecast a sharp U-turn in the near future. It is ironic that those whose forecasts have often been so wrong persist with dire and dramatic predictions. Where would we be now if their past policy recommendations had been adopted, e.g. oil import independence in the mid-1970s?
Once again, there is an alliance of special interests and true believers. Owners of farmlands have succeeded in obtaining federal as well as state legislation that limits farmland conversion and pushes up the prices that developers eventually pay them. Federal tax breaks on "conservation easements" have been available since 1980. More recently, Congress has authorized payments to state and local governments to be funneled to farmers who otherwise would sell to developers. Pittsford, New York, is one of many examples of localities that issue below-market municipal bonds to pay farmers not to sell to developers. Unwittingly calling attention to popular confusions over this issue, The New York Times (March 20, 1997, D1) noted all the payoffs: "environmental benefits, soul-soothing scenery, diversity for the local economy and especially tax savings."
Denying the historic record seems to absolve footprinters and their confederates from explaining or understanding it. They substitute their own stories. This leads them to troubling suggestions that property rights be expropriated rather than expanded. This is the environmentalists' fatal analytical error. Footprinters and other alarmists are not only wrong about the facts of our condition but their ignorance of markets shelters them from any understanding of how all this was accomplished. They freely substitute homebrewed analyses and ad hoc accounting schemes. In the current climate, however, it matters little. Nelson (1997) has suggested that no less than a new religion is at stake. If so, then unexamined and lightly examined propositions will continue to flourish. These will be promoted by households, firms, institutions and local governments, all claiming and receiving public subsidies.