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The Anti-Industrial Coup

The Anti-Industrial Coup

By Robert Tracinski - March 26, 2009

We all expect that there will be a contest in Congress this year over global warming and a "cap-and-trade" bill limiting carbon dioxide emissions. After all, the government cannot impose sweeping new controls on our lives without extensive public debate and a vote in Congress that must gain the support of a clear majority of the representatives of the people.

Or can it?

Yesterday, the EPA issued a "finding" that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that threatens human health and can thus be regulated under the 1990 Clean Air Act.

This is a scientific farce. How can a basic constituent of the atmosphere that all humans constantly exhale be designated a "pollutant"? Moreover, water vapor is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, yet the EPA has not yet declared dihydrogen monoxide gas to be a threat to mankind.

This is also an assault on the entire structure of representative government. Controls on emissions of carbon dioxide will reach into every nook and cranny of the economy, creating a fine network of restrictions on economic activity that will make the recent regime of bailouts, salary caps, and business seizures look like laissez-faire by comparison. But it will all be done--in effect, it has just been done--by the decree of executive agency bureaucrats, without an opportunity for public debate or a legislative vote. Sure, Congress will be invited to "participate" in drafting carbon dioxide controls, but it will do so under the threat that the EPA can simply create those controls on its own, without needing to consult the people's representatives.

Ayn Rand warned that the environmentalist movement constitutes an "Anti-Industrial Revolution," but the term "revolution" implies a broad base of popular support. Instead, this is an anti-industrial coup, a seizure of power by a small elite who seek to bypass the institutions and procedures of legitimate government.

How did this happen? Through a usurpation of legislative power by the other two branches of government: the courts and the regulatory agencies of the executive branch.

The contribution from the courts is the 2007 Supreme Court ruling requiring the EPA to regard carbon dioxide as a potential "airborne pollutant" under the 1990 Clean Air Act--a law passed by Congress almost two decades ago with no intention of regulating carbon dioxide.

The executive branch's response was a document released last year that stopped short of declaring carbon dioxide a pollutant. But it did establish the legal foundation for the next administration to plan out and implement a comprehensive scheme for regulating carbon dioxide emissions, coordinating the actions of dozens of regulatory agencies.

The title of that regulatory proposal was revealing: it was called the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Regulating Greenhouse Gas Emissions under the Clean Air Act. The important word here is "rulemaking." In a proper system of representative government, the word for "rulemaking" is "legislation," and only Congress can do it. But Congress long ago ceded a large part of its legislative power to the executive branch by passing laws like the Clean Air Act, which set vague goals such as "fighting air pollution" and then gave executive-branch regulatory agencies the power to make "rules" for the implementation of those goals. In effect, this was an unconstitutional grant of legislative power to the executive branch.

Having surrendered that power, Congress may never get it back. Last year, one of Barack Obama's advisors described the candidate's plans for pursuing carbon dioxide regulation when he took office.

[Jason] Grumet...said if Congress hasn't acted in 18 months, about the time it would take to draft [EPA] rules, the president should.... "The EPA is obligated to move forward in the absence of Congressional action," Grumet said.

This is what is now happening.

Under what system of government does the chief executive say to the legislature, in effect, "write the legislation I want, or else I will simply enact it by decree"? The answer: not under a system of representative government and the separation of powers. Barack Obama is proposing to govern, not in the manner of an American president, but in the manner traditionally sought by leftist strongmen like Hugo Chavez.

When global warming regulations are imposed--and given the legal framework of Monday's "finding," they are now inevitable--their ultimate cause will be decades of dishonest cultural propaganda condemning industrial civilization as a scourge to be eliminated. But the immediate cause for this massive new extension of government power is the structure of existing executive-branch power: the all-encompassing reach of the regulatory agencies, and the vast power already surrendered to them by Congress.

This is the shape of the current danger to liberty: our economic freedom is being taken away by regulatory decree, with public debate and congressional votes declared irrelevant ahead of time. It proves the adage that freedom is indivisible--that attempts to take away our economic freedom always begin and end with an attack on our political freedom.

Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and a contributor to RealClearMarkets.

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