The New York Times has a big front-page article today about how "runoff from all but the largest farms is essentially unregulated by many of the federal laws intended to prevent pollution and protect drinking water sources." As we've noted, when the Times uses the word "unregulated" the subtext seems to be that regulation is needed, which seems to be the Times's view of every profession and industry except for that of print journalism, which somehow, miraculously, seems to function without it. A similar view is expressed by an Associated Press article highlighted this morning on Yahoo! News, which appears under the headline, "AP IMPACT: Gov't stands by as mercury taints water." The AP story begins, "Abandoned mercury mines throughout central California's rugged coastal mountains are polluting the state's major waterways, rendering fish unsafe to eat and risking the health of at least 100,000 impoverished people. But an Associated Press investigation found that the federal government has tried to clean up fewer than a dozen of the hundreds of mines — and most cleanups have failed to stem the contamination."
The unstated assumption of both articles is that making water and fish safe and the environment clean is, or should be, a federal responsibility. There's no consideration given to the idea that markets or competition might help solve the problem. If fish stores competed to appeal to consumers on the basis of who had the least mercury in their fish, and if water companies competed on the basis of who had the purest water, people might make environmental purity pay off. It may certainly be that pollution control is one area where government involvement is needed to address market failures, such as the difficulty of allowing competing water companies to provide service through a single set of pipes. But because the assumption underlying so much journalism is that for every problem there must be a federal government solution, a fair number of readers probably hesitate to take the assertion seriously even when a federal government solution is the best solution, because the call for a federal solution seems to be so reflexive. Is it realistic to expect the federal government to be there to clean up after every mess, or to prevent every mess from being made? In the view of environmental journalists, it seems to be.