11/22/2011 11:33 am ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012

WSJ Argues Against Leveling the Playing Field

What EPA's role is to do is to level the playing field so that pollution costs are not exported to the population but rather companies have to look at the pollution potential of any fuel or any process or any plant or any utility when they're making their investment decisions.

You'd think that's the language someone on the Wall Street Journal editorial page would use to describe EPA's ideal role, and you'd be right. The most conservative of goals, after all, is not for government to pick winners or engage in industrial policy, but rather to make sure no one free-rides on the backs of others. No one should be allowed to engage in blatant socialism by privatizing benefits and socializing costs.

Just that it's not a WSJ editorial scribe, who espouses these views. It's Lisa Jackson, President Obama's head of the Environmental Protection Agency. And the WSJ doesn't go out of its way to laud a liberal for avoiding the trap of picking winners or even losers. No, the WSJ declares Jackson's statement a Freudian slip.

The WSJ is right, of course, that the goal of the Clean Air Act is clean air. But there are effective ways of going about doing that, and there are less effective ways. Ideally, EPA would set up the most flexible system that's simply aimed at "leveling the playing field" so every polluter pays for his or her own pollution, and then get out of the way. That's the basis of the success of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 that passed the House 401–21 and the Senate 89–11 and has banished acid rain to the history books.

Sadly, EPA's powers only go that far, so often it is left with setting particular standards. That's where Congress ought to come in and pass laws that do guarantee the most flexible possible regulations. I'm certain the WSJ editorial page would be all in favor of that.