A close look at the fallacious argument that if you try to
seriously enforce laws to protect endangered species, rural
ranchers and others will quietly kill them and thus you will end up
with less of what you are trying to protect.
in discussions about the difficulty of enforcing environmental laws in
rural areas you hear the argument that if a private landowner was
forced to accommodate endangered animals living on his land, he would
probably just quietly go out and kill them to avoid being responsible
for them. This response to getting rid of potential environmental
problems is called "Shooting, shoveling and shutting up", (SSS).
Because of this phenomenon it is argued, a light touch with the law is
probably better for the endangered species in the long run because,
paradoxically, serious enforcement of laws to protect endangered
species may result in fewer of them.
People who make these arguments do not of course generally endorse them
but seem anxious to introduce every-day facts of life into the
discussion. In fact, usually the argument purports to be made in
defense of an animal and in furtherance of its protection, often by
people who support endangered species. Well meaning people use this
argument to save environmentalism and environmental laws from
themselves by cautioning us not to undertake counterproductive measures
which kill off members of a species rather than protecting them.
In one argument about the Sage Grouse the dilemma was posed like this:
"if you want to save the Sage Grouse AT THIS TIME AND IN THIS POLITICAL
CLIMATE, do you list, or do you withhold listing because the REAL
consequences of listing may imperil the very animal you are trying to
But the “shoot & shovel” argument while creative, and perhaps well
intentioned, is actually just one of a class of arguments called "false
questions" or "logical fallacies".
Let's consider some fallacious aspects of the SSS argument:
1. It embeds a number of implicit assumptions about human nature; these
are the “meta-arguments’ behind the issue.
2. The arguments are not about scientific facts or laws; they are
predictions about some people's possible future reactions to future
regulatory procedures - made by "interested" parties who may have a
conflict of interest. Because, depending on the outcome of the
argument, they may have to do unpleasant things that cost them money or
make people mad at them personally. A forest service biologist or code
enforcement officer who makes predictions about people’s likely
reaction to laws and regulation he would have to enforce is often
saying nothing more than he would like to avoid unpleasantness.
In rural areas this issue comes up all the time with building code
enforcement and ordinances against keeping junk cars on your property.
Some counties take the view that new wiring has to be up to code, and
you can’t store junk cars, period! Others believe that if you try to
enforce codes too zealously people will simply do new wiring without
asking for permits and you will end up with less safe houses overall.
But, In fact, where building codes are enforced, people obey them -
where they aren’t, people don’t. In one rural Oregon county the
Commissioners continually railed hysterically against and filed
lawsuits to overturn the endangered species act all the while decrying
the federal government’s telling them what they could do and vowing to
oppose them. Alas, to their dismay they found when they tried to
enforce a new ordinance against junked cars, the people resisted them
so much, on the same grounds, they had to revoke the ordinance.
The problem with environmental enforcement or zoning and code
enforcement about junk cars or building codes is the beneficiary is the
public and the environment at-large. But the people who "suffer" from
enforcement have a name and an address and get very, very angry - at
code enforcement officers and elected officials if they think getting
mad might let them off from obeying the laws.
So, once being a member of a rural planning commission I lived adjacent
to one county where most of the federal, state and local laws were
enforced, and another where they mostly weren’t. The only difference
was in one, the citizens knew the government would enforce laws and in
the other they were never sure. So while one county could not enforce a
junk car ordinance the other one could. In fact in the latter, when a
very wealthy landowner built a house without a permit, the county tore
it down, and when a realtor put up a sign larger than a sign ordinance
allowed he was forced to take it down. The fact of life in rural areas
is this, when people know elected officials support and enforce the
laws, and bitching gets you nowhere, the citizens simply go along with
3. SSS arguments rely on anecdotal unverifiable data to make policy? It
is hard to collect objective and quantifiable data about illegal
behavior. Do 5% of ranchers shovel and shoot, is it 25%? We cannot know
the facts. Yet this a basic premise for the argument against
4. There no control for this kind of policy experiment. We cannot
divide the range in half and establish strong regulations/enforcement
on half of it and not on the other and see how Sage Grouse do.
5 There is a problem of setting precedents for other places where dire
consequences can ensue. Sometimes what appears to be a practical
policy here (on the range) can be used elsewhere - to the detriment of
the ocean for example. Or other countries might follow our policy lead
to bad ends. The most serious problem with lax US enforcement is the
example we set for the rest of the world that follows our lead on
everything. When the US adopts a policy on almost anything from
environmental rules to Olympic athlete training strategies, most of the
whole rest of the world quickly follows our lead. So the biggest impact
of any US policy is likely to be in Borneo or Indonesia. How would the
legal equivalent of a lax Sage Grouse policy work in the Amazon if an
equivalent policy was applied to illegal gold miners?
6. What has been the past experience of strong and weak enforcement
policies applied to other areas of environmental regulation. The same
arguments have been advanced and rejected for example for Stellar Sea
lions where occasionally the bodies do wash up and bullet holes can be
7. Any kind predictions about behavior can produce a circular or
8. What is the likelihood that over time, the average person, will
follow the average law? Actually, quite high.
SSS is the argument that:
- Non-enforcement of laws protect them from being
- non-enforcement serves the "real" purpose of the
law because the backlash from enforcement is more harmful than
These two arguments are merely of a class of arguments called
"deep lobbying", interesting and creative arguments constructed to
justify non- enforcement.
Some other SSS arguments are:
- Enforcement will hurt minorities and promote discrimination (chunk
- I know a particular place where we did so and so and such and such
happened and this proves we should not enforce the laws. (chunk down) .
- 10,000 years ago such and such happened so we should not enforce the
law (expand the time frame backwards.)
- Global warming, cooling, the rapture etc is coming and so pretty soon
this will all become academic anyway, so we should not enforce the law
(slide time frame forwards).
- The experiment you depend on was done wrong, or the data
mis-analyzed so there is no problem, so we should not enforce the law
(reject the basic premises).
Final note: Recently a pregnant woman was confined to jail for a small
shoplifting infraction and told the judge she intended to get an
abortion because if she didn’t her life would be threatened by a blood
disorder she had. The good Christian judge didn't want her to abort the
child, so he enforced the shoplifting law so strictly that the poor
woman was held in jail past the time she could have safely had the
abortion And she was forced to deliver it. So, you see, some laws have
no problem whatsoever being strictly enforced and rammed down some
Laws are enforced or not enforced based on what the voting public area
wants or doesn’t and the guts of its public officials. As long as half
to eighty percent or more of the folks who want environmental laws
enforced don't bother to vote, you will hear this argument.
©2008 Jim Britell
All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without permission.