Libertarians and global warming

by John Quiggin on June 15, 2008

I had a set-to with Jonathan Adler of Volokh about DDT recently, so I was pleased to note this piece on free-market environmentalism and climate change, which makes a number of points I’d been thinking about following debates over at the Australian Libertarian blog. Rather than recapitulate Adler’s post, I’ll make a number of points of my own regarding the response of (most, though not all) libertarians to climate change, which I think are in the same spirit

  • First, I’m a bit surprised to find libertarians on the wrong side of this debate. Global climate change is one of the few instances where lots of environmentalists (not all, by any means) are supporting a property-rights based solution (tradeable emissions permits), despite starting from a position (in the leadup to Kyoto) of almost uniform opposition to anything that didn’t rely primarily on direct and detailed regulation. it seems as if the ideological opponents are upset because the government-created nature of the property rights in question will be self-evident, rather than obscured by a century or two of history.
  • I’m struck by the reliance of most libertarian critics, such as Indur Goklany, who debates Adler here, on consequentialist benefit-cost arguments in favor of climate inaction. As Adler says, it seems odd to find libertarians saying that it’s OK, for example, to completely wipe out the property of Pacific Island nations, on the basis that there will be a net social benefit for the world as a whole from doing so.
  • If emission permit trading is rejected on ideological grounds (I can’t exactly figure out what these are, but I’m not well equipped to arbitrate on ideological disputes among libertarians) it doesn’t seem as if any the other solutions commonly proposed by the FME camp are applicable. Take for example the Coasian favorite of tort action. For a global congestion problem, this would require everyone in the world to sue everyone else, presumably in some newly created world court (Goklany disputes this, saying, in effect “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, a principle that renders any sort of response to pollution impossible)
  • This has led lots of libertarians, and others on the right, to write as if the mainstream scientific view on global warming renders libertarianism untenable, or, more succinctly[1] “global warming equals socialism”. If only it were so easy! Even it the scientific evidence weren’t overwhelming, it’s surely a big problem for a political viewpoint if its viability depends upon assumptions about cloud feedbacks. As I’ve said, I don’t think any such concession is necessary. A successful response to global warming is vitally important, but it doesn’t imply (or, I should note, preclude) radical changes to the existing social order.

fn1. This is from a conservative, not a libertarian, but the same sentiment is evident among many libertarians.

{ 149 comments }

1

Timon 06.15.08 at 8:19 am

You might/should be shocked how many libertarians read you constantly. I would just note as one from Mexico City that the problem is not doubt about the real dimensions of climate change but what it means for you to stake your position on an idea to the effect of ” we can save the world from eminent doom, but we cannot raise taxes in the US.” There is a ridiculous idea that the practice of polluting matures into a right to pollute, and this is occasionally expressed as a “property” right. No one believes this, except, bizarrely, some leftists who think it increases the odds of action on an important issue.

In any case, nothing is going to happen in Asia that would be nearly sufficient to marginally reduce the rate of increase of increase in carbon emissions, so we are better off getting used to the consequences of change, another idea that seems a betrayal no matter how straightforwardly and convincingly it is put.

2

aaron_m 06.15.08 at 8:53 am

The oddness cuts both ways.

Right libertarians go for cost-benefit assessments when the rights based approach appears to call for too much and mainstream economic choice theorists abandon utilitarianism when the intergenerational characteristics of the problem call for ‘too much’ from us.

What they all can agree on is the convenient self-full filling prophecy timon offers.

3

Tim Worstall 06.15.08 at 10:31 am

“it seems as if the ideological opponents are upset because the government-created nature of the property rights in question will be self-evident, rather than obscured by a century or two of history.”

There’s the nub of it: all too many don’t quite grasp the point that both “property” and markets in them are creations. They can be created societally, legally, by regulatory means, but they are indeed creations.

From there it’s straight to Garrett Hardin. When the demand for a resource becomes greater than can be supplied under simple open access rules (as he calls it, Marxian access rules) then constraints on access have to be imposed. One way is by property rights and depending upon what the resource is that might be the right way, or more social methods might be.

But if we start by insisting that “property” exists ab initio, then we’ll not see that something which was not considered property before (water access, fisheries, the atmosphere, whatever) might need to be now.

Or, indeed, the other way around…information is, in this digital age becoming (or could perhaps) less of a property matter.

4

SG 06.15.08 at 10:52 am

as usual John and like too many left-wing commentators, you give libertarians too much credit.

Libertarianism is a psychotic, anti-social ideology based on greed. Because it is psychotic, it can only appeal to people through bribing them, and because it is anti-social the bribe it offers is based on selfishness. In exchange for the destruction of society libertarianism offers unfettered economic growth and wealth for all. Global warming puts a big brake on simplistic versions of this bribe, because it says we can’t have unfettered use of the resource which underpins it.

Faced with a contradiction between reality and its anti-social vision, libertarianism either has to walk away from reality or from its vision. Since the vision is fundamentally psychotic it has no problems walking away from reality – and so we get global warming denialism.

Sure there might be a few libertarians who want to take a more constructive view of the problem, but for them this is going to mean pie-in-the-sky schemes such as you mention, or vague hopes of carbon sequestration. This is why you will never see libertarians engaging with the debate about how to have economic growth without unlimited resources (as you recently did), but screaming instead about how we are all hair-shirted environmentalists. The existence of a few people in the libertarian “movement” (lol/gag) who make shallow first guesses at solutions to these problems doesn’t make the ideology worth debating or engaging with. I am continually surprised that reasonable leftists do. The only time they need to be engaged is to attack their denialist shilling. The rest of the time they should be left alone in their asylum, and they should never ever ever be allowed to think they have a serious opinion to offer on serious topics.

5

robertdfeinman 06.15.08 at 2:30 pm

One of the most striking things about libertarian thought is that it is almost exclusively a US-based phenomena (there is a bit in the UK as a result of Thatcherism).

One would think that if its “truths” were so universal that they would have adherents elsewhere. There are other examples of American “exceptionalism”, such as anti-Darwinism, but in economics libertarianism seems to it.

So, it might be worthwhile to examine why this movement persists, especially in the face of the fact that its principle tenets have never been adopted by any political system. Here are some random possibilities.

1. The US has always had a creed of rugged individualism based upon being settled by those with a pioneer spirit.

2. The US has (until recently) had plenty of open land and untapped resources so that externalities could be ignored.

3. Ayn Rand wrote for an American audience and came along at just the right moment to attract the idealistic when the frontier had actually closed. Preaching unlimited potential based upon individual initiative when this was no longer realistic was very appealing. Better to blame human failure than the political system.

I have my own thesis. Libertarianism was an appealing ideology for the reasons I’ve just listed, but it persists because it is kept on life support by the plutocrats who find it a useful cover for their true aims. Your average 20-30 something young man working in a dead end job has nothing in common with Richard Mellon Scaife, but Scaife has spent millions persuading him otherwise.

So Scaife and the Walton, Koch, Mars, etc. families fund libertarian “think tanks” which put out a continual stream of articles about “freedom” and the evils of government regulation. The libertarian dupes pick up on this and become foot soldiers in the battle where Walmart can avoid pay future fines for labor regulation violation, or where Koch Industries can hope to avoid $30 million fines in the future for violations. A little more “freedom” and even these minimal laws will be a thing of the past.

If you haven’t been following the influence of the super wealthy core families on the course of libertarian ideology you may be surprised. You can educate yourself at a site like Media Transparency. Search for Cato and then follow the web of interlocking funders.

I did a bit of this for the George Mason University economics department. You can see the connections here:

How to “Buy” a University

Libertarianism doesn’t exist elsewhere because there are no plutocrats paying for the propaganda campaign. Perhaps the higher level of equity in Europe and Japan has prevented the rise of a plutocrat class. No (hidden) money, no movement.

6

Rich Puchalsky 06.15.08 at 3:02 pm

John, to a first approximation there are no intellectually honest libertarians. Why bother to try to make sense out of their fringe ideology? Essentially all of the libertarian movement is just a shell supported by corporations for the purpose of making it seem like they have a constituency, just like tobacco supports its tame experts to create doubt. But there is nothing there. Even in the U.S., they’ve never broken half a percent of the popular vote.

Anthopogenic global climate change is going to demand certain changes in the way we do things. The chance most particularly demanded of liberal intellectuals is that they are going to have to finally get over their desire to treat every ideology seriously.

7

Rich Puchalsky 06.15.08 at 3:03 pm

That should be “change demanded”, not “chance demanded” …

8

Sebastian 06.15.08 at 3:19 pm

“First, I’m a bit surprised to find libertarians on the wrong side of this debate. Global climate change is one of the few instances where lots of environmentalists (not all, by any means) are supporting a property-rights based solution (tradeable emissions permits), despite starting from a position (in the leadup to Kyoto) of almost uniform opposition to anything that didn’t rely primarily on direct and detailed regulation.”

I wonder if you answer isn’t in your question. People’s long term opinions are strongly influenced by how they are introduced to something. The fact that their initial exposure to global warming proposals was almost certainly the rather hyper-regulatory Kyoto is likely to make libertarians reflexively very cautious. They should get over that reflex as the debate changes, but the market-oriented solutions have only come to the front in the last few years, so I’m not surprised that it has taken a while.

9

Naadir Jeewa 06.15.08 at 3:49 pm

Rich, libertarianism is alive and strong in the UK.

We need better framing of the climate change issue. Most activists start unfairly from a condemnation of capitalism, in favour of socialism, instead of, say, rising CO2 as a uniquely scientific problem.

Last time I checked, socialists didn’t have many concerns about ecological industrialisation around the turn of the 20th century. I would doubt that a socialist bureaucracy would be able to make such a huge shift in industrial policy any faster than our current world seems to manage.

That said, are there any libertarians out there who are serious about tackling climate change, other than Tyler Cowen?

10

roger 06.15.08 at 3:50 pm

Actually, if I were a glibertarian, this would be a moment of quiet triumph for me. Bush, their main man, is proving to be one of the great environmentalist presidents. By radically shrinking the value of the dollar and making the oil producing Middle East a vastly more insecure place, he has managed to increase the cost of petroleum dramatically. Every time he threatens Iran, the price of a barrel of oil makes another bold leap upwards and another endangered species can breath a little easier. And this is a win win in another way too – oil companies, which (besides the fact that they are vast monopolistic structures floating on the government subsidizing the cost of their doing business via tax breaks enjoyed by nobody else) are paragons of Ayn Randianess, are enjoying a renaissance of profits, and using those profits wisely by not investing them in future exploration or the “development” of some “alternative” energy source, which would be a namby pamby socialistic thing to do, but are giving that money back to the upper management and the investors, as God, or rather, the Invisible Hand, intended.

Bless our greatest president! Looking back, we will see that he was the true John Galt+Truman+Churchill of our time!

11

tom s. 06.15.08 at 3:53 pm

The reason they are on the wrong side is that most libertarians are more accurately Panglossians. If there was a problem in the world (other than too much government) it would already have been fixed, so we must live in the best of all possible worlds.

12

ScentOfViolets 06.15.08 at 4:44 pm

5: “My name is Dwight Thieme and I am a libertarian.” Or former libertarian. In regards to libertarianism being an American phenomenon, are there any good histories of libertarianism out there? Something relatively objective? I ask because my sense from my own very limited perspective is that the character of libertarianism changed somewhere in the late 70’s to early 80’s. I encountered it the first time in 1976 when I attended college(in the flesh so to speak; I had read about it before, albeit science fictionally – Rand, Heinlein, etc.) and it seemed then that it was much more about personal rights, the sovereignty of the individual, yadda yadda. The people I met seemed more – to put it quite frankly – intellectual than today’s cadre’s, and a lot more liberal as well. But somewhere along the way, a quantitative difference in membership composition became qualitative. The people around me seemed to be much more conservative, and seemed much more focused on property rights. To put it more colloquially, it was a lot less about the right to smoke dope and to be free of police interference, and a lot more about the freedom to treat your employees however you wished. They also seemed, ahem, to be a lot more narrowly educated, and a lot less playful so far as ideas were concerned. In fact, much more concerned with enforcing a certain orthodoxy.

My question is, was this just random drift on a local level, or was libertarianism deliberately co-opted? Would this be the time when libertarianism ‘was put on life support by plutocrats’? And if so, is there any sort of documentation?

13

robertdfeinman 06.15.08 at 5:04 pm

Scent:

“The Cato Institute was founded in 1977 by Edward H. Crane.”

From their web site. No mention of Charles Koch who footed the bills.

http://www.mediatransparency.org/funderprofile.php?funderID=9

As I indicated above this wasn’t just a random happenstance it was part of a concerted effort. Follow the money.

14

bi 06.15.08 at 5:34 pm

Quiggin:

“First, I’m a bit surprised to find libertarians on the wrong side of this debate. Global climate change is one of the few instances where lots of environmentalists (not all, by any means) are supporting a property-rights based solution […] it seems as if the ideological opponents are upset because the government-created nature of the property rights in question will be self-evident […]”

I still think libertarians’ hatred of the AGW theory is probably just a special case of their hatred of environmentalism in general. You can see it when they talk of AGW theory proponents as “greenies”, “enviro-whackos”, “activists”, etc. along with Ayn Rand. The meme that ‘greenies are commies’ goes back a long way (at least 1962, from what I’ve found), and even now it seems some people are still stuck in this mindset, where they keep thinking that the US is waging some sort of Eternal War against a phantom Soviet Union that’s everywhere and nowhere.

And of course, there are the conlibertarian think-tanks to egg them on…

 – bi, Intl. J. Inact.

15

bi 06.15.08 at 5:35 pm

s/along with Ayn Rand//

16

DaveW 06.15.08 at 6:59 pm

Environmental concerns imply a “commons” as part of the real world. Economic “libertarians” cannot accept such a concept and so have no choice but to wander off into crazyland. How somewhat intelligent people have managed to live so long with the glaring contradiction between radical so-called individualism (ie, selfishness) and the destruction faced by individuals when social constructions fail is one of life’s more entertaining mysteries.

Part of the problem with discussing this breed is its elusiveness. I suggest that writers take care to distinguish between big-L Libertarians and small-l libertarians ( John Quiggin, this one’s for you). The former consist of Party members and are largely composed of tax-hating plutocrats and gun nuts — far closer to fascists than to defenders of liberty.

The latter encompass a much broader range including those whose devotion to human and civil rights is absolutely essential to the survival of free society. They have somehow lost the libertarian brand to the big-Ls, making rational discussion near-impossible because. Suffice it to say that few traditional libertarians, like ACLU types, go off the deep end with nuttiness like Climate Change denial or dismissal.

17

Eric H 06.15.08 at 7:34 pm

Agree with your main point, John. I’ve written about this same thing (though I took it a bit further along the lines suggested by Worstall). Yes, people who would normally support property rights should consider tradeable permits as a solution to this problem. Even if they don’t believe in AGW, in which case the market value of CO2 permits will fall to 0.

Simultaneously, people who normally oppose markets and the underlying property rights find themselves in the odd position of arguing for them. It would seem that libertarians are not the only people suffering from cognitive dissonance on this topic, though of course there is nothing that prevents the central planners from getting command & control policies on top of the market solution.

But I do apologize for interrupting this stream of ad hominem and strawmen. Please, continue …

18

Rich Puchalsky 06.15.08 at 7:39 pm

There is no sense in making painstaking distinctions between big L and little l libertarians, or any of their multitudinous fringes, when discussing actual matters of policy. They are irrelevant. Getting bogged down in discussion with them is a waste of time.

The truth is that “global warming equals socialism”, while ridiculous, does accurately describe their worldview. They have no solution to problems like global warming — all they have is denial. As denial becomes completely untenable, their position does as well. We just happen to, unfortunately, be living at the time when their footnote to history is stuck at the bottom of its text.

19

noen 06.15.08 at 8:03 pm

Every bacterium is a libertarian. The big question is whether humans are smarter than bacteria. So far it’s not looking so good.

20

Random African 06.15.08 at 8:12 pm

One of the most striking things about libertarian thought is that it is almost exclusively a US-based phenomena (there is a bit in the UK as a result of Thatcherism).

The epicenter is in the US so you won’t find them as strong anywhere else but there are a few other places.
The UK partly because of Thatcherism but also because of the language connection (which explains Australia and NZ too).
There is a surprising number of them in Eastern Europe. You can blame “real existing socialism” for that and probably the fact that the “movement” invested energy (and money) in that ideological battleground.
In Latin America, there ideological battleground thing had an effect too but there is an ex-ante conversion of members of the ruling class. Basically, they were statist when they owned the state and switched as they were loosing that ownership.
They’re growing in India and Africa, mostly through expats and US-educated people. There too the word “backlash” should be used.

21

Selfreferencing 06.15.08 at 8:25 pm

This entire conversation continues to indict Crooked Timber commenters as largely incapable of recognizing a reasonable disagreement between their view and the classical liberal position.

It’s a disgrace that even as academic a liberal blog as Crooked Timber can’t even approach the civility of the blog comments at libertarian blogs equivalent to it, like Liberty and Power and Marginal Revolution. Classical liberalism has been around for centuries, much longer than the social democratic ideology popular here. It deserves a seat at the table of the reasonable. Those who deny this do so only based on ideology.

For evidence that this treatment of libertarianism is fairly standard at this blog, just check out the archived comments for Tyler Cowen’s contribution to the Hacker Symposium a few years back.

22

terence 06.15.08 at 8:27 pm

It’s helpful, I think, to separate the species libertarian into two sub-species*: libertarianos consequentianos and libertarianos non-consequentialists. Consequentialists are those, like Milton Friedman, who seem to believe that a small state will lead to the best outcomes in terms of utility. Non-conseuqentialists are those like Nozick who justify libertarianism by appeals to absolute property rights.

A problem like global warming is anathema to the non-consequentialists because leads straight to a thorny issue for anyone who adheres to non-consequentailist political philosophies. That is: would you really cling to your deontological beliefs if they had the consequence of lowered welfare?

If your answer is ‘no’ then you’re really a consequentialist after all. If it’s yes than you’ve just exposed your belief system as something rather nasty**.

Far easier to simply attack the science.
___________________________________________
*One could also, perhaps, identify a third camp: no coherent philosophy. Which may well be the majority group but let’s be kind here. Oh, I can think of a fourth too – Randoids. I have no idea where they’re coming from. Which is also the only thing I have in common with them.
**If my memory is correct Nozick himself mentions somewhere that he’d ease up on property rights in the case of a preventable humanitarian catastrophe. But he kind of mumbles this and, I think, switching camps like that is pretty dodgey philosophy.

23

Omega Centauri 06.15.08 at 9:02 pm

The recognition of global constraints, be they be for waste streams (AGW), or due to supply constraints, are a direct threat (perhaps not philosophically, but certainly politically) to libertarianism. The very inconvenient emerging truth that global resource constraints are becoming a major constraint for the world economy, should act to create a pro-regulation attitude in most people who understand the issue. Clearly, as we are starting to notice with oil/food scarcity, enforced reduction in consumption via the price mechanism alone is too painful to be accepted. Most reasonable people quickly propose some other form of rationing, as that allows anyone who reduces their own consumption by the (globally) required amount (often not that large in percentage terms), won’t be seriously impacted by the rationing. but for consumers, even those who take a disproportionate amount of the cut themselves, realize they will pay heavily in a price regulated market. I think the libertarians implicitly recognize the threat, and are desperate to deny any features of nature that could lead to the destruction of their desired ideological outcome.

I think this is fully consistent with my contention that most discourse in the USA has become political. By this I mean consideration of the effect that a piece of information, or theory has on the success of a participant’s group struggle, overrides the search for truth and understanding. Libertarians are just as susceptible to this mode of thinking as the rest of us.

24

Joshua Holmes 06.15.08 at 9:49 pm

A couple of things:

1. Most libertarians are skeptical of any sort of claim which implies the government needs more power. Why? Because of we’ve seen enough of them turn to bullshit over the years. “Crisis,” James Madison noted, “is the plea of every tyrant.” Global warming strikes a lot of us as another Chicken Little scheme to concentrate more money and power in the hands of the rulers.

2. Property rights are good only insofar as they derive from just acquisition. If an entire country were conquered, and the land divided among 4-5 people and everyone else reduced to serfdom, it would be unjust to defend that property arrangement. Defending property rights does not entail defending the actually-existing property distribution. Sadly, too many libertarians miss this point. The property-rights GW “solutions” upset libertarians because there’s no right to property in the thing being granted.

3. Interestingly enough, governments everywhere are subsidizing pollution through things like the Green Revolution, fuel subsidies, interstate highways and expressways, zoning, etc. A radical free market isn’t likely to have any of these things, and is likely to be far more energy efficient.

4. Consequentialism is stupid.

25

Righteous Bubba 06.15.08 at 9:56 pm

Global warming strikes a lot of us as another Chicken Little scheme to concentrate more money and power in the hands of the rulers.

In the American case the Republicans who until recently held all the cards are the denialists.

26

abb1 06.15.08 at 10:10 pm

@17 – are they really two different faiths, or just different degrees of dedication, going from mere sympathy to enthusiasm to outright fanaticism? I mean, almost anyone is a libertarian to some extent; it’s only the true believers who are troublesome.

27

terence 06.15.08 at 10:12 pm

“Consequentialism is stupid”

Them’s fighting words. Tell me Joshua, what non-consequentialist principle would you be willing to defend if it had dire consequences?

Property rights are good only insofar as they derive from just acquisition…Defending property rights does not entail defending the actually-existing property distribution.

Have you ever thought how hard it would be to construct a distribution of property, in this day and age, that actually reflected just acquisition in a historical sense? or how much government it would involve?

28

Brett Bellmore 06.15.08 at 10:19 pm

“I mean, almost anyone is a libertarian to some extent; it’s only the true believers who are troublesome.”

The amusing thing is, the same is true of utilitarians.

29

freshlysqueezedcynic 06.15.08 at 10:23 pm

A radical free market isn’t likely to have any of these things, and is likely to be far more energy efficient.

And there’ll be a pony for everyone, too!

30

James Richardson 06.15.08 at 10:46 pm

Satellite Microwave transmissions, EHF and Higher, are causing Polar Ice cap melting and Global Warming. This is due to radio frequency heating on a global level. See article at http://globalmicrowave.orgfree.com/.
Thank You
James Richardson

31

Randolph 06.15.08 at 10:55 pm

James Killius, libertarian scientist and sf writer,
writing about changing his mind on climate change.

32

soru 06.15.08 at 11:22 pm

A libertarian is just someone who refuses to ever use the word ‘we’, but carries straight on making universalist and absolute ideological statements anyway.

‘We can do something about global warming’ is disallowed, as it contains the deadly two-letter word.

‘I can do nothing much significant about global warming’ is true. Quietly universalise that, without appealing to a collective, and you get ‘effective action against global warming is impossible’.

Take that as an axiom, and you end up with a choice of two positions:

1. global warming doesn’t exist.
2. global warming is inevitable.

These might seem opposing views, but politically they are the same: you’ll often see one person switch from one to the other.

33

Lee A. Arnold 06.15.08 at 11:27 pm

John Quiggan, you link to a paper by Goklany that states, “according to cost information from the UN Millennium Program and the IPCC, measures focused specifically on reducing vulnerability to [water availability and “worsening matters for biodiversity”] would reduce cumulative mortality from these risks by 50-75 percent at a fraction of the cost of reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs).”

His contention appears to be that the greatest threat to biodiversity is habitat loss by the expansion of cropland — and that greater carbon fertilization from global warming will reduce the new expansion of cropland.

There are at least three objections to this:

(1) It’s not entirely clear that global warming will cause a continuing net increase in crop yields.

(2) Regardless, a large threat to biodiversity posed by global warming appears to be the increased migration rates of sensitive species from already-fragmented ecosystems, trying to migrate through less hospitable human habitat.

(3) The greatest risks to human mortality from biodiversity losses would probably come from the concomitant losses of ecosystem services. These include a number of things such as freshwater purification and retention. If ecosystems services are valued at around $40 trillion a year annually globally, it is hard to see how this can be solved at a “fraction of the cost” of reducing GHG’s.

34

John Quiggin 06.16.08 at 12:35 am

Lee, I’ve worked a fair bit on your point #1, (PDF here) and your objection is pretty much correct. Up to 550ppm/2 degrees of warming, effects on crop yields are mixed, but after this point the benefits of CO2 fertilization tail off, and temperature/rainfall effects are unambiguously negative.

35

Cranky Observer 06.16.08 at 12:48 am

> If an entire country were conquered, and the
> land divided among 4-5 people and everyone else
> reduced to serfdom, it would be unjust to defend
> that property arrangement. Defending property
> rights does not entail defending the
> actually-existing property distribution.’

You do understand that is exactly what happened in the land now known as the US State of New Mexico? And that the wealthiest and most powerful people in New Mexico today are the descendants of those who killed the Spanish who had done the dividing and kept their mega-estates for themselves? Any move to give that land back to the indigenous peoples?

Thought not.

Cranky

36

John 06.16.08 at 12:57 am

Amazing how many persons know nothing about Libertarians, yet comment?

37

Roy Belmont 06.16.08 at 1:20 am

soru:
1. global warming doesn’t exist.
2. global warming is inevitable.

This isn’t confined to libertarians by any means.
It’s a phase shift thing, and it’s been pretty much induced and maintained by the corporate media, which is pretty much responsible for the greater public’s attitude/lack of toward the problem.
“Not happening, not happening, not happening, could be, is, oh well, nothing to do about it but hang on and watch.”
Economic policy is mostly arcane to the Great Unwashed, but the power there is more than significant. Which is why the news is so tightly controlled. The decision-makers probably have convinced themselves they’re avoiding mass panic and social breakdown while they make it inevitable.
Most folks are decent and fair-minded and more than willing to sacrifice greatly for their kids. Most folks, given realistic and uncensored views of the problem, will do whatever they’re asked by someone they trust, to help. Communities respond to immediate disasters heroically, consistently. But our communities are being denied trustworthy guidance and instead given pablum and manipulative partial truths. Lots of confusion festering out there, under the shiny surface of televised info.
It’s in the nature of the problem that people get thrown back on selfish responses, coming out of decades of hyper-selfish encouragement, and that’s all coming from the responsible parties. The truly responsible parties – capitalist greedheads and their subalterns. Some of us are inclined toward a “bring it on” attitude if those guys can’t be got out of the way. Which they must be if a unified human response to this is to be achieved.
Watching the US Senate debate their recent bill on climate change, hearing the steady refrains of economic growth, no impact on lifestyle/prosperity, was awfully disheartening. An exercise in fatuous deceit and hypocrisy. Corporate mouthpieces acting like all the common people care about is escalating fuel costs.
The common people want their children to survive.
Nobody at or near the top wants to give up anything, that’s how they got there in the first place, yet the artificial torpidity and passive momentum means everybody stands to lose everything. Hard choices aren’t being made. Cynicism gets more appealing by the hour.
Cheers to Quiggin et al. for yeoman effort.

38

Slocum 06.16.08 at 1:41 am

I think libertarians generally think that tradeable permits worked quite well for sulfur dioxide / acid rain, but will not scale well. There are several major reasons — sulfur dioxide is a relative trivial issue (technically and economically) in comparison to CO2. Also acid rain falls relatively close to the source, so countries have a strong incentive (their own healthy lakes and forests) to be serious about acid rain prevention. But CO2 acts globally, so every country has a strong incentive to free ride, game the system, and seek competitive advantage for its economy and industries. And unlike national markets for SO2 there’s no effective world government to enforce CO2 violations. All of these negative tendencies have been on prominent display in the first 10 years of Kyoto.

So libertarians see a danger global warming will provide a justification for a major expansion in the size and scope of national governments, a major obstacle to international trade (imagine what happens when countries start imposing carbon tariffs on each other), but do little to actually address the problem (or possibly even make it worse).

The clearest example of this is the U.S. corn-ethanol program — billions in subsidies for farmers and ethanol producers, tariffs on imported ethanol (to protect domestic producers), and the end result? Higher food prices causing hardships in poor countries, the waste of billions of dollars, and no benefit to climate change (possibly even making the problem worse).

So when they hear the proposal for the U.S. government to sell carbon permits and invest the money in alternative energy, libertarians fear the corn ethanol program on steroids.

And the politics just don’t work. We’ve seen a primary season where the leading Democrats (supposedly the strongest advocates for action on climate change) have been demagoguing trade and calling for the renegotiation of free trade agreements to be more advantageous to U.S. workers and industries. Given this, why does anybody expect this same party to negotiate a climate change agreement that would make the cost of carbon (and therefore the cost of industrial production) much higher in the U.S. than China, India, and other developing countries?

If the Democrats gain full control of the U.S. government, they will certainly want to be seen to be doing something about climate change, no doubt. But they won’t actually do anything that raises energy costs to consumers and U.S. industries in any significant way. And without raising those costs, there will be no reductions.

In my mind, what it comes down to is simply…coal. There doesn’t really seem to be enough oil left to worry about — come up with a way to either produce carbon-free energy at a cost on par with coal, and/or a way to use coal without emitting the CO2, and you’ve solved the problem without any treaties, trading schemes, harmonized carbon taxes or whatever. But fail to either come up with energy as cheap as coal or a way to use cheap coal, and climate change treaties just aren’t going to work — the temptation to exploit cheap coal will prove irresistible. Not just in the U.S. and China, but even in the E.U..

So if I were a benevolent libertarian despot, what I would do is establish a series of very large government and philanthropy-funded prizes rather than large government-funded programs. The advantage is there is no opportunity for politicians to distribute environmentally useless but politically valuable alternative energy pork. And no money is spent until the terms of the prize are met (practical carbon sequestration at a specified cost, practical advances in thorium reactors, solar cells at a specified cost per KWH, etc, etc). In exchange for the prize money, the funder gets the patents and releases them into the public domain.

39

lemuel pitkin 06.16.08 at 3:28 am

Let’s be clear: Tradable carbon permits are formally equivalent to a carbon tax. In one case, the government sets Q and lets private firms set P; in the other, the government sets P and lets firms set Q. There is no sense in which the former is more market-based than the latter.

Most of us, of course, have no problem with a carbon tax as a way of internalizing the externalities of climate change. but there’s nothing surprising or inconsistent when people who oppose a tax, oppose permits too.

I also think Slocum makes some good points at 37. permits require a uniform regulatory environment — otherwise, there will be enforcement arbitrage and the permits will all end up in the areas of strong enforcement, unpermitted emissions will continue in areas of weak enforcement, and the overall reduction will be less. To the extent that permits are awarded based on historical emissions levels, there will be perverse incentives in the period leading up to the program’s initiation. Speculation may distort the distribution of permits from what relative costs would dictate. various secondary markets will reduce the risk of producers being caught without permits, but only at the cost of a wedge between the revenue raised from permits slaes, and the increased cost to producers.

None of these problems arise with a carbon tax, which is — again — formally identical to tradable permits, but easier to implement on almost every dimension.

The only advantage on the permit side is that permits superficially look more “market-based” So if the libertarians aren’t fooled, so much the worse for permits.

40

lemuel pitkin 06.16.08 at 3:31 am

if they don’t believe in AGW, in which case the market value of CO2 permits will fall to 0.

You are confused.

The market price of permits will depend solely on the marginal cost of reducing carbon emissions (with the relevant margin determined by the quantity of permits issued.) The reality or otherwise of climate change doesn’t enter in. How would it?

41

Joshua Holmes 06.16.08 at 3:45 am

You do understand that is exactly what happened in the land now known as the US State of New Mexico?

I didn’t, but I’m not terribly surprised, given the history of Spanish conquest.

42

Rich Puchalsky 06.16.08 at 3:47 am

Jared Diamond writes that he sometimes wonders what was going through the mind of the Easter Islander who chopped down the last tree on the island. I’d guess it was something like “this is my tree, and I’m going to get a whole lot of things for this wood”. Libertarian thought in microcosm.

The libertarians have simply been wrong about every issue that they have influenced. (They may be right, although simplistic, about the drug war. But they don’t have corporations funding them to attack that.) They are wrong on environmental issues. They were wrong on the war. Before that, they were wrong about civil rights — remember all those libertarian screeds about how a white person should be allowed to refuse to serve black people if they want to because it’s their business? They weren’t and aren’t even unequivocally on the right side about torture.

I’m glad the libertarians reading this think that we’re being unfair. They aren’t “classical liberals”. They are tools of the Right, nothing more. History, if it remembers them at all, is going to remember them with scorn.

And, once again, who cares what they say? Their arguments against permits systems aren’t “surprising”. They argue against whatever big business is against.

43

John Quiggin 06.16.08 at 3:52 am

Lemuel, the big problem with a carbon tax is the difficulty of organising international trade, which is important for a number of reasons. Of course, it raises the problem of regulatory arbitrage, but this is also a problem with carbon taxes.

44

gmoke 06.16.08 at 3:52 am

We should be moving towards a zero emissions policy for all systems. By this I mean zero emissions as a goal the way zero defects on a production line is a goal in Deming’s Total Quality Management. Greenhouse gases are only one part of our waste stream but we need to stop all waste streams. It should be unacceptable to pollute, period, unacceptable to create unused or unusable waste. We don’t have the luxury of our ignorance of the consequences any more.

An added bonus is that trying to create a zero emissions system is a hard but rewarding problem. It will make our brains sweat but it will also be a great deal of fun, if my observation of the factory EHS folks who are approaching the problem this way is any indication.

45

lemuel pitkin 06.16.08 at 4:05 am

the big problem with a carbon tax is the difficulty of organising international trade, which is important for a number of reasons.

How is this more of a problem with tax, than with permits? Either way, all teh relevantgovernemtns have to agree on a uniform system.

Of course, it raises the problem of regulatory arbitrage, but this is also a problem with carbon taxes.

No it’s not. With a tax, the level of emissions in country A does not depend on enforcement in country B. But with permits, it does, because the availability of permits in country A will depend on demand for them in country B, which in turn will depend on the enforcement environment there.

OK, you can still have enforcement arbitrage with a tax system. but you have to actually shift production to the low-enforcement country. That’s a lot harder than just shifting permits.

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lemuel pitkin 06.16.08 at 4:22 am

We should be moving towards a zero emissions policy for all systems.

Sure, but where do we start? Carbon permits and carbon taxes are both ways to reduce emissions where the cost of doing so is lowest — where technical solutions are cheap, substitutes are available, or the activity itself is of low value.

47

bekabot 06.16.08 at 4:51 am

“This entire conversation continues to indict Crooked Timber commenters as largely incapable of recognizing a reasonable disagreement between their view and the classical liberal position…It’s a disgrace that even as academic a liberal blog as Crooked Timber can’t even approach the civility of the blog comments at libertarian blogs equivalent to it, like Liberty and Power and Marginal Revolution.”

Righties these days are finding that they can’t shut Lefties up by saying “you’re wrong”, so what they say instead is “you’re rude”.

“Classical liberalism has been around for centuries, much longer than the social democratic ideology popular here.”

Oh yeah, and they also say “we got here first”. Irrelevant if true, but they don’t seem to care.

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John Quiggin 06.16.08 at 6:24 am

#21 I’m all for civility, but I don’t think your claim about relative standards actually holds up. I checked the most recent MR thread commenting on a social democrat (Paul Krugman) and I’d say it was no more polite about the opposing viewpoint than this one. The thread on the Jonathan Adler DDT post at Volokh (alluded to in the post) was much worse.

I don’t follow Liberty and Power, but on a quick check it doesn’t seem to have much in the way of comments.

49

SG 06.16.08 at 6:31 am

Slocum:

come up with a way to either produce carbon-free energy at a cost on par with coal, and/or a way to use coal without emitting the CO2, and you’ve solved the problem without any treaties, trading schemes, harmonized carbon taxes or whatever.

Have you considered magic? I think magic might do this.

Why does honest libertarian thought on this always end up here, at the magic pony solution? Is it really so impossible for libertarians to compromise their beliefs on an important practical issue that they have to fall back on magical ideas?

We don’t have a magic pony solution and we need to act. The action we need to take is an international rationing of carbon. Whether we do this through clumsy mandates, taxes, permits or subsidies, we have to do it and soon. We don’t have time anymore for offering prizes to the best wizard. Saying “we need a sparkling new technology” now is the same as saying “I don’t want to think about this.” And – present company excepted – the majority of libertarians publicly advocating the magic pony approach are compromised by their denialism, so nobody believes their motives anyway, or their cynicism about what govts can and can’t do.

I don’t understand why “honest” libertarians can’t get these two simple points.

50

Bruce Baugh 06.16.08 at 7:09 am

I wish I could remember the source for the line that libertarian criticism of proposed state action usually rests on the assumption that every slippery slope must be slid down. And we do slide down a lot of them; it’s worthwhile to point out cases.

The problem for the criticism comes when the slope is not slid down. It’s really easy for an inclination to suspect trouble to slide into the dogmatic insistence that there must be trouble, and if there isn’t, it’s being hidden. The libertarian silence about the example of Taiwan whenever health care is discussed, for instance. (Taiwan converted to a single-payer system in the ’90s and it’s working as well there as in Europe.) Conversely, many libertarian critics are equally sure that some things won’t or can’t happen, and thus are left with nothing much to say when (for instance) there’s massive food contamination in part thanks to subversion of official inspection. Reducing regulation plus tort reform to put all the burden on individuals or private groups to run their own tests and then try to press suits in an environment rigged against them is ludicrously, obviously not the answer, but there’s nothing else to say if you’re convinced that all regulation ends in complete capture and never does any net good.

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stuart 06.16.08 at 10:42 am

Libertarians, at least the ones you commonly encounter on the web, always remind me of that story about the genesis of game theory – how Nash thought up this great game where the best move was for everyone to screw each other over, but when actually tried on people that didn’t know the intention of the games designer, they largely co-operated anyway.

52

Brett Bellmore 06.16.08 at 11:01 am

“Why does honest libertarian thought on this always end up here, at the magic pony solution?.”

Because it doesn’t actually violate any physical laws, and therefore isn’t magic; There ARE energy sources out there which will produce enough energy to run industrial civilization, without significant CO2 releases. Only the application of sufficient ingenuity is lacking to make them cheap enough.

Oh, and I’ll note that ponies actually exist. The left really needs a new metaphor here.

53

J Thomas 06.16.08 at 11:05 am

“This has led lots of libertarians, and others on the right, to write as if the mainstream scientific view on global warming renders libertarianism untenable….”

Can you imagine any circumstances that would render libertarianism untenable?

Imagine that we had such a large population that everybody was crowded together and depended on a rickety brittle economy to survive. You couldn’t fart without bothering the people crowded with you. Dropping a piece of chewing gum on the sidewalk was a serious crime. Various little things you might do would disrupt the economy and people would die. We might easily need an intrusive government or at least very restrictive social standards just to keep the system going. Surely such a predicament is possible.

Should we say in that situation that libertarianism is simply not feasible? Should we spend our lives trying to keep the bad system going? Wouldn’t it be better to let the system fail and adjust the population downward until we get to a level we can have a good society?

“A successful response to global warming is vitally important, but it doesn’t imply (or, I should note, preclude) radical changes to the existing social order.”

If we can’t find libertarian approaches to respond with, then doesn’t that say it *does* preclude the sort of radical changes to the existing social order that libertarians need?

I think it might be possible to run Singapore along libertarian lines. But the result wouldn’t be much like what libertarians approve of. I think that if everybody in Singapore decided to become libertarians, most of them would look for ways to leave Singapore. It’s just too much trouble living like that.

It makes a certain sort of sense to regiment ourselves into collective action so we can save the lives of billions of people who would otherwise die. But it also makes a certain sense to mind your own business.

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J Thomas 06.16.08 at 11:27 am

Why does honest libertarian thought on this always end up here, at the magic pony solution? Is it really so impossible for libertarians to compromise their beliefs on an important practical issue that they have to fall back on magical ideas?”

If we do get a cheap alternate energy, it will make a big difference. Worth trying for. It’s happened before — england got a big burst of energy when they were running out of firewood and found they culd use coal.

It isn’t practical to make that the main plan because there’s no basis to guess whether it will work. But we need to make our best effort at that one, too. Hydrogen fusion has been making steady progress for 50 years, and there’s some reason to think we could have working fusion power plants within another 50 years. Possibly somewhat quicker. We have a lot of classified research that might aid that effort but which is not available because we’re afraid someone might use it for weapons.

Given an alternative of coercing large numbers of people, it makes sense for libertarians to want a magic pony approach. “I don’t just believe in miracles, I depend on them.” But remember that the odds are unknown. It makes sense for nonlibertarians too to put as much research money as we can afford into alternate energy. It might pay off.

55

Slocum 06.16.08 at 11:55 am

rich puchalsky: “The libertarians have simply been wrong about every issue that they have influenced.”

You do realize that no so long ago, emissions trading itself was a “crazy” libertarian idea that plenty of lefties considered beyond the pale. The idea of buying and selling the right to pollute!?! Absurd and offensive!

sg: “Have you considered magic? I think magic might do this.”

“Why does honest libertarian thought on this always end up here, at the magic pony solution?”

That’s a joke. You want to see magical thinking, look at the unwavering belief in the Kyoto process. In the expectation of global political organization that has no precedent — nothing even close. In the expectation that countries are going to agree to do something that they never do — agree to to intentionally put themselves at a distinct energy cost/economic disadvantage with respect to their economic, political, and potential military rivals. Agree and then actually follow through and DO it rather than fail, shrug, and plead extenuating circumstances.

Look at Canada, mild-mannered Canada, the Dudly Do-Right of nations — everybody’s idea of a proper international citizen. Instead of a 5% reduction in emissions promised under Kyoto, the actual result has been a 30% increase. The only possible way Canada could have met its obligations would have been to avoid developing its oil sands. But the oil sands are now an incredibly valuable resource, a license to print money. Canada had to choose between emissions reductions and wealth. What has it chosen?

And the politics is only the first part of the Kyoto magical thinking. The other part is that this part A magical agreement will then create the incentives for the part B magic — the technical advances I was discussing. So Kyoto proponents are pointing toward a double-dose of magic — political magic to be followed by technical magic.

The politics simply aren’t going to work without the technical advances. Period. So why not work on the best way to achieve the technical advances directly and avoid the impossible, long-shot politics?

56

John Quiggin 06.16.08 at 12:09 pm

Most obviously, because without some combination of incentives and direct compulsion (or magic), no-one will implement the technical advances. Suppose, for example, carbon capture and storage is feasible. Why would an electricity generator pay the cost, absent something like a carbon tax, emission permit requirement or direct regulation.

I find it surprising that I have to make this point to advocates of the market so often.

57

Monte Davis 06.16.08 at 12:28 pm

it seems as if the ideological opponents are upset because the government-created nature of the property rights in question will be self-evident, rather than obscured by a century or two of history.

A hit, a palpable hit on a little-addressed weakness of libertarianism a outrance

58

lemuel pitkin 06.16.08 at 12:31 pm

look at the unwavering belief in the Kyoto process. In the expectation of global political organization that has no precedent—nothing even close. In the expectation that countries are going to agree to do something that they never do—agree to to intentionally put themselves at a distinct energy cost/economic disadvantage with respect to their economic, political, and potential military rivals.

But this is going much too far. You seem to be saying that countries never submit to binding international agreements when doing so would be costly to them. But the whole history of the modern world is against you.

Look at the enormous effort at developing the Breton Woods system of international trade and finance and its more recent liberalized variant. Whatever you think of the specifics, these agreements unequivocally put certain countries at a cost disadvantage, and yet they get agreed to regularly.

Look at all the arms control treaties negotiated during the Cold War (or non-proliferation today) — all involved countries whose interests might have been served by building (more) nuclear weapons refraining from doing so.

Look at the EU — there countries have given up a great deal of their freedom of action, and accepted many particular terms that were disadvantageous, in the interests of deeper integration (and let’s not forget, of avoiding another catastrophic war — a motive with close parallels to climate change.) Not only are countries willing to be bound by this agreement, they are lining up to join it.

Of course there are serious political and institutional obstacles to putting in place a global system to limit carbon emissions — it’s a big problem! But absolutely, there are precedents.

59

lemuel pitkin 06.16.08 at 12:34 pm

Also, you do realize, Slocum, that your preferred approach of prizes for specific technologies, is less market-driven and places much greater demands on the public sector, than carbon permits/taxes? because it requires the government to not only set goals for emissions reduction, but to pick in advance the specific technologies to achieve them.

60

J Thomas 06.16.08 at 12:51 pm

…without some combination of incentives and direct compulsion (or magic), no-one will implement the technical advances.

The trouble is, when we do things like Kyoto we are engaging in one of the slowest feedback loops human beings notice. I mean, get much slower and we won’t even see it happen.

Agreements among multiple governments are so slow that they might as well assume that private businesses will react instantly to whatever they do. Any loophole will be exploited immediately.

They have to design a system ahead of time with no loopholes. If they don’t do it right the first time it will take a long time to fix it. They have to do it right the first time and get a whole lot of governments to agree to it.

The whole process looks kind of hopeless to me. But I don’t see an alternative. Without a comprehensive international agreement, businesses can stage auctions to see which government will give them the best terms to outsource there. Without everybody onboard it doesn’t work.

Could maybe the UN do it? They fund some of their operations with a carbon tax? They collect the data to decide how much the tax will be, and then collect it? And when a nation doesn’t pay its taxes the UN can declare a tariff on their imports and exports sufficient to pay the debt?

I could imagine something like that working, except that the USA, russia, and china wouldn’t put up with it.

61

Tim Worstall 06.16.08 at 1:01 pm

The magic and the pony for all might not be that far away:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jun/16/renewableenergy.energy
“Soaring oil prices have led to such a boom for solar power that the industry could operate without subsidies in just a few years, according to industry leaders. At the solar industry trade fair in Munich over the weekend, there was growing confidence that the holy grail known as “grid parity” – whereby electricity from the sun can be produced as cheaply as it can be bought from the grid – is now just a few years away.

Solar photovoltaics (PV), which convert sunlight into electrical power, have long been dismissed as too expensive to make a meaningful contribution to the battle against climate change. But costs are falling as PV production booms, and with electricity prices rising rapidly in line with soaring oil and gas prices, demand for solar panels is increasing sharply”

No, of course it’s not a total solution but it’s a heck of a step towards one: low carbon electricity generation for the same price as fossil fuel at the point of use.

What does amuse is that this was roughly Lomborg’s take: that solar was getting cheaper faster than other generating technologies and when price competetive we’d simply switch over (as we retired the old plant, of course).

And boy, did he get stick for saying that this might happen around 2025, 2030 or so.

62

reason 06.16.08 at 1:20 pm

#21

Classical liberalism has been around for centuries, much longer than the social democratic ideology popular here. It deserves a seat at the table of the reasonable.

… You mean like Alchemy and Astrology?

63

reason 06.16.08 at 1:23 pm

Tim Worstall,
actually the biggest problem is not the generation cost but the storage issue.

64

Rich Puchalsky 06.16.08 at 1:23 pm

“You do realize that no so long ago, emissions trading itself was a “crazy” libertarian idea that plenty of lefties considered beyond the pale.”

Libertarians favored emissions trading because an emissions trading regime is the easiest to subvert, pure and simple. Emissions trading regimes were a crazy idea not so long ago, but then the Right took over. Once the Right is quashed, people are going to rediscover that they are a crazy idea. They are no less “government interference in the market” than anything else, and take a large number of government employees to enforce, so there is no principled argument for them. They do have the singular property that whenever the traded rights get expensive, all of a sudden there are magically more of them — because after all, we wouldn’t want to hurt industry. The separation of a permits system from anything that people usually interact with makes this easier to do than with some other method of enforcing agreed-on technological change.

So, yes, still a crazy idea. The fact that suckers have bought into it doesn’t make it less of one.

65

abb1 06.16.08 at 1:23 pm

Facing a dying nation
Of moving paper fantasy
Listening for the new told lies
With supreme visions of lonely tunes

Time to privatize the sunshine!

66

Picador 06.16.08 at 1:42 pm

I’m with Roger:

By radically shrinking the value of the dollar and making the oil producing Middle East a vastly more insecure place, he has managed to increase the cost of petroleum dramatically.

It occurred to me some time back that the neocon ideal — nukes launched against the entire Middle East, less Israel — would actually be a very effective way of sequestering petroleum for a few thousand years while we figure out how to use it efficiently. Once the rad levels of Saudi Arabia and Iraq reached workable levels, we’d have generations upon generations of insight into how to make the most of scarce oil resources.

It would help if we also nuked Texas, a thought few outside that state should find objectionable.

67

Slocum 06.16.08 at 1:48 pm

lemuel pitkin: Also, you do realize, Slocum, that your preferred approach of prizes for specific technologies, is less market-driven and places much greater demands on the public sector, than carbon permits/taxes? because it requires the government to not only set goals for emissions reduction, but to pick in advance the specific technologies to achieve them.

Prizes could be at varying levels of specificity — for advances in particular technologies, possibly, but also for merely achieving certain generic energy cost/cleanliness benchmarks.

But the thing about prizes vs government R&D programs is that there’s no pork, and if the target is completely off base or impossible to achieve, then private R&D money will not chase that particular prize. Whereas if the government funds are actually spent on any of these, then the programs create a powerful constituency for continued funding regardless of whether any benefit is generated or progress is made (again, see corn ethanol).

John Quiggin: Most obviously, because without some combination of incentives and direct compulsion (or magic), no-one will implement the technical advances.

Yes, obviously. But is Kyoto the only, best, most feasible way of creating those incentives? I really doubt that.

68

Lee A. Arnold 06.16.08 at 2:12 pm

What about storing the daytime solar electricity (whether from photovoltaic or solar thermal) as potential gravitational energy, for nighttime release? Use some of the generating capacity to lift enormous concrete weights up inside silos hydraulically; fix their positions with ratchets; let them go again at night and direct the hydraulic pressure to the electrical generators. A completely self-contained fuel cycle! You could even put up a few extra “power silos” to reserve for a rainy day. Scalable for village use. Is this any nuttier than building a nuclear power plant, dreaming that you’ll fix the waste problem, and pretending that it doesn’t have an ongoing massive federal subsidy?

69

stuart 06.16.08 at 2:14 pm

Yes, obviously. But is Kyoto the only, best, most feasible way of creating those incentives? I really doubt that.

Even if that is the case, what do you think that implies? Should everyone abandon Kyoto because a theoretically better agreement that doesn’t exist could have been created?

70

Picador 06.16.08 at 2:19 pm

Josh:

I’m confused by your position. This:

2. Property rights are good only insofar as they derive from just acquisition… Sadly, too many libertarians miss this point.

strikes me as a dramatic understatement. The number of libertarians I know who advocate the return of wealth built on genocide and slavery is exactly zero. Yet you seem to agree that, in the case of New Mexico raised above, this is exactly what should happen. If so, that makes you distinct from every libertarian I’ve ever met or read, which makes me skeptical that your views represent what most people understand as “libertarianism”.

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ScentOfViolets 06.16.08 at 2:21 pm

Of course, Slocum. That’s why no one ever wastes time on perpetual motion machines, or cars that run on water. Or, for that matter, promotes fad diets.

It’s a real world thing ;-)

72

Picador 06.16.08 at 2:31 pm

brett bellmore:

There ARE energy sources out there which will produce enough energy to run industrial civilization, without significant CO2 releases. Only the application of sufficient ingenuity is lacking to make them cheap enough.

Remember: when speaking to libertarians, use the word “ingenuity” in place of “magic” or else they won’t understand.

73

lemuel pitkin 06.16.08 at 2:53 pm

Whereas if the government funds are actually spent on any of these, then the programs create a powerful constituency for continued funding regardless of whether any benefit is generated or progress is made (again, see corn ethanol).

Well yeah, but we’re not talking about ethanol, or about subsidies for or direct public investment in particualr technologies. We’re talking about carbon taxes/permits. All they do is internalize an externality.

By the way, I don’t think you are wrong to in general to think that prizes/bounties should be used more inpalce of pseduo-property rights to encourage socially desirable investment. A scheme like yours would be a great replacement or supplement for our current drug patent system (and was actually proposed by the Edwards camapign.) But the issues they address are really orthogonal to the ones permits/taxes address. E.g. even if you developed a vastly improved carbon sequestration technology, you’d still need some incentive for power generators to adopt it.

74

Christopher Colaninno 06.16.08 at 3:03 pm

as if the mainstream scientific view on global warming renders libertarianism untenable

Global warming does render Libertarianism untenable. At least Libertarianism as it currently defined by its mainstream adherents. Global warming means that a massive global government intervention into the free market system would result in a more optimal outcome then otherwise. That’s fundamentally incompatible with Libertarianism.

75

Nabakov 06.16.08 at 3:45 pm

“Wouldn’t it be better to let the system fail and adjust the population downward until we get to a level we can have a good society?”

Great idea. You go first.

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Brett Bellmore 06.16.08 at 4:19 pm

Picador, if “ingenuity” and “magic” were the same thing, we’d still be chipping flint and soaking hides in hollow oak stumps. Try to understand: The human mind actually comes up with useful ideas once in a while.

I think people obsessed with politics must really hate the idea that most of the improvements in the living standard of humanity have come from engineers and scientists, not politicians.

77

Righteous Bubba 06.16.08 at 4:22 pm

I was a great day when Einstein invented voting for women.

78

Righteous Bubba 06.16.08 at 4:22 pm

“It”

79

Brett Bellmore 06.16.08 at 4:24 pm

It was a great day when somebody invented the word “most”, too.

BTW, does it occur to you that the vote for women was in large part a consequence of economic changes brought on by technological advances?

80

Righteous Bubba 06.16.08 at 4:30 pm

BTW, does it occur to you that the vote for women was in large part a consequence of economic changes brought on by technological advances?

Was that before or after James Clerk Maxwell invented not keeping slaves?

81

Carps 06.16.08 at 5:05 pm

To sum up:

“Our foes [Libertarians in this case] are bacteria”

“We are reasonable intelligent people. Our foes [Libertarians] disagree with us, therefore they can be neither intelligent nor reasonable”

“The only solution to [problem x, y, z] is strong, centralised action involving more [powers, taxes, information collection]”

Did the 20th Century pass you by?

BTW: I love the assumption that ‘create a carbon trading scheme’ is treated as a trivial exercise. It kind of misses the point that in free markets, the cost of something is determined by something we call The Price. Tax energy at source to account for its externalities and your gimcrack carbon-trading scheme, with all the inefficiencies, opportunities for crime and distortion becomes moot. Intellectuals can be pretty dumb sometimes.

82

SG 06.16.08 at 5:39 pm

Slocum, in addition to the point made above that international agreements are made regularly, and often against the interests of some of the countries involved, don’t you think it’s possible that agreements like Kyoto might actually offer potential economic benefits? Energy efficiency is a good thing, it reduces the cost of doing things. Yet strangely libertarians have a real bee in their bonnet about this energy efficiency thing, it’s as if they were all still living in some 50s (simonian?) worldview where the only possible way to get economic growth is by burning more oil. Look at their ludicrous response to that carbon-offsetting foot pump – it’s as if they want poor people spending their entire disposable income on fuel.

You don’t want that do you Slocum?

At the risk of getting bogged down in discussion of the practicalities of a completely irrelevant policy, do you have any evidence that lack of big cash prizes is holding back researchers from finding these wonder weapons miracle technologies? I suspect a bigger bottleneck may be a lack of research infrastructure, one of those market failures which libertarians hate to admit exist and whose cure they refer to as “pork”.

And why do you suggest spending govt money on prizes for this, instead of just recommending subsidies or tax credits for energy efficiency investment? Why do libertarians always object to the cost-saving, carbon-saving technology and point their engorged willies at the sexy projects that will never work?

And what do we do about global warming if we rest our whole future on this quixotic quest, but after 10 years discover that no research institute or company has bothered because (as you suggested) they have decided it is infeasible and not worth investing infrastructure on? We will still be 10 years away from solving the problem, without having worked on an alternative, and without having found any way to encourage anyone to do any kind of carbon-saving research. Meanwhile we could have invested in energy efficiency projects for 10 years…

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roger 06.16.08 at 5:45 pm

In the spirit of Krugman’s column this morning, which notes that Bush’s tax policies are shaping, one way or another, the economic policies advocated by McCain and Obama, it should be noted that the libertarians have succeeded in making it seem like the only government tools which could possibly be used on any public matter are exclusively negative: either in the form of regulation or taxes. That’s a very sad victory. The best thing the government can do about Global warming is to be extremely positive, i.e. help develop green technology itself. There’s no reason to outsource such an R and D mission. The 164 billion dollars dispersed this spring to the taxpayer (so that said taxpayer could promptly inject it into the revenue column of the credit card companies) is an example of the libertarian effect. That 164 billion dollars should, of course, have been spent creating a Tech cabinet post with a mission to develop green r and d – IP rights would be vested in the government, and could be licenced to private manufacturers. It seems to me that eventually this will happen anyway, as things get much worse. In fact, the U.S. is entering a stage Europe entered in 1973 with regard to petroleum, and despite the whacko right’s obsession with destroying the entirety of the environment so that fat white guys can drive around in their SUVs (a man in his SUV is like a king in his castle), the stupidest thing the U.S. could do would be to double down on petro-based energy consumption.

Green tech is not only a good idea for the planet, but it is a natural for the U.S. in terms of trade. Free trade, that pornographic obsession of the elites, has so far proven a very poor deal for the 80 percent of the American population who are supposed to be so happy that cheaper goods flood into the country from China. They can see that the benefit there is bs – given the bargaining position of labor up to 1980, there is no way that the more expensive American made goods which would have been the alternative wouldn’t be more than matched by the rise in wages. But if one must rescue capitalism, at least take a leaf out of the free trade model and leverage one’s knowledge advantage. That is why the U.S. should be using the vast resources it pours into R and D at the public level – in, for instance, the financing of state universities and such – to kickstart green tech R and D.

Which is why the Dems need to blow up the libertarian effect once and for all. A Democratic party that refuses to stand up for improving the bargaining power of labor AND/OR for the positive intervention of the state (and industrial policy) is little more than a mockery, a ploy by an entrenched establishment by which to strangle real economic choices. Unfortunately, that is what the American political scene has looked like since 1992.

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Slocum 06.16.08 at 6:43 pm

lemuel pitkin: Well yeah, but we’re not talking about ethanol, or about subsidies for or direct public investment in particualr technologies. We’re talking about carbon taxes/permits. All they do is internalize an externality.

No, we’re not only about that. Auctioned permits (or carbon taxes) generate large new revenue streams. What will the government do with that revenue? What’s to prevent pumping a lot of it into more subsidies for bogus alternative energy pork like corn ethanol?

But the issues they address are really orthogonal to the ones permits/taxes address. E.g. even if you developed a vastly improved carbon sequestration technology, you’d still need some incentive for power generators to adopt it.

Yes and no. If sequestration raised the cost of using coal by 5%, providing the incentives to use it would be a trivially easy political problem. But not so if it raised the cost of using coal by a factor of 10.

Christopher Colaninno: Global warming does render Libertarianism untenable. At least Libertarianism as it currently defined by its mainstream adherents. Global warming means that a massive global government intervention into the free market system would result in a more optimal outcome then otherwise. That’s fundamentally incompatible with Libertarianism.

I think you’re confused about Libertarianism. School vouchers are a libertarian idea — but they presuppose government funding for education. The EITC (negative income tax) is a libertarian idea, but it presupposes a government safety net. And emissions trading is a libertarian idea (which is the source of Quiggin’s puzzlement about libertarian attitudes toward Kyoto). It’s simply not the case that government interventions of any kind are incompatible with libertarianism.

sg: …don’t you think it’s possible that agreements like Kyoto might actually offer potential economic benefits?

It’s conceivable. But emissions restrictions offer net benefits to countries implementing them, then there’s no reason to worry about agreements. Those countries that restrict their emissions will grow faster than others and then the laggards will catch on and start reducing their own emissions out of pure self-interest.

However, I have to say that given the first 10 years of Kyoto, that seems a green pipe dream. Those countries that artificially jack up the price of energy in their economies will not grow faster than countries with cheap energy.

At the risk of getting bogged down in discussion of the practicalities of a completely irrelevant policy, do you have any evidence that lack of big cash prizes is holding back researchers from finding these wonder weapons miracle technologies?

One of the main things holding researchers back is a fear that their technologies won’t pay — that the cost of conventional energy will plummet again and their efforts will be useless. There are various ways around this. One is a government guarantee that energy won’t get cheap again by imposing taxes or emissions limits. Another is a government guarantee to fund the research regardless of what energy markets do. And another possibility is a government promise not to subsidize the ongoing research but to pay for objectively defined results.

And what do we do about global warming if we rest our whole future on this quixotic quest, but after 10 years discover that no research institute or company has bothered because (as you suggested) they have decided it is infeasible and not worth investing infrastructure on?

And what do we do if we spend 10 years trying to create a successor to Kyoto that will only then create the incentives for alternative energy development — but fail to get an agreement? Or get another agreement like Kyoto with no enforcement mechanisms that countries continue to flout at their convenience? Or an agreement that looks good on paper, but raises energy costs very little and, therefore, provides very little actual incentives to innovate?

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abb1 06.16.08 at 7:13 pm

Why do libertarians always object to the cost-saving, carbon-saving technology and point their engorged willies at the sexy projects that will never work?

A few trillion dollars worth of oil is sold every year. Do you think this could help explain the nature of some of these controversies? I don’t think it has a lot to do with libertarianism or any other ism.

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michael e sullivan 06.16.08 at 7:16 pm

76 – wait, I thought it was capitalism that is most responsible for the improvements in living standards.

That’s politicians!

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lemuel pitkin 06.16.08 at 7:27 pm

Auctioned permits (or carbon taxes) generate large new revenue streams. What will the government do with that revenue? What’s to prevent pumping a lot of it into more subsidies for bogus alternative energy pork like corn ethanol?

Now you’re just being silly.

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gmoke 06.16.08 at 8:02 pm

We should be moving towards a zero emissions policy for all systems.

Sure, but where do we start?

You start by recognizing that this is the goal and beginning to do the thought experiment of what that might look like within the constraints of ecological design, the simplest expression of which is Bill McDonough’s four principles:
waste equals food
use only available solar income
respect diversity
love all the children.

If you want to go deeper, Nancy Jack Todd has a good list of principles based upon John Todd’s work designing restorative ecological systems in her history of the New Alchemy Institute, _A Safe and Sustainable World_.

Twelve principles fundamental to the practice of ecological design:

1. Geological and mineral diversity must be present to evolve the biological responsiveness of rich soils.
2. Nutrient reservoirs are essential to keep such essentials as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium available or the pants.
3. Steep gradients between subcomponents must be engineered into the system to enable the biological elements to evolve rapidly to assist in the breakdown of toxic materials.
4. High rates of exchange must be created by maximizing surface areas that house the bacteria that determine the metabolism of the system and facilitate treatment.
5. Periodic and random pulsed exchanges improve performance. Just as random perturbations foster resilience in nature. in living technologies altering water flow creates self-organization in the system.
6. Cellular design is the structural model as it is in nature where cells are the organizing unit. Expansion of system should also use a cellular model, as in increasing the number of tanks.
7. A law of the minimum must be incorporated. At least three ecosystems such as a marsh, a pond, and a terrestrial area are needed to perform the assigned function and maintain overall stability.
8. Microbial communities must be introduced periodically from the natural world to maintain diversity and facilitate evolutionary processes.
9. Photosynthetic foundations are essential as oxygen-producing plants foster ecosystems that require less energy, aeration, and chemical management.
10. Phylogenetic diversity must be encouraged as a range of aquatic animals from the unicellular to snails to fish are as essential to the evolution and self-maintenance of the system as the plants.
11. Sequenced and repeated seedings are part of maintenance as a self-contained system cannot be isolated but must be interlinked through gaseous, nutrient, mineral, and biological pathways to the external environment.
12. Ecological design should reflect the macrocosmos in the microcosmos, representing the natural world miniaturized and reflecting its proportions, as in terrestrial to oceanic and aquatic areas.

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SG 06.16.08 at 8:42 pm

so slocum, it boils down to a question of what would work better – throwing some prize money at R & D to solve the problem, or coming to an agreement between nations about a way to solve the problem. It just so happens that the problem is damage being done to the commons by overuse of a certain technology. You want us to rely on a technological fix to this problem, we think it might be wiser to regulate the commons in some way that rations out the technology. One of these solutions – regulation of some sort, be it trading permits or taxes or straight out rationing – has been shown to work. The other solution – technology – hasn’t.

And this do nothing, no future solution is being pushed by a movement (lol) which denied the whole problem existed in the first place. Why should we believe that the suggestion is actually being proffered with a good faith belief that it will work, and isn’t just further delaying?

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Picador 06.16.08 at 10:17 pm

brett:

I think people obsessed with politics must really hate the idea that most of the improvements in the living standard of humanity have come from engineers and scientists, not politicians.

Thanks, my first few degrees were in electrical engineering and neuroscience; I don’t think I am unappreciative of the contributions of those people to human progress, such as it is.

That being said, “ingenuity + scarce resource = non-scarce resource” isn’t some magical formula that will hold true in all situations. Thermodynamic miracles aren’t physically impossible, but it’s best not to formulate policies that rely on them. Ditto for unlimited, renewable, clean energy.

Homo sapiens hit a pocket of cheap energy a hundred years back and our population exploded. Now that cheap energy is getting less cheap at about the same time that we’re choking to death on our own excretions. The explosion of humanity in the 20th century is no different in principle from bacterial growth on a surface with a pocket of glucose in the middle. Look at the shape of that curve; it does not bode well for continuing human expansion.

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J Thomas 06.16.08 at 10:43 pm

sg, I think Slocum has presented a good idea. We should follow his idea in parallel with the other ideas that might be helpful.

There isn’t anything about one of these that would keep the others from working. Why not try them all?

I particularly liked one of Slocum’s questions.

Auctioned permits (or carbon taxes) generate large new revenue streams. What will the government do with that revenue? What’s to prevent pumping a lot of it into more subsidies for bogus alternative energy pork like corn ethanol?

I combine that with an idea from carps:

Tax energy at source to account for its externalities and your gimcrack carbon-trading scheme, with all the inefficiencies, opportunities for crime and distortion becomes moot.

Clearly. We should tax fossil fuels at the source and then let the costs distribute. But what to do with the money?

I say, give it to the taxpayers, to spend as they want.

So, let’s say that with the new taxes on oil, gasoline costs $10/gallon at the pump when otherwise it would only be $5. But every month the government takes its taxes and divides them evenly among voters, and direct-deposits them into your bank account. If you use only the average amount of fossil fuels, the tax costs you nothing. If you use less then you get a nice bonus.

And every product that is made with less fossil fuel can be sold cheaper, or the manufacturers can get an extra profit, or both. The tax costs you nothing if you consume only the average amount of fossil fuel. But everything you do to use less saves you money. Use a gallon less gasoline and you don’t just save $5, you save $10 that you can spend however you want.

Very little paperwork involved. Keep track of fossil fuels as they are produced or imported. Keep track of voters. That’s about it. Rather than a complex and arbitrary system of permits, just put the carbon tax where it belongs and let the free market equilibrate from there.

And you can *also* have prizes for innovation, and *also* do direct government-funded research, and *also* work on international agreements.

We don’t have to argue about which method is best. We can try all the methods that aren’t obviously bad.

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Helen 06.17.08 at 12:35 am

“Wouldn’t it be better to let the system fail and adjust the population downward until we get to a level we can have a good society?”

Great idea. You go first.

Thanks Nabs, took the words right out of my mouth (and preempted a possible Godwin violation.)

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Brett Bellmore 06.17.08 at 12:57 am

Wouldn’t that be a Godwin confirmation? It’s a prediction, not a rule, after all…

Picador, EE and human biology, here. Small world.

I don’t think any thermodynamic miracles are needed. The energy is there, in the form of sunlight, fissile and fertile elements, salinity contrasts where rivers empty into the sea, (equivalent in energy to a 500 foot waterfall!) deep hot rock. It’s not thermodynamics that stands in the way of continuing a high energy industrial civilization, it’s not knowing exactly how to get at that energy effectively.

Ingenuity, such as Nanosolar’s reel to reel offset printing of solar panels, is what’s needed. Not hair shirts and massive dieoffs.

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Planeshift 06.17.08 at 12:57 am

The view that we should do nothing and let technology save us is a bit like a young smoker arguing that he should keep smoking and hope that medicine advances sufficently to cure him of the lung cancer he will get 20 years down the line. The notion of quitting hasn’t occured or seems too difficult to contemplate.

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Roy Belmont 06.17.08 at 2:24 am

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Eric H 06.17.08 at 3:56 am

lemuel:

How would it? @ 40

Sorry, I should have been clearer. For those who don’t believe that AGW is true, they should believe that one day it will be proven false, at which point the value of CO2 permits will drop to 0.

Still, odd that you think the value would be driven entirely by the marginal cost of supply. No interaction with demand? Related: isn’t the demand entirely driven by policy, irrespective of cost? In other words, the number of permits will be artificially set. I’d set the odds of there being some rent-seeking (read:corruption) at at least 85%. Last I read on the subject, the EU market was getting poor marks.

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SG 06.17.08 at 7:12 am

It’s a good idea J thomas if you assume that scientific research is a magic wand you can point at things. It’s not. We don’t know if the solution to some of these problems is merely engineering or involves basic science. As a contrast, if 30 years ago a government had posted a million dollar prize for discovery of the next big environmental problem, would it have encouraged people to find global warming any sooner? I don’t think it would have, because complex problems are solved by many scientists working in many fields and many places, at differing speeds and for differing reasons. It is research infrastructure which determines how the hidden fundamental problems are solved, not a glitzy prize.

Sure, if you know you have a technology which needs improving – like with the recent space plane race – this tactic works. But fusion and carbon sequestration aren’t necessarily that far advanced yet. And some of the other technologies being discussed are advanced enough, they need political agreement to force up the cost of energy so they can be adapted – and even then they may require incentives, because of the cost of capital investment.

The problem is a classic case of the type of situation libertarianism’s simplistic and ideologically-driven solutions won’t and can’t fix. It’s a distraction, and the people suggesting it in general know this, and don’t care (present company excepted, I think).

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reason 06.17.08 at 7:21 am

BB
Surprisingly, I agree with some of your points. Engineers and scientists are the source of most advances. Yes there is plenty of energy available, but we need complex (and therefore potentially fragile) technology to use it. What makes you think that science (that works best in an co-operative open source like environment, the best advances often coming accidently as a result of trying to do something else) is subject to the normal target-oriented market approach with competition and secrecy? It may well be that lots of basic science is needed first.

Slocum – re your prise. What is the difference between a prise (that rewards one party but makes lots of other lose – and who says luck doesn’t play a big part in research) and research grants, that ensure competition and make sure a number of people are gaining expertise in the area in question. Better still – why not do both (and the prise could go to an institution to encourage even more research).

My father was a scientist, I don’t believe for science motivation has much influence on success.

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reason 06.17.08 at 7:27 am

sg
It seems you beat me to it.

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J Thomas 06.17.08 at 7:40 am

sg, are you concerned that if we do look for technological solutions that we’ll depend on finding them and so not try anything else?

I see nothing wrong with trying as many approaches as we can manage in parallel.

My own prejudice is that if for some reason we have a choice between new technology and international agreements — one or the other — I’d rather gamble on technology than gamble on working international agreements. They both look like long shots to me. But why can’t we try both?

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J Thomas 06.17.08 at 8:33 am

“Wouldn’t it be better to let the system fail and adjust the population downward until we get to a level we can have a good society?”

Great idea. You go first.

There is a serious point here. World population appears to be stalling out. When I was a kid the population was something like 2.5 billion, and then it went to 3 billion, and they predicted it would be 6 billion and by today it would be around 9 billion. But it’s now less than 7 billion people and not increasing fast at all.

And when I was in college some prominent political-ecologists were predicting what size world population we could maintain at steady-state. Their predictions ranged between half a billion and a billion people. Of course the population was already more than 3 billion then. Maybe they were wrong.

Are we planning to get through the coming disruptions without global population dropping? No, we’re hardly trying to plan at all. There’s nobody who has the power or the authority to plan on that timescale.

OK, how do we keep people alive? The traditional way to keep welfare people alive was to pack them into cities. It’s hard to give people adequate medical care if they aren’t in cities. Hard to check up on them, make sure they’re real people. It’s generally cheaper to care for them when they’re packed together. But that’s with abundant energy. We could afford to hire an army of clerks with typewriters. Things will be different. Maybe we can have people spread out, growing their own food? Have part-time people doing the paperwork at home, with webcams to show the physical stuff, and we pay people from other districts to watch the webcams and report dishonesty? I don’t know how it could go. But less energy and decentralised energy both imply that central governments would be less powerful and local governments more powerful.

Webcams etc could let us actually supervise people more, cheaply. Should we let big masses of people do whatever-the-hell they want, and trust them to feed themselves? Would we try to make sure they do the right things?

Chances are, if we fail to regiment people tightly enough, the population *will* go down. Likely it will even if we control as tightly as we can.

At what point should a libertarian say it just isn’t worth it, let’s accept the population will decrease, let’s look for a way to make a libertarian paradise for the survivors — whoever they turn out to be?

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abb1 06.17.08 at 10:33 am

Social

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abb1 06.17.08 at 10:39 am

Yes, completing the circle: from social Darwinism to natural Darwinism.

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Dave 06.17.08 at 10:50 am

‘Tother side of the population debate is to note, as George Monbiot did recently [alas, I can’t find the link], that economic growth at what the West has come to accept as ‘normal’ rates, let alone the explosive rates achieved in China, will consume resources at a faster, and more disastrous, rate of increase than any plausible projection of global population growth. From which two things follow: a] if you think things can be stopped ‘before it’s too late’, reining in resource consumption is more important that stopping poor people having babies; b] if you think we are doomed to go ‘over the top’ into systemic collapse, it will be the disastrous loss of available resources to the rich world that hurts us most, not more poor babies….

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Brett Bellmore 06.17.08 at 11:22 am

“It may well be that lots of basic science is needed first.”

In some cases, yes. To tap that salinity energy where rivers go into the ocean, for instance, requires some basic advances in osmotic membranes.

In other cases? It would appear to me that the only thing required for Nanosolar’s panels is working out the bugs in their production process, so they can vastly scale up; That’s what they’re busy at right now.

“What is the difference between a prise (that rewards one party but makes lots of other lose – and who says luck doesn’t play a big part in research) and research grants, that ensure competition and make sure a number of people are gaining expertise in the area in question.”

Well, there’s a huge difference between prizes and research grants, from the perspective of the prize/grant issuing entity: With research grants you get as much research as you pay for, probably less. When a prize attracts people, they usually end up spending in total a lot more than the prize money in order to win it. The winner might profit, the losers just subsidized all your unsuccessful lines of research for you.

This difference comes at a cost: You can buy research into just about anything with grants, you can only get research through prizes if a lot of people capable of the research think they might have a shot at winning the prize. Nor do prizes accomplish much where the end of the research is obviously going to be profitable in the short term, because somebody is probably already buying that research.

The big advantage of the prize to the prize issuing entity, of course, is that there’s no out of pocket until you get a solution. And it nicely circumvents the problem of not knowing precisely what you want researched, just what you want accomplished.

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J Thomas 06.17.08 at 1:31 pm

Dave, yes, the big consumption is in the rich first world. Traditionally we have suggested that instead of reducing our consuption of resources we will provide hints to the third world so they can become rich like we are. Now that this is happening in china and some other places, we find that it doesn’t work — that nonrenewable resorces are slipping away even faster.

Currently the limiting factor is fossil fuels. If we could solve that problem — if we could find a lot of cheap renewable energy — then we would run into another limiting factor that isn’t as limiting.

Currently our food production depends on fossil fuels. We could in theory put a lot of people on the land to do subsistence farming without fossil fuels, and they might produce enough of a surplus to feed a lot of others. In practice a free market won’t do that until agribusiness has shrunk to the point it doesn’t need that land. We can expect a lot of dislocations as fossil fuels get more expensive and particularly as they get priced out of range of all but military uses.

It has already reached the point where americans aren’t particularly increasing our standard of living, except for rich americans and except for tech advances. We are declining now. How fast are we willing to decline to save third world lives? Don’t ask me, ask a politician who’s running for office.

If we have to adapt to a world without cheap alternative energy, it will almost certainly be a world with a considerably smaller population. We could make heroic efforts to save people by carefully restricting usage of resources to their optimal purposes to save lives. We will not do so. As china builds up its defenses it’s predictable that the USA will also increase military spending — if the USA can raise the funds. Throughout the cold war the USA and USSR consumed resources for war that could have made a great big difference. Any reason to think that pattern will change now that russia is a regional power?

And so — if we somehow can get cheap renewable energy, we will have found our pony. We are betting a great big part of the world population on that, whether we fund it or not. Following the Kyoto protocols won’t save those people, it will at best reduce global warming and save a larger remnant.

We lose without tech advances. We should try to get them. We also lose by global warming. We should try to slow that down. Why do people act like these are incompatible goals? We should do both in parallel, as best we can.

It’s plausible that whatever we do the world population might be back to 3 billion or less within a few generations. I don’t much like that and I’d be glad to stop it. I’d be willing to help create a plan for the USA to cut our fossil fuel use by 80% in whatever time we can reasonably do that. Any chance that plan could be politically feasible? Well, depending on circumstance the world economy might cut US fossil fuel consumption by 80% without a plan. We could turn into the world’s best-armed third world nation pretty quick, if things go particularly wrong.

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abb1 06.17.08 at 2:03 pm

There are two ways for the population size to decline. One is some kind of calamity (a pandemic of some sort), the other one is a welfare society, where the government provides all the necessary support for the old and/or disabled. The first scenario is temporary; as soon as the pandemic stops the population is going to start growing again, and probably faster than before. So, paradoxically, it seems to me world’s population needs to get much richer (on average) before it can begin shrinking.

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Brett Bellmore 06.17.08 at 2:07 pm

“It’s plausible that whatever we do the world population might be back to 3 billion or less within a few generations.”

It’s going to do that, especially if we solve our energy problems: Demographic transition, and all that: The most advanced nations aren’t reproducing at replacement, it’s poor countries where the population growth is happening.

“I’d be willing to help create a plan for the USA to cut our fossil fuel use by 80% in whatever time we can reasonably do that.”

Cool. Just drop all the current obstacles to building nukes and reprocessing the ‘wastes’. It’s the only industrial scale non-CO2 producing energy source we have that can be scaled up fast. If the alternative to nukes is really a lot of people dying, then all the complaints about radiation leaks are irrational. The KWHs will save more lives than the rads will cost.

Just take France’s most recent plant design, and go into mass production.

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reason 06.17.08 at 3:01 pm

BB

The big advantage of the prize to the prize issuing entity, of course, is that there’s no out of pocket until you get a solution. And it nicely circumvents the problem of not knowing precisely what you want researched, just what you want accomplished.

Beware mission creep. That will be a political minefield!

But surely part of the problem is you don’t necessarily even know in advance what you are looking for. As I said before, often solutions are found as a side effect of looking for something else.

I’m suspicious of a prize (especially one paid to an individual and not an organization) because the winner takes all nature of it, makes cheating (especially espionage and plagiarism) the name of the game. And venture capital no doubt will try to capture many teams involved and influence the judges. Research grants (if properly administered) can foster a more co-operative atmosphere with renewal as sufficient incentive.

I think you are giving investors too much credit – they don’t have having crystal balls.

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J Thomas 06.17.08 at 3:39 pm

There are two ways for the population size to decline. One is some kind of calamity (a pandemic of some sort), the other one is a welfare society, where the government provides all the necessary support for the old and/or disabled.

We could have a series of calamities. Some parts of the world have traditionally had one every 20 years or so. For example northeast brazil. A lot of subsistence farmers, each family living on barely enough land to support them. Then a drought comes and when it’s over there’s land to go around until the next drought.

We could have a combination welfare state/calamity. A rickety welfare state that supports people most of the time but occasionally breaks down, and then when it recovers it supports the survivors.

Suppose that fossil fuel gets more expensive so international transportation gets more expensive, and food production gets more expensive, etc. Global warming results in some unpredictable weather changes so it’s hard to grow crops reliably. If local harvests aren’t very reliable and it’s also too expensive to store lots of food in good years (and there isn’t that much to store) and too expensive to ship large amounts of food from places with surpluses to places with lacks, we could easily get local famines.

And a nation which spends too much of its resources keeping useless citizens alive may have trouble supporting a strong enough military to keep their freedom to make that choice.

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Brett Bellmore 06.17.08 at 4:27 pm

“If local harvests aren’t very reliable and it’s also too expensive to store lots of food in good years (and there isn’t that much to store) and too expensive to ship large amounts of food from places with surpluses to places with lacks, we could easily get local famines.”

That’s the advantage of being a meat eating culture: In an emergency you slaughter the animals, and start eating the grain they would have been fed, and presto-chango, a famine turns into a change of diet.

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lemuel pitkin 06.17.08 at 4:27 pm

And a nation which spends too much of its resources keeping useless citizens alive may have trouble supporting a strong enough military to keep their freedom to make that choice.

Let it be noted for the record that J Thomas is a loon.

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abb1 06.17.08 at 4:55 pm

Yeah, J, they probably won’t be eating much of fois gras and prime rib, not flying across the continent every year, and not driving for fun, but you sound way too pessimistic.

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J Thomas 06.17.08 at 4:57 pm

Lemuel, are you sure you’re up on how to reason in times when the value of human life is negative?

Speaking for myself, I think we’d be a lot better off if we can arrange that the value of human life stay positive. But how can we do that without cheap alternate energy?

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J Thomas 06.17.08 at 5:05 pm

Brett, if you can afford a culture that raises significant meat, then you have a cushion that poorer places can’t afford.

There’s a certain cachet to that. A man who eats a lot of meat when there are people starving in the third world can say a little prayer before each meal. “Dear Lord, ten people starved this year so I could eat this meat for a year. Thank you, Lord. You’re treating me very well.”

But if the place that can afford to raise a lot of grain-fed cattle is having a balance-of-payments problem, it might make sense to raise less cattle and export the grain. Then in bad years you don’t have as much to export.

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Nabakov 06.17.08 at 5:10 pm

“…are you sure you’re up on how to reason in times when the value of human life is negative?”

You’ve been practicing for such circumstances haven’t you? You sly dog JT.

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Bruce Baugh 06.17.08 at 5:23 pm

There are, of course, no circumstances so dire as to make J Thomas more useful as a source of protein and other nutrients for either the governing elite or the starving masses than as a font of internet punditry.

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Brett Bellmore 06.17.08 at 5:42 pm

J, as a general rule people starve in the third world because they’re stuck with really nasty governments, which either view famines as a way of killing off political opponents, or are so wildly incompetent they destroy the agricultural sector. See Zimbabwe for an example of the latter. I don’t think eating more lentils and less prime rib is going to save any lives in Zimbabwe.

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Brett Bellmore 06.17.08 at 5:46 pm

Though, ironically, it might save some lives here. ;)

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J Thomas 06.17.08 at 6:41 pm

J, … you sound way too pessimistic.

Abb1, I sincerely hope you’re right.

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SG 06.17.08 at 7:17 pm

j thomas, slocum’s original comment struck me as contrasting international agreements with wonder weapons, not aiming for both. In the libertarian world you can’t have both, because one is “fascism” and one is “innovation”. My concern is this either/or, and the underlying fantasy of technological salvation.

For example, the British govt today declared it is joining a 108m pound fund to prevent deforestation in the Congo. Why? Because preventing deforestation is a much, much more cost-effective way of mitigating greenhouse contributions than spending money on fancy-pants technology. As in, more than 10 times cheaper, with of course flow on benefits for the countries where the reforestation happens – particularly for the tourism industry and farming, the latter being seen as quite important of late. But libertarians don’t like that model because it makes poor people wealthier and healthier, and it avoids the big-ticket projects they love. Already BB is banging on about nuclear power, which is a massive and corrupt oligopoly, heavily funded by the state and in cahoots with all sorts of nastiness. Libertarians love those big willy projects and the magic of their Heinleinesque dreams, why would they get down in the dirt with a Rwandan farmer? Especially BB, he doesn’t believe anything good can come from a black African.

This prize thing is also naive for another reason – it ignores (imoh) how govts work. The govt isn’t going to offer a 100 million pound prize today and not put the money aside. That money will have to be sequestered, or no-one’s going to chase it. So you have 100 million pounds of research money doing nothing for as many years as it takes to claim, while a whole bunch of public research institutes (you know, the people who invented antibiotics and identified global warming and stuff, those evil people who just invented the whole thing so they could keep sucking on the govts teat) have to scrabble for funding to actually solve the actual problems which occur in the actual world.

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J Thomas 06.17.08 at 8:05 pm

SG, it sounds like some libertarians are demonising some worthwhile ideas, and then you are demonising them.

I say we need international agreements and we need new technology, both. And neither is assured, we can try for both and maybe not get either one.

Prizes area few arrows in the quiver. You don’t want a hundred-million-pound prize for various reasons. There aren’t a lot of private organizations that can afford to compete at that level, and fewer still that can afford to lose. Better to ask for something smaller and offer 1 million, or possibly 10 million. Make it a relatively small project that is likely feasible but not certainly so. If it isn’t risky, better to assign a contract with a penalty clause.

I was briefly involved with one of the competitors for the DARPA self-steering vehicle prize. An experienced guy led a bunch of college engineering students who could use it on their resume. He had a lawnmower they could use if they couldn’t get access to a better vehicle. He looked one of the girl engineers in the eye. “If you go to the Jaguar dealership and ask them for a transmission and tell them what you want to use it for, they’ll probably give it to you.” They were heading to spend possibly $20,000 and a lot of unpaid time, and they’d have a small chance to win a million dollars. A lot of fun for them, for DARPA, and for the media. No giant downside if they didn’t win.

Of course you can’t depend on that kind of thing to get super results. It’s just one more method to try.

I don’t have a lot of hope for protecting forests. You put money into saving a forest and it looks like it’s working, and then in a few years there’s some social breakdown and a drought and the forest burns down anyway. But it’s worth a try anyway. It might work sometimes, and each surviving forest saves some diversity. If 10% of the forests you try to save remain, you’ve done something worthwhile even if you haven’t helped CO2 much.

About nuclear power, BB is right that we probably need it. You are right that our nuclear power industry has not developed the sort of culture that can actually carry it out. Maybe the USA could task its navy with providing power for major government installations, and then take it from there? The navy used to have the kind of culture that could do this sort of thing, and it might re-create that culture. Of course it could be argued that the Navy is a fumbling government bureaucracy that would spend too much on wasteful inefficient safety procedures of various kinds….

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Slocum 06.17.08 at 8:26 pm

For example, the British govt today declared it is joining a 108m pound fund to prevent deforestation in the Congo. Why? Because preventing deforestation is a much, much more cost-effective way of mitigating greenhouse contributions than spending money on fancy-pants technology. As in, more than 10 times cheaper, with of course flow on benefits for the countries where the reforestation happens – particularly for the tourism industry and farming…

Ah, yes, eco-tourism. Flying rich people halfway around the globe for zip-line rides in the rainforest canopy as a means of mitigating greenhouse gases? That’s the kind of genius idea a libertarian would never think of.

And what’s to say that once these preserves are paid for, that illegal logging won’t occur anyway? After all, the Congo isn’t exactly know for its history of clean, stable governance. I mean, it’s probably worth a try, but the idea that this kind of effort is a serious alternative to advances in carbon-free energy is absurd.

But libertarians don’t like that model because it makes poor people wealthier and healthier…

Why is it so many lefties are as bad as fundies in their self-righteous certainty that everybody else is depraved and evil?

The govt isn’t going to offer a 100 million pound prize today and not put the money aside. That money will have to be sequestered, or no-one’s going to chase it.

Nonsense — governments routinely promise large amounts of money without setting it aside first. This is how pensions work. And they also routinely spend large sums for unplanned for events (wars, floods, earthquakes, economic stimulus packages).

So you have 100 million pounds of research money doing nothing for as many years as it takes to claim, while a whole bunch of public research institutes…have to scrabble for funding

False premise -> false conclusion.

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SG 06.17.08 at 9:32 pm

slocum, I was thinking of the Great Barrier Reef when I thought of tourism. Internal tourism, if you want to get all hair-shirty. Do you want to pretend that the people who would fly to that rainforest canopy aren’t going to fly somewhere for their holiday this year anyway? But it was a good way to miss the point, wasn’t it? By your little rant about eco-tourism you get to avoid talking about all the other benefits of reforestation. And we don’t have to pretend it would only happen in the Congo either – there are large swathes of Australia waiting to be reforested, the Japanese are missing a noticeable portion of their Kyoto commitments due to inability to manage the forests they have, etc. Of course, we could also try investing in improved governance in some of the countries we are offering reforestation assistance – which is probably also cheaper than pie in the sky carbon sequestration dreams.

Governments may routinely promise large amounts of money for things like pensions, but these aren’t projects people are investing in chasing. Governments don’t routinely sequester away prizes, if they are planning on giving out prizes they tend to do it regularly (as part of their budget) or they set up foundations.

Even if the government does do this, though, it’s still money not being put into a real research network; and even if we decide to make our entire response to global warming a huge increase in research funding – even with a sensible mix of policies and methods to fund it – we’re still casting all our hopes on a technological solution that a) we don’t know could happen and b) will still rely on political will when it does. And since you poo-poo any form of political action to solve the problem now there is no reason to think any of your +5 magic barrels of sequestration are ever going to be used even if they are discovered – unless we put in place some political action now. Which is what people have been trying to do for 15 years – without any help, and a lot of hindrance, from libertarians.

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ScentOfViolets 06.18.08 at 1:07 am

And from yet another angle: Let us take them at their word that libertarians are against carbon taxes because it opens the door to ‘government interference of unprecedented size and scope’. If this is the case, I would assume that all these libertarians are voting for Democratic candidates this fall (in the U.S.) Why? Because we already know for a fact that Republicans are totally down with government surveillance of private parties. This isn’t speculation or conjecture, unlike the concerns given above. This is a fact. And yet, libertarians are silent, strangely so, on something that they say they hold dear – freedom from government interference.

You want to convince me you’re a ‘principled’ libertarian who is opposed to carbon taxes or other schemes for ideological reasons? You better be telling me you’re voting the Democratic ticket this fall, you better be making plenty of loud noises to this effect, and you better be working actively to spread the gospel.

Otherwise . . . can we say stooges for business again? I don’t know why the concept that they consistently fail to oppose certain powerful interests leads one to be skeptical of their motives is so hard to grasp.

That being said, nuclear power really is the only viable way to go if one wants to get away from fossil fuels.

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reason 06.18.08 at 7:20 am

BB and Slocum still haven’t answered the problem with the assumption about research (which works best as a collaborative effort) being sponsored by winner take all competition.

There is competition and there is co-operation, humans can do both. It just so happens that research works best with a co-operative paradigm. And I know what I’m talking about, my father was a scientist (who had collaborators all over the world, including behind the iron curtain).

I wonder how many libertarian scientists there are?

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reason 06.18.08 at 7:26 am

You see think about the process of science. You identify a problem. You make a hypothesis. You work out how to test the hypothesis. You compare the result to the predictions. If the result doesn’t confirm you hypothesis you look for a new one. When the results look reliable you look for independent reviewers to check that your methodology is correct. What part of this process is improved by increased motivation via money? What part of the process is compatible with a secretive ultra competitive ethos?

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SG 06.18.08 at 7:31 am

nor have they answered the question posed repeatedly here – why should we listen to libertarian solutions when libertarians have been so dishonest about this for the past 15 years? I have yet to encounter a libertarian who has a constructive solution to the problem of the Libertarian Trust Gap, or who can point to their own contrarian willingness to buck the trend of their fellows. Even those like slocum (and I don’t really know if slocum is an avowed libertarian) who seem to accept the reality of the problem are still touting solutions that have been proposed and discussed by a bunch of lying shills. So though slocum’s defense of them may be heartfelt and passionate, the ideas themselves are still suspicious, in my view.

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J Thomas 06.18.08 at 12:39 pm

I’m not particularly a libertarian. I try to understand libertarian thinking, particularly as so many people are taking it up that the political process will need to cater to them to some etent.

I agree that science needs to get done cooperatively, and the special recognition that first-discoverers get doesn’t heip that.

Given a well-defined problem to solve, engineers might do competition well, sometimes. After a round of competition it might make sense to look at the competing designs for ways to combine them into something better still. But engineering designs sometimes have a lot of coadaptation so they can’t just be bolted together like a frankenstein monster.

So — nuclear fusion. We barely know how to do that. A competition to figure out how to do it better would probably not be a good thing. It takes big money to do it at this point, too big for small competitors.

If the time comes that we have working nuclear fusion and it can be scaled down to the point that 1 MW fusion plants are cheap and practical, we might have a competition for a workable 100KW powerplant. There’s a place for that kind of thing. 10KW would be even better.

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J Thomas 06.18.08 at 1:07 pm

Let us take them at their word that libertarians are against carbon taxes because it opens the door to ‘government interference of unprecedented size and scope’. If this is the case, I would assume that all these libertarians are voting for Democratic candidates this fall (in the U.S.)

This is attacking the messenger. We need to look at the message independent of whether the person who delivers it is a lying stooge.

It might be useful to build a FAQ dealing with the messages that keep getting spread by lying stooges even after they are definitively shot down each time. When the stooges keep repeating the same lies even though they’ve been shown that it’s lies, and it takes a lot more effort to shoot them down again than it does to paste them up yet again. Just refer them to the FAQ and if they do some up with something new, something the FAQ doesn’t handle, then maybe answer them fresh.

I would like to see libertarians vote democrat, but I can’t say it makes sense for them to do that this time. They see both parties making government stronger. So their best bet in the short run is to get democrats and republicans in a deadlock where they can’t agree on how to make government stronger, and that gives a little more time to convince the public to vote libertarian instead of democrat or GOP. Of course the result is better when libertarians vote Libertarian.

You want to convince me you’re a ‘principled’ libertarian who is opposed to carbon taxes or other schemes for ideological reasons? You better be telling me you’re voting the Democratic ticket this fall, you better be making plenty of loud noises to this effect, and you better be working actively to spread the gospel.

Democrats ought to be working toward IRV, Instant Runoff Voting. Let libertarians vote Libertarian first, and then whoever they least dislike second.

This not only fits Democratic principles, also I note that Democrats have lost presidential elections due to third parties more than Republicans have in recent years. It’s to our advantage to get those votes. If Nader voters had been able to vote Democratic second, Gore would have won in 2000 and Bush would be unlikely to get the nomination in 2004. We could have done *something* about the environment 8 years early.

Can I count on your support for IRV? If you prefer Condourcet or some other system, that’s fine. We can make a list of the options and let people vote as many ways as they like and then use one or more of the voting systems that win according to most of the voting systems. People who say we have to settle on one single best proposed voting system before we can argue for any change are people who are unclear on the concept.

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Dave 06.18.08 at 2:15 pm

Interesting discussion, from nuclear fusion to voting-systems. In the case of the former, as I understand it [not much], there may well be literally insuperable problems of basic engineering – not least, producing a containment vessel that does not melt at the temperatures produced by even a moderate fusion reaction. The tokamak form is a step towards making this theoretically feasible, but the practical challenges are still vast – and may in themselves not be soluble without advances in basic science not yet forthcoming.

As for ‘better’ voting systems, they all presume that the populace and those that aspire to govern them are not dolts, blackguards, liars and thieves. Do we have any actual evidence that this is not the case?

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Brett Bellmore 06.18.08 at 3:20 pm

“So—nuclear fusion. We barely know how to do that.”

Nah, we know quite well how to do it, with very high energy gains. The problem is that nature doesn’t WANT to do it on a small scale. The smallest practical “fuel pellet” is in the tens of kilotons yield.

The problem with fusion isn’t that we don’t know how to do it, it’s that we don’t desperately need it. We’ve got too many other options at this point, to bite the bullet. But we could start designing plants tomorrow if we had no other options.

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J Thomas 06.18.08 at 3:34 pm

Dave, I have been skeptical about nuclear fusion. It seems like practical fusion reactors have been about 40 years away for the last 55 years. However, there have been some exciting new breakthroughs recently which lead me to think that we might have practical fusion reactors in only 40 years.

For voting, if everybody involved is crooked, how does a better voting system hurt? Say it makes it harder for a minority of crooked people to take over, is that a bad thing when your minority can be expected to win less than half the time?

If people can vote for third party candidates without throwing away their vote, it removes one of the bits of bitterness in the current system. Vote for your first choice first and your second choice second and there’s a better chance your vote will count for something. Why should you have to settle for just voting for the second-worst candidate?

This is an issue where Libertarians and Democrats should agree. Currently you can’t vote Libertarian without throwing away your vote. And too many Democrats have thrown away their votes on Nader etc. And they should also agree on principle.

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ScentOfViolets 06.18.08 at 3:38 pm

Sorry, thomas, but working towards adopting alternative voting schemes falls somewhat below resurrecting the ERA in terms of _my_ priorities. That sort of tilting at windmills has just about as much chance of passing in the next fifty years as adopting proportional representation . . . and would be even less effective in changing outcomes for the better, imho.

My point is the complete lack of consistency of libertarians in following through on their avowed high-and-mighty ‘prinicples’. The gits want me to accept on their word alone their complex epicycles within epicycles reasoning that somehow always ‘coincidentally’ align with the Powers that Be interests over the simpler hypothesis that they’re shills. And if I question this, rather than try to be persuasive, I am labelled a ‘Statist’, a parasite that is so insecure that he prefers the Nanny State over the liberty that strapping he-men such as themselves naturally crave . . . and not only do I want these free thinkers to labor beside me for the good of that state, I want to compell them to pay for it as well.

I would like to see libertarians vote democrat, but I can’t say it makes sense for them to do that this time. They see both parties making government stronger.

Uh-huh. If there are any ‘sincere’ libertarians out there, about the only way they could convince me of this fact would be to admit that a lot of their buds do exactly that, and really are shills for Interests that do not my best interests at heart. They’d also have to be a little bit more persuasive than calling me a ‘Statist’, either overtly or obliquely, every five minutes or so.

And no, the two parties are not remotely alike at this time. Even if both want to make the government stronger – a proposition I do not concede in the slightest – one wants to make ‘government stronger’ by pursuing things like cap & trade. The other wants to have the power to spy on citizens and political opponents, wants to be able to torture with impunity, and wants to be able to invade other countries at will. Anyone who wants to equate the two types of government interference is either a robot or just plain dishonest.

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John Quiggin 06.18.08 at 9:44 pm

I’ve posted quite a few times in favor of IRV/STV.

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J Thomas 06.19.08 at 12:44 am

Scent, every libertarian I’ve met in person has seemed completely authentic except for one who was deeply involved in the election process.

The trouble I see here is that they don’t have much of a political platform. Once you assume that everything government does is negative and you want to stop it, there isn’t a lot to campaign *for*. So you can do pro-gun and pro-abortion, pro-prostitution and a few more such things, and after that it’s all anti.

The social freedoms that people argue tend to be symbolid things like abortion. The economic freedoms tend to be things that big business can exploit better than anybody else. It’s easy to come out as a shill for big business without intending to.

I’m not clear where a libertarian should come out about privacy. Should a libertarian object to government eavesdropping, or should he object to government restricting private eavesdropping? Do we have an innate right to privacy or do we have an innate right to know what our neighbors are up to?

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ScentOfViolets 06.19.08 at 1:49 am

Thomas, I’m sorry, but I haven’t seen an in-the-flesh libertarian for a long time. It’s all been net interaction. And yes, they are either robots or dishonest to the extent that they slavishly follow the party line, lock-step with Big Business, and never, ever, offer sustained, prolonged criticism of various issues that are detrimental to the Powers that Be. Smoking dope? Yes. Prostitution? Yes.

But to claim they’re honestly ambivalent about the government spying on it’s citizens? You’ve got to be kidding me. In 1976, at least locally, this was a _huge_ concern. Similarly, to claim that libertarians can be honestly ambivalent about torture (while patting themselves on the back for being ‘classic liberals’, yet) is just plain ridiculous, ditto for invading foreign countries under false pretexts.

Those cannot be in any way, shape or form said to be anything libertarians can be said to be ‘ambivalent’ about. Otoh, they could very easily have a political platform; it would just be opposed to the Republican one. That’s why they don’t have one.

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John Quiggin 06.19.08 at 2:38 am

I’ll just point out Jim Henley as an outstanding example of a libertarian who has taken the right line on all the issues you mention. But he’s definitely in the minority – shmibertarians like Glenn Reynolds are far more common.

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TokyoTom 06.19.08 at 7:56 am

John, thanks for this piece. As a libertarian who believes that climate change IS a problem, I share some of your puzzlement and have done on this issue. Allow me to offer a few thoughts on various factors at work in the general libertarian resistance to taking government action on climate change:

– As Chris Horner noted in your linked piece, many libertarians see “global warming [as] the bottomless well of excuses for the relentless growth of Big Government.” Even those who agree that is AGW is a serious problem are worried, for good reason, that government approaches to climate change will be a train wreck – in other words, that the government “cure” will be worse than the problem.

– Libertarians have in general drifted quite far from environmentalists. Even though they still share a mistrust of big government, environmentalists generally believe that MORE government is the answer, while ignoring all of the problems associated with inefficient bureaucratic management (witness the crashing of many managed fisheries in the US), the manipulation of such managment to benefit bureaucratic interests, special interests and insiders (wildfire fighting budgets, fossil fuel and hard rock mining, etc.) and the resultant and inescapable politicization of all disputes due to the absence of private markets. Libertarians see that socialized property rights regimes can be just as “tragedy of the commons” ruinous as cases where community or private solutions have not yet developed, and have concluded that, without privatization, government involvement inevitably expands. Thus, libertarians often see environmentalists as simply another group fighting to expand government, and are hostile as a result.

– Libertarians are as subject to reflexive, partisan position-taking as any one else. Because they are reflexively opposed to government action, they find it easier to operate from a position of skepticism in trying to bat down AGW scientific and economic arguments (and to slam the motives of those arguing that AGW must be addressed by government) than to open-mindedly review the evidence. This is a shame but human), because it blunts the libertarian message in explaining what libertarians understand very well – that environmental problems arise when property rights over resources are not clearly defined or enforceable, and also when governments (mis)manage resources.

Regards,

Tom

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Dave 06.19.08 at 11:12 am

‘Libertarianism’ is most certainly hooey – it is the glorification of economic coercion over the possibility of political liberation, argued for by suggesting exactly the opposite. The supposition that, without political constraints, the majority will in some way be able to prevent a minority acquiring almost absolute power over their lives through the deification of ‘private property’ is magic-pony thinking of the highest order.

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SG 06.19.08 at 5:36 pm

oh look, tokyotom, another libertarian who wants to talk about libertarian approaches to AGW as if they are serious, without a word of comment on the shilling and lying that his political bedfellows have been doing for 20 years. What a surprise!

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J Thomas 06.19.08 at 6:01 pm

ScentofViolets, thank you. It occurs to me that I haven’t met as many libertarians IRL as I used to. (I moved to a different part of the country, that might account for it. But maybe there aren’t as many.) And my online experience fits yours, most of the libertarians I see online follow a straight big-business approach.

Could this be astroturfing? If libertarians have been declining they could be replaced by fakes. Or the media could ignore real libertarians and pay attention to fake ones. For example, libertarians who support the Libertarian Party could be considered irrelevant because of that.

When I google news “libertarian party” I get about 3500 hits, compared to 141,000 for “democratic party”, 50,000 for “GOP” and 80,000 for “republican party” so that’s probably about right.

The issue is more prominent bloggers and commentators etc who speak as libertarians but who actually represent big business.

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TokyoTom 06.20.08 at 7:49 am

#141: sg, I understand where you’re coming from, but – I wasn’t trying to defend libertarians (particularly the shillers and liars), but simply to help John understand them.

I’ve been doing my best to upbraid them myself over the past few years; if you’re interested in a libertarian criticism of libertarians, you click to some of my blog posts (which the libertarian Mises group hosts despite my criticism), or try Googling “tokyotom and Reisman”.

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reason 06.20.08 at 8:05 am

Tokyotom
Your post in intelligent. Perhaps your last sentence could be used as a starting point for dialog. In some ways I see Libertarians and social democrats as natural allies rather than enemies (see David Brin on this).

This is a shame but human), because it blunts the libertarian message in explaining what libertarians understand very well – that environmental problems arise when property rights over resources are not clearly defined or enforceable, and also when governments (mis)manage resources.

The key point of disagreement here seems to be the understanding that property rights are only given and protected by states (and should have a cost to prevent hoarding) and that governments are not all the same (i.e. government is improvable). Surely you are not suggesting that the atmosphere and oceans should be in their entirety privately owned? And if so who should get those rights and who has the right to grant them.

I know many Libertarians don’t take a pragmatic approach to these issues but treat it as a question of “natural” rights. But if we look at the real natural world, the accumulation of territory comes at a (-n energy) cost that imposes a natural upper limit.

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reason 06.20.08 at 8:09 am

Tokyotom…
I think by there way on other subjects that Social Democrats and Libertarians are indeed further apart. And the poster who suggested that Libertarians have problems with the word “we” is on the right track. Externalities (positive and negative) are a huge part of the world we live in. Without the “we”, it is hard to influence them.

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reason 06.20.08 at 8:12 am

Speaking of Libertarians (and David Brin) this link via David Brins blogspot is absolutely Brilliant:

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reason 06.20.08 at 8:13 am

Oops no preview box?

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reason 06.20.08 at 8:13 am

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J Thomas 06.20.08 at 1:14 pm

When people are powerful, whatever social system they choose will impose facts on the world.

Anticommunist societies will tend to repress communists etc. They will have laws that make it hard to run communes etc as legal entities.

Communist societies similarly will tend to repress private businesses, as if a large company was a nascent government.

Other things equal, libertarian societies will presumably repress aspects of the world that are hard to own. How would libertarians handle ownership of the vast passenger pigeon flocks? They eat a lot of crops; they take from farmers. Then they fly away. It seems to me that the simples solution would be to get rid of the passenger pigeons and keep animals that are easier to own.

A lot of the problems people can point out about libertarian approaches are like that. If we tried a strict libertarian approach the problems would just go away like passenger pigeons.

The question is whether some of those problems would make us go away instead.

It’s that way with whatever system we impose on the world, not just libertarians.

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