Bastiat anticipates climate science denialism

by John Quiggin on February 23, 2017

I’m working on the environmental policy chapter of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons, which is a reply to Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, which in turn is a repackaging of Bastiat’s What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen. Hazlitt was aware of the difficulties posed for laissez-faire by pollution, and chose to avoid the issue. But, on Googling Bastiat + pollution, I came across a remarkable package in which Bastiat anticipates the climate change debate and takes the denialist side in advancee.

Suppose that a professor of chemistry were to say: “The world is threatened by a great catastrophe; God has not taken proper precautions. I have analyzed the air that comes from human lungs, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not fit to breathe; so that, by calculating the volume of the atmosphere, I can predict the day when it will be entirely polluted, and when mankind will die of consumption, unless it adopts an artificial mode of respiration of my invention.”

Another professor steps forward and says: “No, mankind will not perish thus. It is true that the air that has already served to sustain animal life is vitiated for that purpose; but it is fit for plant life, and what plants exhale is favorable to human respiration. An incomplete study has induced some to think that God made a mistake; a more exact inquiry shows a harmonious design in His handiwork. Men can continue to breathe as Nature willed it.”

What should we say if the first professor overwhelmed the second with abuse, saying: “You are a chemist with a cold, hard, dried-up heart; you preach the horrible doctrine of laissez faire; you do not love mankind, since you demonstrate the uselessness of my respiratory apparatus.”

This is the sum and substance of our quarrel with the socialists. Both they and we desire harmony. They seek it in the innumerable schemes that they want the law to impose on men; we find it in the nature of men and things.

Bastiat gets the problem (carbon dioxide + methane) right, though not the primary sources (burning fossil fuels and burping cows) or the way they damage us.

What’s striking, though, is his a priori faith that everything will be OK because of Divine Providence, whicn ensures that human activity tends towards harmony. If that fails, and a laissez-faire economy does in fact produce unsustainable pollution, his whole case collapses.

Of course, it’s possible to salvage a version of laissez-faire in the way suggested by Coase, using newly created property rights. But this requires the admission that property rights are a socially constructed set of rules, enforced by coercion, rather than a category inherent in the natural relationship between people and things. It’s precisely this admission that propertarians have been unwilling/unable to make, and why they still rely on magical thinking like that displayed by Bastiat.

{ 22 comments }

1

RichardM 02.23.17 at 8:35 am

The influence of Christian Apocalyptic doctrines on climate change skepticism is profound. Especially on ex-Christian atheists, who are left with the beliefs but no language to examine them.

If there is anything like a Christian God, if there is any truth in the Biblical description of Him, he would never let Necessity usurp His rightful Domain of ending the world when and how He saw fit.

So poring over the details of causality, climate and CO2 is irrelevant; what’s the theology? Either God exists, and will end the world over something like gay marriage. Or he doesn’t, so neither does the Apocalypse, so neither does climate change.

Yes, the above argument does contain a small logical flaw.

I guess Bastiat’s 19C French strain of Christianity was sufficiently less apocalyptic than the US Evangekical Protestant mainstream, so he didn’t make the connection explicit.

2

Anarcho 02.23.17 at 9:47 am

“This is the sum and substance of our quarrel with the socialists. Both they and we desire harmony. They seek it in the innumerable schemes that they want the law to impose on men; we find it in the nature of men and things. “

Of course Bastiat means by “in the nature of men and things” is his own deductions from his own assumptions, bolstered by the surroundings which inform his own assumptions and prejudices… pretty much like every other defender of classical liberalism. And, of course, “the law” also imposed on men various things — not least, capitalist property rights.

His comments on socialism are somewhat question begging, then. He is right in some sense — most of the socialists of the time did see socialism in terms of a vision generated beforehand by a few great men and then implemented onto the masses.

Proudhon also denounced this aspect of the (state) socialists of the time — for him, like other libertarian socialists, the “organisation of labour” would be developed by the workers themselves. Hence he looked for tendencies within capitalism which pointed beyond it — so capitalism was no more the final social system than feudalism was, it (wage-labour_ was going to be replaced by associationism, by co-operative labour.

Bastiat was definitely into harmony and systematically failed to see that his “natural” system was just as much the product of state action, state laws imposing a specific vision of society, as the (state) socialists he attacked. He singularly failed to understand that capitalism was, to use Proudhon’s book title, a “System of Economic Contradictions” and that the State exists to defend the property-owners against those the system exploits and oppresses.

3

ZM 02.23.17 at 10:16 am

John Quiggin,

I think you’re being a bit unfair with this, because in the argument presented by Bastiat the first scientist does sound fairly ludicrous saying the world will be polluted by humans breathing and everyone should buy his machine. He sounds like a snake oil salesman.

The second scientist does cite God, but his scientific argument, such as it is, does have a reasonable point in saying the carbon emitted by humans is then used by plants.

In the argument as it’s presented, the first scientist is clearly wrongheaded and trying to sell a useless machine, and the second scientist is right according to actual real science regarding the carbon and oxygen cycle.

I think you would be on stronger ground utilising Bastiat’s argument but building upon it.

Eg. You could make a third scientist enter and tell the first and second scientists that since Industrialisation human use of fossil fuels, increased animal agriculture etc, have disrupted the carbon cycle and are causing climate change, and what is needed is not a respiratory apparatus, but renewable energy technology, changes to agriculture Etc.

Then discuss the economic issues that follow on from that.

4

ZM 02.23.17 at 10:21 am

“So poring over the details of causality, climate and CO2 is irrelevant; what’s the theology? Either God exists, and will end the world over something like gay marriage. Or he doesn’t, so neither does the Apocalypse, so neither does climate change.”

The theology could be God will allow his creation Mankind, created in God’s own likeness, to end the world itself in a global act of free choice, with the issue being mankind’s excercise of dominion over the rest of God’s Creation?

This would be a slightly tricky God, leaving the Apocalypse up to humans.

5

ZM 02.23.17 at 10:42 am

(Following on, the other bit of the issue could be how mankind treats each other, causing uncontrollable climate change due to ongoing Cold War era economic divisions, after the actual Cold Ear ended over a quarter of a century ago, seems pretty senseless)

6

Lee A. Arnold 02.23.17 at 12:16 pm

Published in 1848!

It always seems to come down to “Harm & risk reduction” vs. “Protective social coercion”.

“Trust in Providence” combined “Trust in stability of n-dimensional complex system, as we all were born into,” with “Your individual redemption (perhaps in the afterlife), but only if you make the right efforts in the world”.

This in turn became confused with the psychological function of “salvation through faith” for dealing with “despair and consciousness of sin.”

Altogether quite the emoto-cranial boggle.

And all of it, in turn, became nicely adapted for personal faith: Faith even in the Deist’s watcher-god, [W]ho is removed from the mechanisms being discovered by the scientists.

Thus it is, that religion underwent Evolution. Now in an Equilibrium (between punctuations), since at least 1848.

7

Stephen 02.23.17 at 7:41 pm

ZM: I do like your mention of the Cold Ear that ended some time ago.
I bought a warm furry hat much longer ago than that.
(Yes, I do know the QWERTY keyboard.)

8

J-D 02.24.17 at 3:17 am

ZM

I think you’re being a bit unfair with this, because in the argument presented by Bastiat the first scientist does sound fairly ludicrous saying the world will be polluted by humans breathing and everyone should buy his machine. He sounds like a snake oil salesman.

The second scientist does cite God, but his scientific argument, such as it is, does have a reasonable point in saying the carbon emitted by humans is then used by plants.

You’re giving Bastiat too much credit. You give good reasons for thinking that the first scientist is wrong and the second scientist more likely to be right, but Bastiat doesn’t.

If the figurative analogy of Bastiat’s parable is reduced to its literal equivalent, the result is something like this.

The first paragraph points out that sometimes people present a view about what’s happening and what should be done about it.

The second paragraph points out that sometimes other people argue that the first set of people are wrong.

At this point in the argument, the question which suggests itself is this: if people disagree about what’s happening, how can we find out who’s right and who’s wrong?

Bastiat’s third paragraph asks us to consider the significance, in these scenarios, of accusations of bad faith and lack of proper motives. Note that he writes ‘What should we say if …?’ but doesn’t answer the question. Although he avoids stating it explicitly, the conclusion obviously being advocated for is that we should not trust the side of the debate that makes accusations of bad faith and lack of proper motives.

But this is nonsense. It’s common in debates for there to be a mixture of motives on both sides; that tells us nothing about which side is right on any substantive factual point. Likewise, the fact that allegations have been made from one side about the other side’s motives aren’t evidence about which side side is right on any substantive factual point (whether the allegations are true or false; most often they’ll be partly true and partly false).

Bastiat describes an example of the kind of behaviour which is sometimes referred to metaphorically as ‘playing the man and not the ball’; but accusing somebody of playing the man and not the ball is itself an example of playing the man and not the ball. If you are aware that somebody is playing the man and not the ball, you should be able to respond by continuing to play the ball and not the man.

Bastiat’s use of a parable instead of literal language disguises the duplicitous nature of his position. In the fourth paragraph, where he’s returned to more literal language, he suggests that the position of his side should be preferred to the position of the socialists, their opponents, on the grounds of the socialists’ bad faith and lack of proper motives (the socialists have ‘schemes’ they want to ‘impose’, but ‘we’ — that is, Bastiat and those who side with him — rely on the harmony of nature). So, if you put together Bastiat’s third paragraph and his fourth, he is arguing, in effect: ‘You can tell that we are right and they are wrong because they accuse us of bad faith and lack of proper motives, and also by their bad faith and lack of proper motives.’

9

ZM 02.24.17 at 4:09 am

Stephen,

If global warming continues at least you won’t need your ear warming apparatus ;-)

10

Jerry Vinokurov 02.24.17 at 5:30 am

I think even more interesting is the way that “everything tends to equilibrium because… um… reasons!” has evolved from the point where “reasons” stands in for “God” to the point where it stands in for “markets.” Frankly, my own tribe (the physicists) share some blame for this, but we’ve known about nonequlibrium statistical mechanics for quite some time now.

11

joebco 02.24.17 at 9:36 am

S: The Cold Ear ended some time ago due to Lobal Warming.

12

reason 02.24.17 at 10:08 am

I find this argument actually curious.

Because Bastiat is here admitting that all his other arguments are bullshit – he doesn’t know he is as ignorant as everyone else. If incompleteness, is a problem for the socialists, it is also a problem for him. So why is he bothering to argue at all?

13

reason 02.24.17 at 10:18 am

P.S. What he is really making is an argument for the importance of empiricism, but he just doesn’t realize it. He just metaphorically threw the “Austrians” with their predilections for a-priori argument out the window but they don’t realize it either.

14

Almar 02.24.17 at 11:40 am

The last paragraphof the blog suggests that creation of property rights would solve the externality problems. Although this is a common statement by US economists, I think it is completely misleading for many important pollutants.

I live near a main road with thousands of cars and vans driving along it each day, while it is also used by thousands of pedestrians. What feasible allocation of property rights could solve the pollution problems? By default the property rights currrently go to the drivers, but there is no way that each of the pedestrians could decide how much they are affected by each of the vehicles, nor that they could collectively get together and negotiate with all of the drivers.

The same applies to global warming. There are billions of current emittters of greenhouse gases and even more billions of those affected. (Given the length of time that current emissions will affect future climate, those affected by current emissions include many people who are not yet born. How are they to bargain with current emitters?)

Finally, and pedantically, John has probably read the Coase article but too many of those quoting the “Coase Theorem” that property rights are a panacea for most externality problems have clearly not read the article. I urge them to read it: it is brilliantly written, with lots of fascinating examples, and leaves one recognising the transactions costs that rule out assignment of property rights and bargaining as universal solutions to all externalities.

15

reason 02.24.17 at 1:21 pm

Almar http://crookedtimber.org/2017/02/23/bastiat-anticipates-climate-science-denialism/#comment-704544

That one is easy – the owner of the road is responsible for the pollution and the owner of the road can decide who drives on the road and under what conditions.

Oh, co-incidentally that is the government of course, and that is what they already do.

16

Kurt Schuler 02.24.17 at 1:50 pm

The last paragraph of the post seems to confuse “socially constructed” with “arbitrary.” You can construct out of bricks, or straw. The social construction of a society with properly rights in South Korea has produced infinitely better results than the social(ist) construction of one without them in North Korea, for instance.

17

John Holbo 02.24.17 at 2:19 pm

That’s an amazing passage.

18

Z 02.24.17 at 3:18 pm

@Jerry Vinokurov

I think even more interesting is the way that “everything tends to equilibrium because… um… reasons!” has evolved from the point where “reasons” stands in for “God” to the point where it stands in for “markets.”

I think that history of ideas shows that, more often than not and as illustrated in the case of Burke by Corey Robin a couple of months ago, “everything tends to equilibrium because… um… markets!” appears precisely when people start to loose their belief that “everything tends to equilibrium because… um… God!” is a valid position.

19

reason 02.24.17 at 3:23 pm

Kurt Schuler http://crookedtimber.org/2017/02/23/bastiat-anticipates-climate-science-denialism/#comment-704548
No it doesn’t make this confusion at all. Read it again.

20

Tramp 02.24.17 at 4:41 pm

@Kurt Schuler, 16

And you identify one point of difference and arbitrarily, because you present no argument, decide that property is the solution to what ails us.

But in any case, the idea of pointing out property rights as socially constructed and enforceable only via the state means that, like other rights, they are not inviolable; not can it’s defenders claim that the current historical moment of capitalist property relations and the society built around them are natural, timeless, and immune to criticism.

21

Z 02.24.17 at 11:05 pm

Completely totally OT but now that the US election has passed and that tone has predictably cooled down here, would it be thinkable to relax the automatic moderation? Conversations do tend to run slow when you are on the wrong time zone.

22

John Quiggin 02.26.17 at 6:09 am

I will at least try to keep the moderation up to date in my time zone.

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