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Escape from Reason: are Austrians conservatives, or neocons, on the environment?

In their more considerate writings, Austrians have counseled a cool, rational approach to environmental issues.  But recent posts lead me to wonder whether a number of LvMI blog authors and commenters prefer hot-headed emotional outbursts and partisan, ad hominem attacks over Austrian principles, rational thinking and productive, good faith discourse.

1.  As a starting point, let me note that Roy Cordato has elegantly explored and summarized the views of various Austrian thinkers as they apply to environmental issues, including his own:

“The starting point for all Austrian welfare economics is the goal seeking individual and the ability of actors to formulate and execute plans within the context of their goals. Furthermore, in all three approaches, social welfare or efficiency problems arise because of interpersonal conflict. For Rothbard such conflicts arise because of interferences with the voluntary use of one’s own property. This prevents a demonstration of true preferences, moving one to a lower level of utility than would otherwise be achieved. For Kirzner interpersonal conflict that cannot be resolved by entrepreneurship and the market process gives rise to a lack of plan coordination and therefore social inefficiency. And for Cordato, conflict, that similarly cannot be resolved by the market process, gives rise to catallactic inefficiency by preventing useful information from being captured by prices. A theory of environmental economics and pollution that evolves from problems associated with human conflict then would be a natural implication of each of these welfare standards.

“In addition, these standards would argue that irresolvable inefficiencies, i.e., inefficiencies that cannot find a solution in the entrepreneurial workings of the market process, arise because of institutional defects associated with the lack of clearly defined or well enforced property rights. In a setting where rights are clearly defined and strictly enforced, plans may conflict but the resolution to that conflict is embedded in the exchange process. In other words, conflict may arise at the planning stages but is resolved before the actors proceed with implementation of those plans.”

“In the absence of clearly defined and strictly enforced property rights this process breaks down and the conflict becomes irresolvable through the market process. Under all three Austrian approaches to welfare economics, therefore, the solution to pollution problems, defined as a conflict over the use of resources, is to be found in either clearly defining or more diligently enforcing property rights. Not surprisingly this is the approach that has been taken by nearly all Austrian economists who have looked at the issue dating back to Menger.”

I have previously explored more extensively elsewhere Cordato’s summary of Austrian views on environmental matters.  http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/10/12/cordato-humans-cannot-harm-the-environment.aspx.

Cordato’s view of course meshes with that of Ludwig von Mises, who troubled himself to write directly about externalities, as I have noted earlier: http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/10/12/draft.aspx

Carried through consistently, the right of property would entitle the proprietor to claim all the advantages which the good’s employment may generate on the one hand and would burden him with all the disadvantages resulting from its employment on the other hand. Then the proprietor alone would be fully responsible for the outcome. In dealing with his property he would take into account all the expected results of his action, those considered favorable as well as those considered unfavorable. But if some of the consequences of his action are outside of the sphere of the benefits he is entitled to reap and of the drawbacks that are put to his debit, he will not bother in his planning about all the effects of his action. He will disregard those benefits which do not increase his own satisfaction and those costs which do not burden him. His conduct will deviate from the line which it would have followed if the laws were better adjusted to the economic objectives of private ownership. He will embark upon certain projects only because the laws release him from responsibility for some of the costs incurred. He will abstain from other projects merely because the laws prevent him from harvesting all the advantages derivable.”

The laws concerning liability and indemnification for damages caused were and still are in some respects deficient. By and large the principle is accepted that everybody is liable to damages which his actions have inflicted upon other people. But there were loopholes left which the legislators were slow to fill.”

“Whether the proprietor’s relief from responsibility for some of the disadvantages resulting from his conduct of affairs is the outcome of a deliberate policy on the part of governments and legislators or whether it is an unintentional effect of the traditional working of laws, it is at any rate a datum which the actors must take into account. They are faced with the problem of external costs. Then some people choose certain modes of want-satisfaction merely on account of the fact that a part of the costs incurred are debited not to them but to other people.”

The extreme instance is provided by the case of no-man’s property referred to above. If land is not owned by anybody, although legal formalism may call it public property, it is utilized without any regard to the disadvantages resulting.

It is true that where a considerable part of the costs incurred are external costs from the point of view of the acting individuals or firms, the economic calculation established by them is manifestly defective and their results deceptive. But this is not the outcome of alleged deficiencies inherent in the system of private ownership of the means of production. It is on the contrary a consequence of loopholes left in this system. It could be removed by a reform of the laws concerning liability for damages inflicted and by rescinding the institutional barriers preventing the full operation of private ownership.”

2.  But in recent posts on the main blog on environmental issues, rather than a forthright discussion of whether there are persistent or troubling externalities that (i) prevent a demonstration of true preferences, or (ii) result in interpersonal conflict that cannot be resolved by entrepreneurship and the market process and thus gives rise to catallactic inefficiency (a lack of plan coordination and social inefficiency), we are treated to a petulant turning from good faith engagement, in favor of emotional venting, manifested as either a persistent but unsupported mockery of the views of others or as an outright, Manicheaen dismissal of the preferences of others.

a.  Exhibit 1 might be Sean Corrigan, who in a string of posts (most recently “Cold Wave Attributed to Global Warming”- http://blog.mises.org/archives/007775.asp) manifests a rather conservative streak much like that decried by Friedrich Hayek, in his 1960 essay, “Why I am Not a Conservative”.  Mr. Corrigan’s oeuvre is here:  http://blog.mises.org/archives/author/Corrigan; http://blog.mises.org/archives/author/Corrigan2.

Hayek identified the following traits that distinguish conservatism from market liberalism:

• Habitual resistance to change, hence the term “conservative.”
• Lack of understanding of spontaneous order as a guiding principle of economic life.
• Use of state authority to protect established privileges against the forces of economic change.
• Claim to superior wisdom based on self-arrogated superior quality in place of rational argument.
• A propensity to reject scientific knowledge because of dislike of the consequences that seem to follow from it.

Edwin Dolan, in his Fall 2006 Cato Journal essay, “Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Position”, specifically cautions that market liberals appear to be hamstringing their own analytic strengths by falling into a reflexive and conservative mindframes that benefit established economic interests.  http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2008/02/14/edwin-dolan-applying-the-lockean-framework-to-climate-change.aspx.

Query:  why is it that LvMI blog authors such as Mr. Corrigan seem to consistently care more about defending an existing legal framework that clearly protect the privileges of established interests (especially the privilege to continue to freely and without restraint to exploit all commons), rather than to examine whether there is any cost-shifting going on, or any valuable resources in which there are no clear or effective owners?  Is this not a profoundly “conservative” approach, instead of one that is concerned with libertarian or Lockean principles?

Sheldon Richman of the Foundation for Economic Education also recommends Dolan’s essay and calls for less wishful thinking and greater engagement by libertarians in the December 8, 2006 edition of The Freeman:  The Goal Is Freedom: Global Warming and the Layman, http://www.fee.org/in_brief/default.asp?id=966.)

Gene Callahan makes a similar warning in his essay “How a Free Society Could Solve Global Warming”, in the October 2007 issue of The Freeman: http://www.fee.org/publications/the-freeman/article.asp?aid=8150.

Mr. Corrigan’s blog posts on environmental matters regularly elicit a fair degree of enthusiasm among fans of the Manicheaen strawman style, as I noted on an earlier blog post:  http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/12/17/holiday-joy-quot-watermelons-quot-roasting-on-an-open-pyre.aspx.

 

b.  We now turn reluctantly to Exhibit 2, who is none other than Dr. George Reisman, whom I understand ironically to be the translator of the von Mises passage on externalities that I quoted above.  In his latest post, trumpeted in an all-caps “ENVIRONMENTALISM IS RECYCLED COMMUNISM AND NAZISM” headline, Dr. Reisman equates Environmentalism with  Communism and Nazism, in that they share “the essential common core of hatred and destruction” and “the fundamental principle of hatred for human life and happiness.”  http://blog.mises.org/archives/007793.asp

While some environmentalists may be socialists in disguise, how is this blanket and sweeping condemnation of all who care about the environment helpful, much less consistent with Austrian understanding of the externalities that give rise to environmental concerns or the Austrian principles of how to begin to address what others have expressly recognized as “tough cases”?

When I noted in my comments to Dr. Reisman’s post that environmentalists used to be called “conservationists” and were once largely wealthy conservatives, I was quickly advised by one clever fellow, more concerned with correcting me than in disagreeing with Dr. Reisman, that “these aren’t the same environmentalists that we’re talking about here”.  Allow me to paraphrase my response to him:

Yes, when challenged on these strawmen, LvMI blog commenters will acknowledge that they really only want to talk about the EVIL enviros. The rather poorly defined “Enviros” who are the target of these attacks are simply a convenient strawman, one that allows all the good freedom-loving folks at LvMI to ignore everyone else who cares about their own property, their backyard or shared commons:  wealthy people and consumers, regular folks stymied by the 150+ years that Walter Block has identified that US courts have NOT protected private property, Ruppert Murdoch and Richard Branson, the firms behind the new “Carbon Principles”, the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) http://www.us-cap.org/, the CERES group of institutional investors, the firms that are members of the PEW climate change coalition, the firms that are entering to voluntary carbon trades, the religious groups and the scientists who are suffciently concerned to publish or speak publicly, etc.

It seems rather obvious to me, at least, that the persistent use of such a sweeping strawman is simply unhelpful for analyzing whether there any so-called problems, understanding the concerns or preferences of those who declare their concern or in considering how such concerns could be best addressed within an Austrian framework.  So what explains the prevalence of this rather blind enviro-bashing?  That, I’m afraid, is rather simple, albeit understandable – it is a surrender to the ancient tribal imperative of (and emotional rewards from) engaging in partisan conflict.

As I quoted on Dr. Reisman’s comment thread, Glenn Greenwald also examines psychological motives in a recent post in which he takes neocon Mark Steyn to task for his continued war-mongering:

“There is nothing more psychologically invigorating than the belief that you are staring down the Greatest and Most Evil Enemy Ever in History, courageously waging glorious war for all that is Good and Just in the world. Nothing produces more pulsating feelings of excitement and nobility like convincing yourself that you are a Warrior defending Western Civilization from the greatest threat it has ever faced, following in — even surpassing — the mighty footsteps of the Greatest Generation and the Warrior-Crusaders who came before them.”

http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2008/02/17/steyn/index.html.  Clearly this type of analysis has its limits in any given case, but it is such an identifable phenomenon that I couldn’t help wondering on Dr. Reisman’s comment thread:

Mark Steyn : Islamofascism : : George Reisman : Environmentalism?

Those who think they’ve identified demons ought to have sense to question whether they are falling into a cognitive trap – of the kind that throws reason and caution out the door, while giving free rein to confirmation bias, prejudice and fears of enemies.  This is quite common and indeed predictable, as many have noted.  We aren’t computers, after all, but merely human.

But this is the very reason why many on the blog (as on sharp display in Mr. Corrigan’s last thread) like to thrill to the emotional satisfactions of seeing those with whom they disagree (viz., yours truly) as close to the Devil incarnate, simply because I persist in being an outlier and thus a sore thumb here.  To them I say, okay, but have some sympathy for the Devil, as my diabolic aspects may simply be your own creation – and I continue to call you to constructively engage with those you least sympathize with.

Or have I fundamentally misunderstood Austrianism?

Let me close by repeating my statement on Sean Corrigan’s most recent thread:  it is has been my sad experience over the past two years here that there is very little appetite for exploring Cordato’s “tough cases”. Rather, on environmental matters, the modus operandi of many LvMI authors and commenters appears to be: Abandon all logic, all ye who enter here, and let’s band together and blame everything on those evil misanthropes (whomever they may be) – ignoring all others but those hated strawmen!  In honor of two leading lights who regularly exhibit this behavior, I have begun to call it the “Reisman Rule” or the “Corrigan Creed”: http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/12/17/holiday-joy-quot-watermelons-quot-roasting-on-an-open-pyre.aspx


“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Richard Feynman

  1. TokyoTom
    February 22nd, 2008 at 04:25 | #1

    Geoffrey, thanks for the comment. Thanks for pointing out that Sean Corrigan has two threads, but they were already both up – maybe I’ll add an “and” to make it clearer.

    As for Corrigan’s points, I hardly believe that they are in good faith. India is large, and like in the US, climate change is expected to increase the likelihood both of regional droughts and extreme weather events like heavy downfalls and flooding. (In fact, it seems we are already seeing this in the US.) It is neither meaningless nor fearmongering to note this – though of course politicians and others can be expected to fearmonger.

  2. February 21st, 2008 at 20:17 | #2

    I’m glad to find you have a blog, Tokyo Tom–I’ve enjoyed seeing you repeatedly mop the floor with Reisman in comment threads at Mises Blog over the last couple of years.  In all that time, I don’t think I’ve once seen him directly address any of your counter-arguments.  The only time I’m aware of that he even acknowledged their existence was in a purely facetious post with absolutely no substantive argument in it.

    That seems to be a common pattern with him, though.  He devoted a string of posts to denouncing me, and never even acknowledged my counter-arguments (with the exception of an oblique “some argue that…” reference that probably indicated his having read one of my counter-posts).

  3. February 20th, 2008 at 19:18 | #3

    There appear to be two listings for posts by Sean Corrigan. You only link to one. Here’s the other:

    http://blog.mises.org/archives/author/Corrigan2

    This, for example, from his latest blogpost is a good point:

    “The article ends with this: “It is estimated by the year 2050, another seven million persons are expected to take refuge in Mumbai after global warming leads to either a drought or deluge in their village or city elsewhere in the country,” D’Silva said.

    I especially like this last “prediction” – sometime in the next four decades, somewhere in India, it will either rain too much or too little! A clarion example of rational scientific falsifiability!”

    http://blog.mises.org/archives/007775.asp

    Predictions like that from climate scientists are meaningless as prediction and amount to mere fearmongering.

  4. PCLP
    February 20th, 2008 at 13:41 | #4

    You've saved me from having to make any more comments on the latest Reisman article. Thanks very much.

  5. TokyoTom
    February 20th, 2008 at 05:09 | #5

    Geoffrey, I appreciate your comments.  Not sure what Corrigan has right, though.

  6. TokyoTom
    February 20th, 2008 at 03:35 | #6

    Donny, thanks for your comments.  Actually, Dr. Reisman has vigourously posted on environmental topics on LvMI over the past two years.  I encourage you to look for these prior posts and at some of the discussion.  The two pieces you link to were posted and commented on here:  blog.mises.org/…/006691.asp

    blog.mises.org/…/006700.asp.

    The authors’ archive for Dr. Reisman now looks like it only goes to last April, but he has many earlier pieces – which apparently you need to run a search on the blog to find.

    Also, I saw your comments on the deus ex machina “act of nature” device that Dr. Reisman uses to absolve each of us from the results of our collective activities.  I agree with you, and I and others disagreed with the good Dr. when he first floated the idea, here: ttp://blog.mises.org/archives/004842.asp.< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

  7. February 19th, 2008 at 20:41 | #7

    I would also add, as I’ve noted before, that Reisman is self-professedly not a strict Austrian. He is as much a classical economist as he is an Austrian, if not more so. And on some issues, like environmentalism, he can channel Rand in her worst moments.

    We should also be careful not to conflate Austrian economics with libertarianism just because most people here happen to adhere to both.

  8. February 19th, 2008 at 20:04 | #8

    With regard to Corrigan, I think he has made some legitimate points. Not every post an Austro-libertarian makes need be one that ignores the extremists and the mistaken arguments among the environmentalists. That said, this shouldn’t be the sole focus of every Austro-libertarian. A division of labor in dealing with environmental issues is acceptable.

    As you know, I agree that Reisman’s posts are particularly unconstructive. You might like my comments on his more recent post: “<a href=”

    February 19th, 2008 at 08:11 | #9

    If you’re going to talk about Reisman, you should probably start from the beginning.  He actually represents one of the more fascinating viewpoints in the climate change debate, because he holds positions that you wouldn’t think anyone would hold.  You might check out:

    mises.org/…/qjae5_2_1.pdf

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/…/reisman34.html

    You might also be interested in my reaction to the first piece:

    libertarian-left.blogspot.com/…/emergent-problems.html

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