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Rot at the core: When will Tom Woods and other "Free Market intellectuals" have second thoughts about the state grant of limited liability to shareholders?

March 4th, 2009 3 comments

Tom Woods, in his recent “Another “Free Market” Intellectual Has Second Thoughts” post at the Mises Economics Blog, notes with great disappointment that Richard Posner is about to publish a book that will apparently abandon the free market and call for greater government intervention.

While I share Mr. Wood’s disappointment that Posner and others are not more vigorously defending free markets, I suggested in comments on Mr. Wood’s post that perhaps free market intellectuals are not yet really pulling their own weight in examining and describing the flaws in the market system that contributed to the current financial crisis, or in explaining the types of reforms that would actually be appropriate.  In particular, it seems to me that the role played by the state grant of limited liability to corporate shareholders in facilitating flawed and irresponsible risk-taking by executives and traders, as well as in perversely fuelling a vicious cycle of rent-seeking and further counterproductive regulation, should be much more seriously examined. 

In short, I believe that, as argued by James Glassman and William Nolan in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, unless and until owners and executives have “more skin in the game”, we will continue to ride a tiger of selfish risk-shifting, moral hazard, and ever more disruptive government regulation.

I copy below my comments on Tom Wood’s post:

Tom, it’s hard to judge an unpublished book, but I suspect you’re
right to do so. Has Posner given any more solid clues as to where he’s
headed?

However, as it’s clear that things went wrong, I can’t help but
wonder when can we expect to hear more from you and others on what
government factors (besides the Fed, Freddie and Fannie) “fatally
deformed” the financial markets, and laying out a “new, genuinely
free-market paradigm for the economy”. Isn’t there a good book or two
in there from Austrians?

It seems to me that that James Glassman and William Nolan have a key
insight into the type of reforms needed in a WSJ piece that refers to
von Hayek. They argue that “an irresponsible attitude toward risk led
to terrible mistakes in judgment” and conclude that “bankers need more
skin in the game”
. How to move in that direction?  Glassman and Nolan
point to the success of the Brown Brothers Harriman partnership, which
lacks the limited liability feature of modern corporations, and specifically recommend that governments recognize (by less burdensome laws and regulations) that entities like partnerships where owners face unlimited personal liability are more responible risk managers.

As I have argued in a series of posts, starting with my review of
Huebert and Block‘s criticisms of Long
, the state grant of limited
liability to shareholders (in particular the grant vis-a-vis those
injured by corporate acts and involuntary creditors, which is a pure
grant from the state and cannot be contracted for) has led to a number
of perverse results, which can be fairly clearly seen in the financial
crisis:

TT

Thank you, Prof. Block, for feeding our confirmation biases

February 26th, 2008 10 comments

Walter Block of Loyola University has graced the main LvMI blog with a rare post, this time a clipping – without commentary – from a piece entitled “Forget global warming: Welcome to the new Ice Age“, by Canadian conservative commentator Lorne Gunter concerning the relatively high snowfalls this winter in various parts of the North Hemisphere:   http://blog.mises.org/archives/007828.asp.

What’s the point, except to show that Prof. Block is happy to find something that feeds his own reluctance (and that on the LvMI blog generally) to talk about climate science or policy?  Where’s the beef, Prof. Block?

I posted the following to his thread; as it’s pending there I thought I’d put it up here (with a few typo corrections)

[snark level: high]

Dear Prof. Block:

Thank you for continuing in the hoary LvMI blog tradition, followed by Dr. Reisman, Sean Corrigan and many others here, of doing one’s level best, by way of self-example, to illustrate how strongly we are in the grip of reflexive cognitive patterns such as confirmation bias.

This confirmation bias helps us at LvMI to report, with self-reassuring glee, any iota of evidence that the planet might be cooling, while dodging evidence to the contrary, and to mock those who say that the “climate” is complex and not the same as the weather.

We just love confirmation bias, because it allows us to dismiss all those who have concerns about how our long-term and unmoderated experiment with the Earth’s climate and eco-systems are going as evil and/or crackpots – AND thus spares us from doing any heavy lifting on a number of distasteful tasks:

– actually trying to understand what climate scientists are saying about the climate system, our influences on it and present or future system responses;

– considering the likely consequences if we continue to treat the atmosphere and oceans as unmanaged open-access commons (Mises himself noted: “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 [to others]”);

– engaging in a good faith discussion with those who have differing views (and their own confirmation biases, no doubt); and

– exploring Austrian and libertarian principles and explicating their possible application to the problem that others declaim (i.e., the general efficacy of property rights, problems of information and transaction costs, rent-seeking, bureaucratic mal-incentives, the lack of rule of law relating to shared global/regional commons and in poorer nations, and with coordinating action for transborder commons under a Westphalian global order, and the legacy of 150+ years of – as you have put it – the “failure of the government to uphold free enterprise with a legal system protective of private property rights“).

It is precisely this cognitive bias that Friedrich Hayek noted in his 1960 essay, “Why I am Not a Conservative”:  http://www.fahayek.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=46

Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it—or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. . . . By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.”

Hayek noted these additional traits that distinguish market liberals from conservatives, which also are commonly manifested here:

• Habitual resistance to change (hence “conservative”);
• Use of state authority to protect established privileges against the forces of economic change; and
• Claim to superior wisdom based on self-arrogated superior quality in place of rational argument.

The upshot?  That most of us here at LvMI are engaged in the task of convincing ourselves that the climate is not changing or that those who have concerns about it are illogical man-haters, and that we refuse to engage these others by (i) understanding first that for resources where property rights are undefined or uneforceable, public debates rather than private transactions are the chief means of expressing one’s preferences, and (ii) actively defending or advancing freedom – through attempting to persuade others.

There are other freedom-loving thinkers who have made modest starts in a productive engagement with others, such as:

–  Sheldon Richman, in his essay  “The Goal Is Freedom: Global Warming and the Layman”, in the December 8, 2006 edition of The Freeman:   http://www.fee.org/in_brief/default.asp?id=966);

–  Gene Callahan, 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; and

–  Edwin Dolan, in his Fall 2006 Cato Journal essay, “Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Position”http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2008/02/14/edwin-dolan-applying-the-lockean-framework-to-climate-change.aspx.

But we here at LvMI don’t want to be troubled to be productive, engage others or advance the cause of freedom, so we don’t post, cite to or discuss authors like that.  Being thoughtful or engaging is too much work!  We prefer to cherish our existing beliefs and to nourish our hatred of “enviros”, while ignoring everyone else, as I’ve noted here:

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2008/02/18/cool-rationalists-or-conservatives-and-neocons-on-the-environment.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/12/17/holiday-joy-quot-watermelons-quot-roasting-on-an-open-pyre.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/12/15/quot-heroic-quot-expert-voices-proven-wrong-on-agw-make-another-slick-cry-for-relevance-at-bali.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2007/12/14/who-knows-climate-science-the-mises-blog.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2008/02/24/george-reisman-or-how-i-learned-to-hate-enviros-and-love-tantrums.aspx

I am relieved that you seem to want to be one of us, and are not challenging us to get engaged, like Callahan, Richman or Dolan.

Sincerely,

Tom

PS:  One of the conditions of membership in the “Reisman/Corrigan Club”, as we sometimes call it, is that we forswear reading any of the IPCC reports and the reports of all major academies of science.  Can you confirm that you have you have not yet tainted yourself with such “information” and undertake not to?  Also, you must avoid posts by apostates such as this who post other “science” tripe:  http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2008/01/15/did-global-warming-stop-in-1998-jim-hansen-says-no.aspx.

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

February 19th, 2008 9 comments

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

Edwin Dolan: applying the Lockean framework to climate change

February 13th, 2008 2 comments

I would like to bring readers’ attention to Edwin G. Dolan’s “Science, Public Policy and Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Position“, from the Fall 2006 issue of The Cato Journal: www.cato.org/pubs/journal/cj26n3/cj26n3-3.pdf.  Dolan examines libertarian, “market liberal” reactions to climate change and walks through Lockean provisions that he believes require further consideration and elaboration by libertarians in the context of climate change.

FWIW, Dolan was the editor of the Austrian classic, The Foundations of Modern Austrian Economics (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1976)(online here: http://www.econlib.org/LIBRARY/NPDBooks/Dolan/dlnFMAContents.html), and author of the classic pamphlet TANSTAAFL: An Economic Strategy for the Environmental Crisis (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1971), which outlined Dolan’s chief perspective:

The fundamental principle on which this strategy is built may be expressed in a simple slogan—There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, the “TANSTAAFL principle,” for short. The TANSTAAFL principle is closely related to the fundamental theorem of ecological economics, that everything depends on everything else. Everything worthwhile has a cost. Whenever you think you are getting something for nothing, look again—someone, somewhere, somehow is paying for it. Behind every free lunch there is a hidden cost to be accounted for.

The task of ecological economics is to figure out how to restructure the economic system so that these hidden costs will be brought out into the open, with the ultimate aim that no one who benefits from the use of the environment will be able to escape without paying in full. The rest of this book is devoted to working out specific applications of this general strategy in order to deal with specific problems.

In the interest of assisting readers, I take the liberty of excerpting liberally from Dolan’s Cato article below.

First, Dolan suggests that many libertarian climate skeptics are acting quite as if they are “conservatives” of the type condemned by Friedrich Hayek.  Dolan cites Hayek’s 1960 essay, “Why I am Not a Conservative” (1960), in which 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.

Second, Dolan examines whether any of the above “conservative” traits are at work in libertarian positions on climate change.

… We need to address several questions. One issue is what the status is of the privileges and interests of those who are threatened by the possibility of climate change and of those who are threatened by proposed actions to mitigate it. Which of these has the greater claim to the sympathy of market liberals, when viewed in terms of the standards they apply in other areas of public policy? Another issue is what the values are that lie behind the positions taken by various parties to the debate. The issue of values may determine when market liberals can make principled alliances with one of the other corners of the triangle and when they want to make only tactical alliances. Still another issue is what manner of argument should be employed. For example, what is the proper attitude toward the purely scientific element in the global warming controversy? It will be worth taking a closer look at this last issue before proceeding further.

Hayek expresses himself so well on the role of science that it is worth quoting him at length:

Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it—or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. . . . By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts [Hayek 1960: 404](emphasis added).

This passage raises obvious questions for the global warming debate. What lies behind the skepticism of market liberals regarding the propositions that the world is getting warmer at a rate that is unusually rapid in climate history, if not altogether unprecedented, and that this apparent trend is likely the joint product of natural cycles and human activity, rather than of the former acting alone? Are liberals correctly rejecting an inadequately grounded scientific fad? Or are they refusing to acknowledge facts for fear that doing so would upset their cherished beliefs?  …

Fortunately, the supposed dilemma is a false one. Liberals have long acclaimed the market as a way of adapting to change, and climate change should be no exception. … Also, market liberals should know well that effective environmental policy does not have to take the form of heavy-handed commandand-control measures. … The same kind of market-oriented policies should be possible in the case of climate change.

In short, if one takes into account both the market’s potential for adapting to change and market-based policy alternatives, there is no reason for market liberals to be anything but open-minded toward ongoing developments in climate science, whether those developments, as they unfold, reveal indications or counter-indications of global warming.

There could, instead, be another explanation for some market liberals’ apparent close-mindedness toward the global warming hypothesis. It could be that, when taking a position on issues of climatology, they are speaking not from perceived threats to their beliefs, but out of loyalty to conservative interests with whom they have struck some tactical alliance. For example, policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, no matter how carefully market-guided in their design, are likely to undermine the interests of politically powerful producers of carbon-based energy. Equally, they are likely to have a disproportionate impact on the United States relative to other, less carbon intensive, economies. It is understandable that a conservative member of Congress could be pledged to uphold the interests of energy industry workers or shareholders from his or her home constituency. It is also understandable that a U.S. negotiator at an international conference could work to increase the benefits for the United States of a proposed treaty while shifting the costs to other countries. What is harder to understand is why market liberals would see fit to support such positions, unless for the narrowest of tactical reasons. …

(emphasis added) 

Third, Dolan spends considerable time discussing how the Lockean framework of rights and duties applies to climate change, which he frames as follows:

In the case of global warming, the relevant unenclosed commons include the world air-shed, which, in one of its several competing uses, serves as a sink for greenhouse gasses, and the oceans, which serve as a sink for heat generated by the greenhouse effect and a catchment basin for melting ice. (We are still stipulating scientific certainty of these effects.) Whatever adverse impact the Midwestern power plant has on the Bangladeshi farmer are transmitted through the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on these common-property resources. What does a Lockean approach tell us about rights to make use of the global atmospheric and oceanic commons, and about how those rights might be established?

Dolan walks carefully through Locke’s three rights and three corresponding duties, which he summarizes as follows:

Rights:
• to property in one’s own person
• to property in the fruits of one’s own labor
• to property in land and natural resources taken from nature when mixed with one’s own labor

Duties:
• to abstain from harming others
• to abstain from taking property of others
• to leave enough and as good for others when taking from the common

His discussion here is quite useful.

Finally, Dolan summarizes his own analysis of “the proper market-liberal position on global warming,” that is, one “constructed on a sound Lockean respect for the persons and property of others”:

First, market liberals should keep arguments based on comparisons of costs and benefits in proper perspective. The fact that an action produces net benefits, even very large net benefits, does not shield the actor from liability if it also does harm. The relative magnitude of the costs and benefits, or their relative probabilities, is, in this regard, irrelevant. The duty not to harm people in their persons or property is not to be bypassed on the basis of any facile cost-benefit calculus. This is an essential part of what distinguishes the classical liberal tradition from other political theories that would invoke the power of the state to override individual rights in favor of some greater societal utility. This being said, cost-benefit calculations may in some other respects be relevant to the formulation of a market-liberal position on global warming. They may help choose between different mechanisms for implementing climate change policy. They may be relevant to the decision of whether to abstain from possibly harmful actions, or to risk possible harm while accepting a contingent duty of restitution. And they may be relevant to whether harm is better avoided by mitigation of climate change, or instead compensated through investments that help victims of climate change to adapt.

Second, the market-liberal position should be distinct from a conservative position that defends unjustly acquired privileges. Liberalism in America, in particular, grew up in a Lockean state of nature where it was really true, or at least seemed true, that homesteaders, loggers, grazers, and industrialists could take what they needed while leaving “enough and as good for others.” What the environmentalist side of the global warming debate is telling us is that we no longer live in such a world. It is not just that we can take no more from the commons; we have quite possibly already taken so much as to have breached our duty not to engross. To be sure, the science of just how much can safely be taken is not yet perfect. We may be way past the limit already or still a bit short of it. But to cry foul because those who have taken the most are now asked to bear a substantial share of the costs is not liberalism.

Third, market liberals should keep a clear head when it comes to the relationship between science and public policy. It is fine to be legitimately cautious when policies are urged on the basis of weakly established scientific fads. One should be vigilant against attempts to smuggle questionable economic or political assumptions into scientific analysis, as is sometimes done in the global warming debate, and also to possible biases in research produced by grant-seeking and public choice considerations. But at the same time, as Hayek warned, any reluctance to accept new scientific theories must itself be rational and must be kept separate from the regret that the new theories may upset cherished beliefs (let alone that they threaten the financial interests of useful allies). This is a fine line to walk, and I fear that the market-liberal camp may at times have overstepped it.

Fourth, market liberals should think about the implications of their principles not just for public policy, but for their personal conduct. It is fashionable in some conservative circles to ridicule environmentalism as a new religion that calls for a personal morality of abstinence (see, for example, Schlesinger 2005). Perhaps market liberals would not want to describe their beliefs as a religion, but all of the great thinkers to whom they pay homage make it clear that the duty not to harm others in their persons or property is not just an abstract guideline for public policy, but a specific imperative of personal morality.  To cede the moral high ground on environmental issues to the left is not just tactically foolish, it is unprincipled. To put it simply, a market liberal should not be ashamed to drive a Prius rather than a Humvee.

These broad outlines of a market-liberal position on global warming leave a great deal of room for debate and discussion. They leave open the whole area of how to design a policy to deal with global warming. Are the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol so serious that it is worse than doing nothing at all? Perhaps so—even its staunchest supporters acknowledge that it has many limitations. Should we act now, based on current scientific knowledge? Or should we wait, while firmly insisting on the principle of contingent liability, being prepared to make restitution should subsequent harm turn out to be greater than optimists think it will be? In formulating global warming policy, should each country act unilaterally, based on a duty to avoid harm regardless of what others do, or is it best to try to negotiate international agreements? If measures are to be taken, what role should be given to market-based mechanisms like tradable permits? How can such market-like devices, if used, be introduced in a way that respects existing property rights? How do such devices relate to Lockean principles regarding enclosure and management of residual unenclosed commons?

By addressing these and other questions, market liberals can make a uniquely valuable contribution to the global warming debate. If, however, they allow themselves to be perceived as ostriches whose only policy in the face of uncertainty is to hope for the best while ignoring the worst, and base their position on climate policy on arguments that they would disdain in any other context, they will end up making no useful contribution at all.

(emphasis added)

I hope others will take the time to look through Dolan’s framework, which I believe is useful as a call for constructive engagement by libertarians, even as it does not examine particular policy suggestions* or claim to be complete.  (For example, as Jeff Tucker has observed on another thread, Dolan’s article does not discuss the competency of the state to address climate change, if it is a problem.)

(h/t Donny with an A: http://mises.org/Community/members/Donny-with-an-A.aspx.  I note also that 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.)

*  I note that Dolan has previously discussed pollution trading permits in the context of acid rain; his remarks were examined by Robert McGee and Walter Block in their “Pollution Trading Permits as a Form of Market Socialism and the Search for a Real Market Solution to Environmental Pollution,” Fordham Environmental Law Journal, vol. 16 (1994): 58  http://law.fordham.edu/publications/articles/100flspub4011.pdf.

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