Archive for the ‘Julian Simon’ Category

Who are the misanthropes – "Malthusians" or those who hate them? Rob Bradley and others resist good faith engagement despite obvious institutional failures/absence of property rights

March 2nd, 2009 4 comments

In a series of posts at the self-declared “free market” blog of the fossil-fuel energy industry funded Institute for Energy Research, energy expert  Rob Bradley (former Ken Lay speechwriter and Enron policy wonk) explores his dark forebodings that the “Malthusian wing” of the Obama administration and the environmentalist Left are actually enjoying and welcoming the present economic predicament.  Says Bradley, putting words in the mouth of his Malthusian stalking strawman:

“The economic recession/depression is good, not bad. It lowers our carbon footprint in countless ways. It saves resources. It throttles back industrial society to sustainable levels that were exceeded long ago. Let the downturn continue to get us out of the growth mentality. Let rising expectations fall! Less is more!”

[From: The Malthusian Wing of the Party in Power: When Will They Speak Up?; see also Beware of the New “Limits to Growth” (and looking for ReaganVision to CarterVision).]  Bradley will apparently be transported by paroxyms of self-satisfied delight/misery if a lefty, particularly one inside the Administration, ventures to say something like this.

Bradley may very well prove to be right that someone on the left may assert that an end to the “growth is good” mentality may be a silver lining in our recession.  But in his focus on prognosticating what plots the “Malthusians” may be hatching, Bradley simply refuses to actually engage the “Malthusians” on either their premises or their proposed solutions – namely, that there are real and serious problems that our societies must address and that more government is needed.  Indeed, Bradley doesn’t even venture to explain why he considers the Malthusians to be wrong, apparently assuming that this is self-evident. 

But as I have noted any number of times, there is indeed a wide range of very real and serious issues to be discussed, both as to problems AND to proposed “solutions”, such as I have noted in these two posts:

Too Many or Too Few People? Does the market provide an answer?

Food shortages: Ron Bailey takes up the cry, are Malthus and “Green fascism” on the march?

As a result, Bradley does not appear to be interested in the slightest in engaging productively with the Obama administration or the Left, and so in effect uses the term “Malthusian” as a type of shibboleth (or even an article of faith?) among supposedly “right-minded” people, and as an ad hom against the left.  In this, Bradley echoes others such as George Will who, in a recent editorial about climate change, warned of “dark green doomsayers”.

While I do not agree with the Left that more government is always the right solution, those on the right cannot win these arguments simply by name-calling or by trotting out – as George Will did in his editorial – the 1980 bet that Paul Ehrlich and others lost to Julian Simon over the future prices of minerals and commodities.   But the Ehrich-Simon bet was well-known; why not use it?   Because those who do so have ignored the reason why the Simon triumphed and Ehrlich lost, which was that because people own mineral resources, markets functioned to both to change demand and to provide incentives for future supply (and Ehrlich was no economist).  But none of this logic holds true for unowned or “public”, open-access resources – like the acidifying oceans, tropical forests and the global atmosphere and the climate it modulates – for which there simply are no effective property rights or functioning markets.  Instead, we continue to see see destructive exploitation (and kleptocracy in the countries where powerful elites elevate their interests over those of citizens). 

So, in the context of the issues that the “Malthusians” are now raising – in this case, the atmosphere – the Simon-Ehrlich bet stands for a propositions whose conditions clearly at present are not fulfilled, and which will not be fulfilled without hard work.  Until that hard work of establishing property rights or other effective governance institutionsis completed, people with legitimate preferences as to such resources and who are concerned about the effects of modern market demands on them have little ways of expressing those preferences other than through pressure on policy makers and attempts at moral suasion.

As an aside, let me note that nowhere does Bradley acknowledge that the Obama administration and Left inherited our economic shambles from freedom- and market-loving Greenspan/Bush/Bernanke/Paulson and the Right.  In this, Bradley resembles NRO commentator Henry Payne, who recently was so quick to lay all of the woes of the US automakers at the foot of the Obama administration and Washington Dems.  It’s sad that what may otherwise be legitimate commentary is so skewed by such transparent partisan bias and inconsistency.  Such reflexive partisanship also ignores not merely the responsibility of the Right, but also ignores what appear to be fairly significantly weaknesses in the structure of Western capitalism, which have been commented on by Michael Lewis, Joe Nocera and James Glassman and William Nolan at the WSJ; viz., weaknesses stemming from the weak governance and moral hazard (and strong rent-seeking) that is encouraged by the state grant of limited liaibility to corporate shareholders.

In other words, there are lots of real issues to discuss, from difficult resource issues that require collective action to address to public choice problems inherent in the use of government.

Those who profess a love of reason should turn to it, and not hobble themselves by a reliance on facile assumption and shallow ad homs.  Unless, of course, the aim is not to resolve underlying issues of appropriate institutions, but either to “win” the argument by wresting control of policy (and of related rents) from perceived competitors or, if winning is not likely, to at least satisfy emotional needs by railing at foes while surrendering the field (and the selection of policies) to them.

Let me close with a note of one small irony:  while Bradley is expecting that the Left will embrace the recession as a way to deliberately slow growth, Bradley’s own associate at IER, Austrian economist Bob Murphy has just put up on his personal blog a “wonderful clip” by comedian Loius C.K., who comments:

“Those were simpler times, I think; I just feel that we may be going back to that, by the way.  In a way, good; because when I read things like, “the foundations of capitalism are shattering,” I’m like, maybe we need that; maybe we need some time where we are walking around with a donkey with pots clanging on the sides.  … Yeah, because everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.”

Seems like even Malthusian-haters will only be happy if we’re all more miserable!