Archive for the ‘Malthus’ 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!

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

April 24th, 2008 2 comments

You have been warned: green fascism could soon be on the march. 

So does libertarian Ron Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine, take up the alarm raised by Fred Pearce of New Scientist, who believes that enviros will point to the ongoing wave of food shortages to argue that more starvation in the developing world is on the way unless a renew focus is placed on family planning.  Says Pearce:

“And now food shortages are growing and we will get more. [Paul] Ehrlich, we are bound to be told, was right after all. You have been warned: green fascism could soon be on the march.”

Well, although neither Bailey nor Pearce introduces anything in the way of current evidence for fascism among greens (but rather seem to be jumping in order to claim an “I told you so” later), both might very well be right that enviros will claim that food shortages are the result of overpopulation –  but so what?  Does concern about food shortages, or burgeoning populations in other countries and the stresses they place on natural environments and societies, make “fascists” out of “greens”?

But more importantly, why are guys like Ron in such a hurry to brandish an emotional rhetoric that diverts our attention from understanding real issues, rather than shining a spotlight on them?  Granted, the emotional tug of bashing ideological enemies is strong, and Bailey (not without reason) has long been in the enviro-bashing camp (even as he has come around to accepting that climate change is a problem), but this is disappointing.  I mean, even Sean Corrigan was able to see past his detestation of enviros to keep his primary focus on government interference in agricultural markets as the primary factor in his recent post on food supply shortfalls.

I note that I have already addressed elsewhere, both in Corrigan’s thread and in another post – Too Many or Too Few People? Does the market provide an answer? – various aspects of the interactions between markets and human population; I post here for readers’ information the comments I made to Ron on the thread to his post:

TokyoTom | April 25, 2008, 6:12am

Ron, I’m surprised that you would go to the effort of spreading rather thin hype about “Green fascism” without bothering to explore from a libertarian perspective whether the Green fascists have grounds for concern, what the institutional underpinnings of environmental and “overpopulation” problems might be, or what our own connections to those problems are.

It’s rather simple, really: we see both cleaner environments and the demographic shift in relatively wealthy nations that protect property rights, as families and other economic actors are largely forced to bear their own costs, which provide incentives to keep both pollution and families under control.

Where populations are still growing rapidly – and environmental degradation continues apace – are societies that do not protect property rights, so that economic actors do not internalize all costs, and families to a significant degree face a free-for-all over resources that are not effectively owned or protected.

“Development” thus presents many aspects of a “tragedy of the commons”, a tragedy that we feed with our own consumer, commercial and industrial demand, which is sourced from assets that are not clearly owned, but are simply up for grabs – whether we are talking about the strip-mining of the oceans, the replacement of the Amazon and SE Asian tropical forests with soybeans and palm oil/biofuel plantations, or industrial and commercial enterprises that don’t bear the costs of their pollution (or of the power plants supplying their electricity).

The “Green fascists” see the destruction at the end of the chains of demand that we in the West pull and the destruction resulting from population growth that is unchecked by the pricing signals from effective ownership, and they are rightly concerned. That they fail to understand the institutional underpinnings is of course to be regretted, but it is a failure that can be remedied by a little education.

That you chose not to use your knowledge of the dynamics of “tragedy of the commons” to educate but instead to decry “Green fascists” is a similar failure, and one that I hope you will regret and try to remedy.

As it is, it seems as if you enjoy the emotional rewards of partisan struggle more than really exercising your noggin or making a contribution to directing attention to where solutions to where real problems might lie – in improved property tights protection and governance in the developing world.

Care to contribute, or just to raise an alarum about the evil greenies?



 Just where are the libertarians who actually like to exercise their reason?

Can a Free Society Solve Global Warming?

November 5th, 2007 No comments

Gene Callahan has an interesting post, entitled “How a Free Society Could Solve Global Warming”, in the October 2007 issue of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, at the website of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE):

I will revist this and post comments later.

Thanks to Fundamentalist, who brought this to our attention on the Malthus and Mein Kampf thread.

[Update:]  It seems to me that one particularly interesting takeaway from Callahan’s article is the following:

One way negative externalities can be addressed without turning to state coercion is public censure of individuals or groups widely perceived to be flouting core moral principles or trampling the common good, even if their actions are not technically illegal. Large, private companies and prominent, wealthy individuals are generally quite sensitive to public pressure campaigns.

To cite just one recent, significant example, Temple Grandin, a notable advocate for the humane treatment of livestock, asserts that McDonald’s is the world leader in improving slaughterhouse conditions. While many executives at the fast-food giant genuinely may be concerned with the welfare of cattle, pigs, and chickens, undoubtedly a strong element of self-interest is also at work here, as the company realizes that corporate image affects consumers’ buying decisions.

But that self-interest does not negate the laudable outcome of the pressure McDonald’s has applied to its suppliers to meet the stringent standards it has set for animal-handling facilities. Similarly, to the degree that the broad public regards manmade global warming as a serious problem, companies will strive to be seen as “good corporate citizens” that are addressing the matter. And this isn’t ivory-tower speculation on my part—I can see the “green friendly” ads already.

(emphasis added)

Categories: Callahan, climate, Malthus, state Tags:

Libertarian denial; clever but not wise

October 12th, 2007 13 comments

[Previously posted on a recent thread (Malthus and Mein Kampf come to Cork – thanks, Sean Corrigan!) in response to someone who is concerned about environmental problems but is unfamiliar with Austrian approaches.]

Man is clever but not wise (“homo sapiens” is a misnomer) and we remain very much a part of the ecosystems that we pretend to master even as we swamp them with the growing demands that our rapidly improving technology and burgeoning populations impose.

While our demands on the natural environment is much tempered in the developed economies by the feedback mechanisms of property rights, markets and pricing signals, those signals are flawed in our own economies as a result of government interference, and in any event are not working well with respect to many resources and products acquired from developing economies – due to the interwined problems of a lack of clear and enforceable property rights, government ownership and regulation/fiat, and kleptocracy and corruption for the benefit of elites.

For other shared resources/ecosystems – the atmosphere and oceans – the lack of property rights or other accepted management regime is leading to clear stresses, as we wipe out one fish stock after another and continue to unintentionally modify our global climate by various economic behavior for which actors have no liability to others.

And in the developing world, our improving technology and growing market demands are devasting tropical forests – which indigenous inhabitants are hapless to defend against theft by governments and elites – and leading to severe environmental problems in places where there are no effective ownership rights or liability rules.

As a result, despite a fair degree of property-rights-based managment in the developed economies, it does rather seem that mankind is eating itself out of house and home, and leaving less and less to our coinhabitants – other than those we`ve made expressly a part of our food chain.

These are very difficult problems that will not go away. My own view is that the reticence with which others here approach these issues is informed by the rather glaring truth – especially in the US – that the government is always susceptible to rent-seeking by parties looking for a handout or special treatment at the cost of others, hopelessly incompetent and always subject to corruption and self-aggrandizement by bureaucrats and power-broking politicians.

The concern about “socialism” is a code for the very worst excesses of government (particularly war and genocide) that we saw in the last century and are still evident today.

Libertarians have been preoccupied with trying to fight government and restore greater human dignity and freedom, and have tended (as the Western environmental crises have been largely resolved) to overlook – as largely out of view – problems of the type that you have been pointing out, while seeing those with environmental concerns as merely another set of obnoxious people trying to get what they want not through the marketplace but by pushing greater governmental involvement. Besides, they are in principle opposed to governments acting, and so find themselves at a loss to address problems that arise are a result of ineffective governance elsewhere.

So they tend to prefer to argue with you over ways in which YOU misunderstand markets (such as correctly explaining that peak oil is not a real problem as it will be handled by the markets as it involves owned resources) rather than how THEY are ignoring the significant cases where the markets are functioning very poorly due to a lack of clear and enforceable property rights.

… [MORE]

It used to be that nature itself kept us in check and our impact on the natural world relative limited. But modern, industrial man is no longer threatened by predators and our cooperative organizational abilities and evolving technology literally mean that we are eating most life on this planet out of house and home. I read recently that humans now consume something like 25% of the world`s primary production.

The question is how do we best regulate our impact? I think we have to acknowledge that man will always place a priority on satisying our personal needs, at the cost of both shared needs and concerns (more or less shared) about the broader environment that supports us and the rest of creation. But there are signs of hope in the west (as Lomborg correctly notes), even as one is easily dismayed by the destruction taking place in the oceans and in less developed countries. The hope is proved by the recovery of domestic environments when people move to protect property rights and regulate industrial activities that are ecologically/economically damaging.

The more difficult problem lies in those places where those who are concerned about the abusive use of resources are unable to express their preferences by directly acquiring and protecting resources or persuading others to do so, because of a want of sufficent law and order.

It seems that, in the face of the ongoing development of parts of the world that are still experiencing population growth, the best we can hope for is the preservation of scraps of the natural world, and that – after ocean fisheries and tropical forests are largely destroyed – that various ownership and management regimes will finally arise that will find economic benefit in restoring parts of the wild.

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

September 27th, 2007 2 comments

[My very first post on this LvMI-hosted blog. Also, I see this was my first “Avatar”-related piece.]

Dan McLaughlin asks the first of these interesting questions on the Mises blog,  The second question is mine, and I addressed it briefly in the blog responses to Dan.

I take the liberty of posting that response here (revised slightly and with a few further comments and emphasis):

Too many or too few? Good question, Dan. I agree with you that the population question is like any other aspect of the social order: best addressed by the market and by free societies.

There are just a few small problems – even within the developed world (and very clearly outside of it), there are many important resources that are unowned and thus not fully priced in the “market” economy.

Unowned resources include almost all of Nature.  Primary productivity (the amount of vegetation produced from photosynthesis) has changed little, so as we use technology and our organizational abilities to divert more and more of it to feed us, this is an inevitable cost to other species, either directly or in the form of altered environments that support less life (and less diversity of life).

In altering our environments to suit us, we are of course no different from other life forms that compete for resources to live and propagate, but with our technical and organizational abilities, mankind has clearly triumphed over the rest of nature (except perhaps evolving microbes, to whom we represent an increasingly large and relatively untapped food source). But at what cost?

Through the centuries we have wiped out many wild systems of food and other resources – because they were never owned, and because our improving technology enabled us to race each other to take the resources before others (or from others, in the case of many native peoples). Not only Jared Diamond`s “guns, germs and steel”, but also forms of social organization have played deciding roles in the competition between human societies for survival, growth and dominance.  In this regard, societies that recognize and protect property rights internally and utilize free markets have proven clearly superior in the competition with other societies to obtain and utilize available resources.

But our struggle has been not only to capture resources and to use them before others do, but also to manage and protect them effectively.  Evolving ownership systems have been a key means of limiting wasteful “tragedy of the commons” struggles (see Yandle; von Mises), but even where ownership systems have been implemented, we have generally replaced complex natural systems with simpler systems designed solely to feed us (and particularly so where, due to higher consumptive demand, we have replaced common property systems with private property systems (Ostrom)).

Meanwhile, virtually all of the natural world – the world’s oceans, atmosphere, tropical reefs, tropical forests and other great commons – remain unowned and thus unmanaged and unregulated (or indigenous occupants have been forced aside).  For example, the great cod fishery off of the Grand Banks that fed Europe for centuries has now disappeared, and other fishery stocks worldwide are crashing – to be “replaced” by “farmed” fish that are fed to a substantial degree by catching and grinding up fish stocks that humans prefer not to consume directly, and in part by fish firms that are established by destroying the mangroves that are estuaries to various fisheries.  The same is true of the replacement of vast tracts of tropical forests with soybeans or oil palm plantations, with the rapid increase in atmospheric CO2 (and attendant risks to climate) and with the correspondly geolologically rapid increases in ocean acidification (and threats to plankton, corals and shellfish).

While populations in the developed economies are now relatively stable, demand from our markets (as well as the burgeoning developing markets) continues to strip out unowned (or mismanaged “public”) resources from the oceans or undeveloped countries, aided by kleptocratic elites who are happy to steal from the peoples they supposedly represent in order to line their own pockets.  

As Dan points out, property rights failures in poorer nations contribute to population growth there by delaying the demographic transitions that we have experienced.  Developed economies face similar problems with respect to “public”, state-owned lands, for which rent-seeking by and sweet deals to insiders are enduring problems and sources of politcal conflict (as markets cannot work to allocate resources).

Dan states that the stunningly rapid growth of human populations from the Renaissance to the present (6+ billion now expected to nearly double again soon) “actually represents the rise of capitalism and capital development … [and]  shows … the stunning capacity of freedom to provide for the whole world.”  While partly correct, this misses completely the question of our massive impact, within a very short period of geological time, on the environment in which we evolved over millions of years, the fact this has occurred because clear and enforceable property rights have not been created in many of the resources that have been consumed, and the corollary fact that we continue to lack the ability to manage our impact on our endowment of natural resources.

The market clearly does NOT send accurate pricing signals with respect to goods that are unowned or ineffectively owned; these goods are either unpriced or underpriced, so the effect is overconsumption until the point that the resource is greatly degraded, at which point attention is turned to the next unowned resource. Thus, human populations are responding to rather imperfect market signals.  And where resources are unowned, individuals and groups with differing values and desires cannot adjust or realize those desires by means of private, market transactions.  As a result, we are seeing a recourse to the public and political arenas – and the inevitable discordant debates – as various parties seek to use either moral suasion or the levers of government (locally, nationally and internationally) to advance what they consider to be their own interests.  (Of course, in a “tragedy of the commons” situation, all resource users share an interest is the future availability of a resource; the difficulty is in the prisoners’ dilemma negotiations at the primary user level about how to allocate short-term pain in the interest of long-term gains, compounded in the case of multinational resources by rent-seeking with each national participant.)

A cynic may say that our ongoing assault on nature is only “natural”, presents no moral or philosophical issues and that we hardly owe any responsibilities to “nature” or even “future generations” –  so let’s just all keep on partying, consuming for today, and patting ourselves on the back at how marvelous our market systems are.  And that we should keep on hurling invective at those evil “enviros” who want to crash the party and drag us all back to the Stone Age.

Perhaps I suffer from a want of sufficient cynicism.