Archive for the ‘population’ Category

Searching for common ground: In which I provide a partial defense of Ron Bailey`s "invisible hand of population control" thesis

June 22nd, 2009 No comments

Michael Tobis, a blogging climate scientist, kindly alerted me to his criticisms of Ron Bailey`s recent Reason post.

Here is my response to Michael:

Michael, thanks for the link and for twitting it to my attention.

I`m not sure you really want to get me started, but I won`t let that get in the way.

of course, it`s regrettable that those on the left and right would both
rather fight than think seriously. There`s alot of middle ground, but
you can`t get there in war of words. I`ve criticized Ron for this,
but he deserves credit for accepting climate science and expressly
acknowledging and analyzing tragedy of the commons situations.

I think you have found an infelicitly stated portion of his piece,
clearly he`s trying to say that social collapse in the past might be
attributable to tragedy of the commons situation (where “proper
institutions for channeling individual striving into a process of
economic growth which ultimately promotes the public interest” were not
in place).

While there are other cause of collapse – wars,
climate shifts, disasters – do you really disagree with Ron`s point
that societies are vulnerable to collapse if they don`t establish
institutions that prevent ruinous exploitation of resources?

Ron focusses on economic freedom and rule of law (market institutions)
as checks on tragedies of the commons, he is familiar with (and
libertarians certainly accept) traditional, community-based property
rights systems can work just fine, though increasing demand (and use by
outsiders) might swamp them, or technology might make private property
more efficient.

I think that Ron is perfectly correct to note
that property rights and market institutions in free societies are
serving to check population growth.

The chief problem, of course
is that there are huge gaps outside individual Western countries: Where
are the property rights in the atmosphere, the oceans, the tropical
forests? As a result, we are steadily destroying whatever we can get
out hands on.

The related problem is that corrupt and/or inept
governments are often in the middle of these problems: e.g., the
Newfoundland cod fishery was destroyed under Canadian government
management, West coast salmon fisheries are similarly threatened, and
tropical forests are being converted to soybeans and oil palm because
governments don`t care to protect the rights of the natives who dwell
in them.

(The way governments fail libertarians are rather
attuned to; while it may grate to hear this after the gross
mismanagement of the Bush/neocon/Republicans, perhaps even liberals can
acknowledge that they have a point, even if they don`t want to listen
to fear of “socialism” from the right.)

Finding institutions to
end destructive exploitation and manage open-access commons is a real
struggle; Bailey points in the right direction for some solutions, but
he downplays the size of the task ahead and the need for those who care
to work at solutions.

More of my thoughts here:

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

Using the State to solve common resource problems?

Mises on fixing externalities: progress along the Kuznets curve is not magic, but the result of institution-building



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?