Home > Austrians, climate change, commons, Enviro Derangement Syndrome, John Quiggin, ostrom > John Quiggin plays Pin-the-tail-on-the-Donkey with "Libertarians and delusionism"

John Quiggin plays Pin-the-tail-on-the-Donkey with "Libertarians and delusionism"

John Quiggin, a left-leaning Australian economist and professor at the University of Queensland, has noted my recent post on the penchant for bloggers
and readers at the Mises Blog to attack climate science – are “almost universally committed to delusional views on climate science“, as he puts it – though these are not words fairly put into my mouth.  Like me, though, Quiggin wonders why wonders why libertarians focus on climate science at the near-exclusion of policy discussions, since (1) he sees “plenty of political opportunities to use climate change to attack subsidies and other existing interventions” and (2) he supposes that the environmental movement`s widespread shift “from profound suspicion
of markets to enthusiastic support for market-based policies such as
carbon taxes and cap and trade” seems like a big win for libertarians.

Quiggin previously commented on “Libertarians and global warming” last June; this seems to be a follow up.

Quiggins posits that Austrians/libertarians exhibit a “near-universal rejection of mainstream climate science,” and asserts that:

we can draw one of only three conclusions
(a) Austrians/libertarians are characterized by delusional belief in
their own intellectual superiority, to the point where they think they
can produce an analysis of complex scientific problems superior to that
of actual scientists, in their spare time and with limited or no
scientific training in the relevant disciplines, reaching a startling
degree of unanimity for self-described “sceptics”
(b) Austrians/libertarians don’t understand their own theory and
falsely believe that, if mainstream climate science is right, their own
views must be wrong
(c) Austrians/libertarians do understand their own theory and correctly
believe that, if mainstream climate science is right, their own views
must be wrong

John concludes:

“Overall, though I, think that acceptance of the reality of climate
change would be good for libertarianism as a political movement. It
would kill off the most extreme and unappealing kinds of a priori
logic-chopping, while promoting an appreciation of Hayekian arguments
about the power of market mechanisms. And the very fact of uncertainty
about climate change is a reminder of the fatality of conceits of
perfect knowledge.”

While John asks a good question and reveals some appreciation of markets, it`s clear that he is still pretty much groping in the dark when it comes to understanding libertarians` concerns about climate policy, indeed, even as to libertarian aims and concerns generally. He also overlooks various cognitive/psychological factors that appear to be at play. Naturally, I appreciate the opportunity for discussion.

1. Before addressing his three possible conclusions, let me note that while “market-based policies such as
carbon taxes and cap and trade” may seem to John “like a big win for libertarians”, this is most definitely NOT the case for most libertarians in the context of climate change, as these “market-based policies” represent an enormous expansion of government that libertarians feel very strongly, based on past experience, will be profoundly porky, counterproductive and costly. In the face of the fight for favor in Washington and the choice of opaque cap-and-trade over a more open rebated carbon tax and other deregulatory options, there is good reason to believe that libertarians are right.

2. Regarding conclusion (a), let me first note that John reveals the self-same “conceit of perfect knowledge” that he accuses Austrians/libertarians of having: the “acceptance of reality of climate change” would undoubtedly be good for everyone, but just what is that reality, and how can a layman of any stripe confirm himself that climate is changing and that man is responsible? The very fact that this “reality” is nearly impossible to confirm personally (even over the course of a lifetime) means that even those whom John considers as having “accepted reality” have basically just adopted a frame of reference, on the basis of the consistency of the AGW frame with other previously established mental frames, a reliance on authority, peer-group acceptance, etc.

“Reality” in this case inevitably, for most people, has very large personal and social components; accordingly, both “acceptance” and “skepticism” of it may look like a group belief, which may help to explain why it is possible to perceive “a startling
degree of unanimity” of views on climate science, the contents of such views varying by group.

As for Austrians/libertarians, while I don`t think it is fair to conclude they (we) are characterized by delusional belief in
their own intellectual superiority, but that many do have a belief, not so much in the superiority of their intellect, but in the correctness of their views on political science and economics (this is common in other groups, of course). This may affect their views on climate science, for several reasons that I have noted to John previously, and may be related for some of them to his conclusions (b) and (c).

3. Concerning conclusions (b) and (c), these are both over-generalizations; libertarians are a heterogenous bunch. But if I may generalize myself, to me there appears no conflict whatsoever between Austrian views, which are primarily about interpersonal relations and the role of government, and climate science. “Mainstream science” has nothing to do with these views, so if Austrians are wrong about “mainstream climate science”, this does not imply that any Austrian views
must be wrong. So Quiggins` (c) is wrong.

Quiggins`(b) – that Austrians may not understand their own theory and
may falsely believe that, if mainstream climate science is right, their own
views must be wrong – may be right for some Austrians, but certainly not generally. Rather, what I suspect is going on is much more ordinary, as I previously noted to Quiggin as a comment on his related June post; that I need to repeat myself indicates that maybe John is having cognitive difficulties of his own (emphasis added):

John, thanks for this piece. As a libertarian who believes that
climate change IS a problem, I share some of your puzzlement and have
done considerable commenting
on this issue [see this long list]. Allow me to offer a few thoughts on various factors at
work in the general libertarian resistance to taking government action
on climate change:

– As Chris Horner noted in your linked
piece, many libertarians see “global warming [as] the bottomless well
of excuses for the relentless growth of Big Government.”  Even those who
agree that is AGW
is a serious problem are worried, for good reason, that government
approaches to climate change will be a train wreck – in other words,
that the government “cure” will be worse than the problem.

Libertarians have in general drifted quite far from environmentalists.
Even though they still share a mistrust of big government,
environmentalists generally believe that MORE
government is the answer, while ignoring all of the problems associated
with inefficient bureaucratic management (witness the crashing of many
managed fisheries in the US), the manipulation of such managment to
benefit bureaucratic interests, special interests and insiders
(wildfire fighting budgets, fossil fuel and hard rock mining, etc.) and
the resultant and inescapable politicization of all disputes due to the
absence of private markets. Libertarians see that socialized property
rights regimes can be just as “tragedy of the commons” ruinous as cases
where community or private solutions have not yet developed, and have
concluded that, without privatization, government involvement
inevitably expands. Thus, libertarians often see environmentalists as
simply another group fighting to expand government, and are hostile as
a result.

Libertarians are as subject to reflexive, partisan
position-taking as any one else. Because they are reflexively opposed
to government action, they find it easier to operate from a position of
skepticism in trying to bat down AGW scientific and economic arguments (and to slam the motives of those arguing that AGW
must be addressed by government) than to open-mindedly review the
This is a shame( but human), because it blunts the libertarian
message in explaining what libertarians understand very well – that
environmental problems arise when property rights over resources are
not clearly defined or enforceable, and also when governments
(mis)manage resources.

I`ve discussed a number of times how we all easily fall into partisan cognitive traps, as summarized here.

A related piece of the dynamic is that some libertarians may feel that if they agree that AGW may be a problem, that this will be taken – wrongly – by others in the political arena as a conclusion that the libertarian message is no longer relevant.

4. Some support for these points can be seen in Edwin Dolan`s 2006 paper, “Science, Public Policy and Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Position” (Cato), in which 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.

Further support is provided by Jonathan Adler, a libertarian law professor at Case Western who focusses on resource issues, and who has concluded that climate change is a serious concern, and that man is contributing to it. His February 2008 post, “Climate Change, Cumulative Evidence, and Ideology” (and the comment thread) is instructive:

“Almost every time I post something on climate
change policy, the comment thread quickly devolves into a debate over
the existence of antrhopogenic global warming at all. (See, for
instance, this post
on “conservative” approaches to climate change policy.) I have largely
refused to engage in these discussions because I find them quite
unproductive. The same arguments are repeated ad nauseum, and no one is
convinced (if anyone even listens to what the other side is saying). …

“Given my strong libertarian leanings, it would certainly be
ideologically convenient if the evidence for a human contribution to
climate change were less strong. Alas, I believe the preponderance of
evidence strongly supports the claim that anthropogenic emissions are
having an effect on the global climate, and that effect will increase
as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere. While I reject most
apocalyptic scenarios as unfounded or unduly speculative, I am
convinced that the human contribution to climate change will cause or
exacerbate significant problems in at least some parts of the world.
For instance, even a relatively modest warming over the coming decades
is very likely to have a meaningful effect on the timing and
distribution of precipitation and evaporation rates, which will, in
turn, have a substantial impact on freshwater supplies. That we do not
know with any precision the when, where, and how much does not change
the fact that we are quite certain that such changes will occur.

“So-called climate “skeptics” make many valid points about the
weakness or unreliability of many individual arguments and studies on
climate. They also point out how policy advocates routinely exaggerate
the implications of various studies or the likely consequences of even
the most robust climate predictions. Economists and others have also
done important work questioning whether climate risks justify extreme
mitigation measures. But none of this changes the fact that the
cumulative evidence for a human contribution to present and future
climate changes, when taken as a whole, is quite strong. In this
regard, I think it is worth quoting something Ilya wrote below about
the nature of evidence in his post about 12 Angry Men”:

often dismiss individual arguments and evidence against their preferred
position without considering the cumulative weight of the other side’s
points. It’s a very easy fallacy to fall into. But the beginning of
wisdom is to at least be aware of the problem.

“The “divide
and conquer” strategy of dissecting each piece of evidence
independently can make for effective advocacy, but it is not a good way
to find the truth”

I  noted the following in response to Adler:

I think that there are many Austrians who understand WHY there might
be a climate change problem to which man contributes, as the atmosphere
is an open-access resource, in which there are no clear or
enforceable property rights that rein in externalities or that give
parties with differing preferences an ability to engage in meaingful
transactions that reflect those preferences. 

But, flawed human beings that we are, we have difficulty truly
keeping our minds open (subconscious dismissal of inconsistent data is
a cognitive rule) and we easily fall into tribal modes of conflict that
provide us with great satisfaction in disagreeing with those evil
“others” while circling the wagons
(and counting coup) with our
brothers in arms.

Sadly, this is very much in evidence in the thread to your own post.

5. I have pulled together a post that indicates that a number of libertarians are trying to engage in good faith on climate change, and which may also serve as a good introduction for interested readers to libertarian thinking on environmental issues.

6. Finally, let me note that many of the problems that concern libertarians also concern progressives, chief of these being the negative effects of state actions on communities, development and on open-access (and hitherto local, indigenous-managed) commons.  This is the same concern that the Nobel Prize committee expressed when extending the prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom, signalling their desire for a change in international aid policy.

You might find these remarks by Nicholas Hildyard, Larry Lohmann, Sarah Sexton and Simon Fairlie in “Reclaiming the Commons” (1995) to be pertinent; domestic cap-and-trade is an enclosure of the atmospheric commons, for the benefit of firms receiving grants of permits and costs flowing regressively to energy consumers, and internationally represents a vast expansion of state authority and bureaucracies, with attendant enclosure of local resources:

The creation of empires and states, business conglomerates and
civic dictatorships — whether in pre-colonial times or in the modern
era — has only been possible through dismantling the commons and
harnessing the fragments, deprived of their old significance, to build
up new economic and social patterns that are responsive to the
interests of a dominant minority. The modern nation state has been
built only by stripping power and control from commons regimes and
creating structures of governance from which the great mass of humanity
(particularly women) are excluded. Likewise, the market economy has
expanded primarily by enabling state and commercial interests to gain
control of territory that has traditionally been used and cherished by
others, and by transforming that territory – together with the people
themselves – into expendable “resources” for exploitation. By enclosing
forests, the state and private enterprise have torn them out of fabrics
of peasant subsistence; by providing local leaders with an outside
power base, unaccountable to local people, they have undermined village
checks and balances; by stimulating demand for cash goods, they have
impelled villagers to seek an ever wider range of things to sell. Such
a policy was as determinedly pursued by the courts of Aztec Mexico, the
feudal lords of West Africa, and the factory owners of Lancashire and
the British Rail as it is today by the International Monetary Fund or
Coca-Cola Inc.

Only in this way has it been possible to convert peasants into
labour for a global economy, replace traditional with modern
agriculture, and free up the commons for the industrial economy.
Similarly, only by atomizing tasks and separating workers from the
moral authority, crafts and natural surroundings created by their
communities has it been possible to transform them into modern,
universal individuals susceptible to “management”. In short, only by
deliberately taking apart local cultures and reassembling them in new
forms has it been possible to open them up to global trade.[FN L.
Lohmann, ‘Resisting Green Globalism’ in W. Sachs (ed), Global Ecology:
Conflicts and Contradictions, Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1993.]

To achieve that “condition of economic progress”, millions have
been marginalized as a calculated act of policy, their commons
dismantled and degraded, their cultures denigrated and devalued and
their own worth reduced to their value as labour. Seen from this
perspective, many of the processes that now go under the rubric of
“nation-building”, “economic growth”, and “progress” are first ad
foremost processes of expropriation, exclusion, denial and
dispossession. In a word, of “enclosure”.

Because history’s best-known examples of enclosure involved the
fencing in of common pasture, enclosure is often reduced to a synonym
for “expropriation”. But enclosure involves more than land and fences,
and implies more than simply privatization or takeover by the state. It
is a compound process which affects nature and culture, home and
market, production and consumption, germination and harvest, birth,
sickness and death. It is a process to which no aspect of life or
culture is immune. ..,

Enclosure tears people and their lands, forests, crafts,
technologies and cosmologies out of the cultural framework in which
they are embedded and tries to force them into a new framework which
reflects and reinforces the values and interests of newly-dominant
groups. Any pieces which will not fit into the new framework are
devalued and discarded. In the modern age, the architecture of this new
framework is determined by market forces, science, state and corporate
bureaucracies, patriarchal forms of social organization, and ideologies
of environmental and social management.

Land, for example, once it is integrated into a framework of
fences, roads and property laws, is “disembedded” from local fabrics of
self-reliance and redefined as “property” or “real estate”. Forests are
divided into rigidly defined precincts – mining concessions, logging
concessions, wildlife corridors and national parks – and transformed
from providers of water, game, wood and vegetables into scarce
exploitable economic resources. Today they are on the point of being
enclosed still further as the dominant industrial culture seeks to
convert them into yet another set of components of the industrial
system, redefining them as “sinks” to absorb industrial carbon dioxide
and as pools of “biodiversity”. Air is being enclosed as economists
seek to transform it into a marketable “waste sink”; and genetic
material by subjecting it to laws which convert it into the
“intellectual property” of private interests.

People too are enclosed as they are fitted into a new society where
they must sell their labour, learn clock-time and accustom themselves
to a life of production and consumption; groups of people are redefined
as “populations’, quantifiable entities whose size must be adjusted to
take pressure off resources required for the global economy. …

enclosure transforms the environment into a “resource” for national or
global production – into so many chips that can be cashed in as
commodities, handed out as political favours and otherwise used to
accrue power. …

Enclosure thus cordons off those aspects of the environment that are
deemed “useful” to the encloser — whether grass for sheep in 16th
century England or stands of timber for logging in modern-say Sarawak
— and defines them, and them alone, as valuable. A street becomes a
conduit for vehicles; a wetland, a field to be drained; flowing water,
a wasted asset to be harnessed for energy or agriculture. Instead of
being a source of multiple benefits, the environment becomes a
one-dimensional asset to be exploited for a single purpose – that
purpose reflecting the interests of the encloser, and the priorities of
the wider political economy in which the encloser operates….

Enclosure opens the way for the bureaucratization and enclosure of
knowledge itself. It accords power to those who master the language of
the new professionals and who are versed in its etiquette and its
social nuances, which are inaccessible to those who have not been to
school or to university, who do not have professional qualifications,
who cannot operate computers, who cannot fathom the apparent mysteries
of a cost-benefit analysis, or who refuse to adopt the forceful tones
of an increasingly “masculine” world.

In that respect, as Illich notes, “enclosure is as much in the
interest of professionals and of state bureaucrats as it is in the
interests of capitalists.” For as local ways of knowing and doing are
devalued or appropriated, and as vernacular forms of governance are
eroded, so state and professional bodies are able to insert themselves
within the commons, taking over areas of life that were previously
under the control of individuals, households and the community.
Enclosure “allows the bureaucrat to define the local community as
impotent to provide for its own survival.”[FN I Illich, ‘Silence is a
Commons’, The Coevolution Quarterly, Winter 1983.] It invites the
professional to come to the “rescue” of those whose own knowledge is
deemed inferior to that of the encloser.

Enclosure is thus a change in the networks of power which enmesh
the environment, production, distribution, the political process,
knowledge, research and the law. It reduces the control of local people
over community affairs. Whether female or male, a person’s influence
and ability to make a living depends increasingly on becoming absorbed
into the new policy created by enclosure, on accepting — willingly or
unwillingly — a new role as a consumer, a worker, a client or an
administrator, on playing the game according to new rules. The way is
thus cleared for cajoling people into the mainstream, be it through
programmes to bring women “into development”, to entice smallholders
“into the market” or to foster paid employment.[FN P. Simmons, ‘Women
in Development’, The Ecologist, Vol. 22, No.1, 1992, pp.16-21.]

Those who remain on the margins of the new mainstream, either by
choice or because that is where society has pushed them, are not only
deemed to have little value: they are perceived as a threat. Thus it is
the landless, the poor, the dispossessed who are blamed for forest
destruction; their poverty which is held responsible for
“overpopulation”; their protests which are classed as subversive and a
threat to political stability. And because they are perceived as a
threat, they become objects to be controlled, the legitimate subjects
of yet further enclosure. …

People who would oppose dams, logging, the redevelopment of their
neighbourhoods or the pollution of their rivers are often left few
means of expressing or arguing their case unless they are prepared to
engage in a debate framed by the languages of cost-benefit analysis,
reductionist science, utilitarianism, male domination — and,
increasingly, English. Not only are these languages in which many local
objection — such as that which holds ancestral community rights to a
particular place to have precedence over the imperatives of “national
development” — appear disreputable. They are also languages whose use
allows enclosers to eavesdrop on, “correct” and dominate the
conversations of the enclosed. …

Because they hold themselves to be speaking a universal language,
the modern enclosers who work for development agencies and governments
feel no qualms in presuming to speak for the enclosed. They assume
reflexively that they understand their predicament as well as or better
than the enclosed do themselves. It is this tacit assumption that
legitimizes enclosure in the encloser’s mind – and it is an assumption
that cannot be countered simply by transferring what are
conventionbally assumed to be the trappings of power from one group to

A space for the commons cannot be created by economists,
development planners, legislators, “empowerment” specialists or other
paternalistic outsiders. To place the future in the hands of such
individuals would be to maintain the webs of power that are currently
stifling commons regimes. One cannot legislate the commons into
existence; nor can the commons be reclaimed simply by adopting “green
techniques” such as organic agriculture, alternative energy strategies
or better public transport — necessary and desirable though such
techniques often are. Rather, commons regimes emerge through ordinary
people’s day-to-day resistance to enclosure, and through their efforts
to regain livelihoods and the mutual support, responsibility and trust
that sustain the commons.

That is not to say that one can ignore policy-makers or
policy-making. The depredations of transnational corporations,
international bureaucracies and national governments cannot be allowed
to go unchallenged. But movements for social change have a
responsibility to ensure that in seeking solutions, they do not remove
the initiative from those who are defending their commons or attempting
to regenerate common regimes — a responsibility they should take

Might there be good reason NOT to rush into a vast expansion of government world-wide?