Archive for the ‘yandle’ Category

Bruce Yandle on the tragedy of the commons, evolution of cooperation & property, and the struggle against government theft

November 20th, 2009 No comments

[I note that this is one of my earlier Avatar-themed posts. 2010/02/15]

I’ve often referred to Bruce Yandle, a “free-market environmentalist” who is dean emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Clemson University’s College of Business & Behavior Sciences, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center, a faculty member with George Mason University’s Capitol Hill Campus, and a Senior Fellow at PERC – the Property and Environment Research Center (a free-market environmentalism think tank which has great links to his many works).

I’d like to draw attention attention to one short paper by Yandle which I find insightful in providing a perspective on the evolution of prperty rights and problems with resource management which arise from government owenership, even as he has short-shrifted the importance of community property mechanisms, which Nobel Prize-winner Elinor Ostrom has so extensively researched and documented (as I keep noting).

Yandle’s paper, The Commons: Tragedy or Triumph?, was published by the Foundation for Economic Education in its April 1999 online edition of Freeman. Here are few portions (emphasis added):

The feeder is a commons, but not just for hummingbirds. Bees are
attracted to it as well, and oddly enough, they can drive off the
larger hummingbirds. So even if the dominant bird is able to deflect
competition from other members of the species, that is not enough to
protect the nectar, and the defense itself is costly in energy burned.
The feeder contents are never secure.

Hummingbirds have no way to stake a claim to the feeder. So far as
we can tell, hummingbird communities have no constitution that reflects
socially evolved rules for establishing a social order. Most likely, a
long process of adaptation and selection has generated a hummingbird
capable of living in a world where nourishment is a common-access
resource, a commons. Hummingbirds live a life of flight, engaging in a
constant search for nourishment to feed their high-energy lives and, at
times, fighting for temporary control over valuable resources.

Human Commons

We all know the tragedy of the commons story. Wonderfully written
by Garrett Hardin in 1968, the highly stylized rendering is about a
pasture devoid of rules, customs, or norms for sharing.[1]
It is open to all comers. In this never-never-land, shepherds logically
add sheep to their flocks as long as doing so adds an increment of gain
for the particular flock. Uncoordinated in their effort, and unaware of
the effects of their individual actions on others, the unconcerned
shepherds collectively destroy the pasture. What could be a story of
plenty, if only the shepherds understood, turns into a story of
poverty. The passive shepherds are like hummingbirds. [Yandle has this wrong; Hardin posits competing shepherds who don’t talk w/ each other,and so look after only their narrow self-interests.]

As Hardin artistically puts it: “Therein is the tragedy. Each man
is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without
limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which
all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that
believes in freedom of the commons.”

Garrett Hardin’s words beautifully bundle aspects of an endless
human struggle to form communities, accumulate wealth, and improve
well-being. With that phrase—tragedy of the commons—the essence of the
challenge hits us squarely between the eyes: When there are no property
rights—formal or informal—that limit use of a scarce natural resource,
human action leads inevitably to untimely resource depletion and

But people are not hummingbirds. People can build institutions that
take the edge off frantic commons behavior. People have unwritten and
written constitutions that help to establish social order. People can
and do accumulate wealth. People communicate, invent lines of kinship,
and develop customs, traditions, and rules of law that limit
anti-social behavior. People define, enforce, and trade property
rights. People can and do avoid the tragedy of the commons. Indeed,
instead of living with tragedies, people triumph over the commons. But
the triumphs are never perfect or complete. There is always another
commons to manage.

The Ascent of Man

I wish to put forward the notion that encounters with the commons
form the fundamental stimulus that yields, instead of tragedy, what we
today call civilization.
The ascent of man from a primitive existence
with no wealth accumulation to life as we know it is fundamentally a
story about triumph over, not tragedy of, the commons. Let me explain.

Our very existence as human beings is defined by evolved
institutions for avoiding tragedies. We have names, which serve the
economic purpose of identifying us as parties to contracts and
agreements. Those names, first and last, form webs of communication
that reduce the social cost of assigning responsibilities and
liabilities. They enhance truth-telling and promise-keeping; they raise
the cost of engaging in anti-social behavior. They limit a tragedy of
the commons.

We have abstract symbols of ownership—deeds, titles, and
contracts—that define spheres of autonomous behavior. We speak of our
homes, our cars, our clothes, our families, and our pasture. Even
language has evolved to provide a possessive form that accommodates
triumph over the commons.

We write and observe contracts, wills, and marriage agreements that
define relationships, identify turf, and conserve wealth. We accept
evolved bodies of law and law-enforcement activities to assure the
integrity of our agreements. We carry papers that enable us to acquire
property, extinguish debt, cross borders, drive vehicles, and
communicate effectively with strangers. And we have locks, keys, walls,
fences, brands, and encryption devices, all this in an effort to avoid
a tragedy of the commons.

Property rights define who we are and what we have. Property rights
guard others from our unwanted advances and prevent us from
contributing to a tragedy of their commons.

Avoiding a tragedy of the commons is costly. The benefits must be large. …

The tragedy is found where for reasons having to do with power,
intolerance, or cost, human beings have not yet defined private
property rights. Or, as we shall see, where evolving property rights
encouraged by man the institution builder have been destroyed.
What was
once a triumph can become a tragedy. …

What about fisheries? How can we avoid a tragedy of the commons
there? Long before the Europeans arrived on the scene in the Pacific
Northwest, Native Americans had figured it out. Small tribes in what is
now Washington State had salmon fishing rights.
Don Leal tells us that
“in some cases, the tribe owned the rights; in others, families or
individuals or a combination owned the rights.”[5]

And what happened when the Europeans arrived? You guessed it. Leal
tells the story this way: “Instead of recognizing the well-defined and
enforced fishing rights, the U.S. government allowed newcomers to place
nets across the mouth of the Columbia. This quickly depleted salmon
runs, so traps and weirs were banned—only to be replaced by purse seine
boats powered by internal combustion engines. The race to catch salmon
moved to open waters. Ironically, from the country where private
property is considered sacrosanct came a socialistic legal system
driven by politics and military power.”[6]

What had been private property was turned into a commons. What had been
an institution-builder triumph became a political tragedy. …

For centuries before anyone in the United States thought much about
environmental quality, our common law defined and protected the
environmental rights of ordinary people.[10]
Enforced by judges in courts across the land, common law protected the
right of downstream property owners to receive water and air in
undiminished quality for reasonable use.
At common law, rivers could
not be treated as open sewers if doing so imposed costs on downstream
rightholders. Industrial plants could not blow smoke and emissions onto
the land and property of ordinary people. The record is filled with
cases, here and in Canada, decided under English common-law traditions:
where farmers sued industrial plants and won; where citizens of one
state sued polluters in another state, and won; and where common-law
judges ordered polluters to clean up or shut down. There are also cases
where this did not happen, where judges turned away from
property-rights enforcement and behaved as policy makers. But when the
judges got it wrong, their decisions affected a small number of people,
not an entire nation. [I note Walter Block disagrees strongly and views this change in common law as leading to the rampant pollution that set the stage for federal legislation.] This, of course, changed with the advent of

Prior to the passage of federal pollution-control statutes, every
major city in the United States had taken steps to define public
property rights to air quality. Many states, including California, had
taken a river-basin approach to the management of water quality, this
in addition to the use of common law. Multi-state compacts were
forming. By the 1960s, environmental quality was improving rapidly in
many locations. The property rights institution builders were on their
way to avoiding a tragedy of the commons. Common law was converting the
commons to private property.

This was changed with the passage of federal legislation that
effectively nationalized air and water quality in the United States.
What was becoming private property was made public property, almost a
commons. The new system of command-and-control regulation allowed
polluters to operate legally if they had a permit. With permits in
hand, new polluters could enter already crowded river basins. The new
regime provided political access to industries and municipalities that
hoped to postpone the day of reckoning in common law courts.

This work sheds light on mankind’s struggle to avoid the tragedy of
the commons. It tells us that at very low levels of income, what might
be called stage one, human beings cannot afford to do much about
property-rights enforcement and the commons. They live in a world where
custom and tradition sustain them. As incomes rise and losses from the
commons expand, stage two is entered. Fences go up, and rules are set
for protecting the commons. Finally, in stage three, markets evolve
along with rules of law that define spheres of private and public
action. Private rights replace public control, and the triumph replaces
the tragedy of the commons.

[Yandle ignores government mismanagement here, and how Western markets and Westernized leaders have seamrollered native institutions.]

Life for mankind began on a commons where tragedies were
commonplace and the incentive to improve was powerful. Out of the
struggle to survive and accumulate wealth evolved markets, property
rights, and the rule of law—a triumph on the commons.

But just as bees compete with hummingbirds in the struggle to
control access to nectar, institution builders who seek to support
markets and property rights compete with others who seek to
redistribute wealth. Actions to redistribute wealth blunt the incentive
to protect property rights and create wealth. This converts triumph to

Callahan finally speaks: but are external, "objective moral truths" needed for a community to enforce shared rules?

September 10th, 2009 4 comments

[Well, the Mises server just swallowed my first attempt at this post, so the reader will just have to suffer this sketchier one.]

I have been chasing both Gene Callahan and Bob Murphy to try to get them to spell out what they mean when they assert that there is an “objective moral order” in the universe; until recently Bob has been by far the most congenial, as well as evidencing more interest in discussing the subject, but he has just thrown in the towel for the time being, after conceding that “to say morality is objective doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘the same rules’ apply to everybody” and that he has no good answers my questions as to whether the objective moral order applies to all creatures and to all men regardless of age, gender and mental development.

On the other hand, I have agreed that man has an exquisite moral sense, and have argued that our moral sense and capacity are something that we acquired via the process of evolution, as an aid to intra-group cooperation and conflict with out-groups. Similar arguments have been made

– by Bruce Yandle,

– by Roy Rappaport (former head of the American Anthropology Assn.) in his book “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity” (which I have discussed here) and

– by David Sloan Wilson in his book “Darwin`s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society“.

However, Bob did point to a related post by Gene Callahan in which Gene essentially argued that the “objective” moral truths rules that are embedded in the structure of the universe apply only to those creatures able to perceive the rules. In other words, not to ants – and perhaps not to other life forms or to humans whose age and mental development leave them incapable of perceiving the rules. 

I have received no response from Gene on my posts here (perhaps he hasn`t yet perceived them), but he did start to provide a little meat in a rather long threadjack at a totally unrelated blog post by Bob (TokyoTom Moving the Goalposts? – regarding my comments on the rush to sell poorly-understood science in the political marketplace). 

Since it`s a topic of interest but I don`t wish to continue the threadjack (and it`s difficult to follow there, given unrelated comments, and contains largely irrelevant ad homs/replies), I take the liberty of excerpting relevant portions here, and I respond further below.

1.  From Bob`s thread (unedited, with emphasis added):


As you assert, right and wrong are all just subjective opinion, so, if I can profit from these impacts, why should I care? By your own principles, the fate f those poor schucks in Sri Lanka should mean nothing to me.


Again you misunderstand my principles. But the glory of the world, of course, is that you get to base your behavior on your own principles (and objective truths as you perceive them), not mine, as well as on any moral pressure you might feel from the broader community in which you dwell.


I am not saying you actually think it is merely a subjective matter whether or not millions die in a man-made tsunami, etc. In fact, you correctly think that such a thing is objectively wrong. For the third time, I will say that what I am saying in posts like this is not what I think your views are, but what by logic you ought to think, given your rejection of objective moral truths. I am pointing out that you’re position is inconsistent, and therefore incoherent: You claim not to believe in objective moral truth, and yet you make arguments that depend on the existence of what you deny.


– I have not so much “claim[ed] not to believe in objective moral truth” as to note that G.C. has singularly failed to explain what he means by his statement or to offer any support to for. Proof of this is not only in GC`s threads, but in the fact that Bob felt the need to re-open the subject himself.

– If I “make arguments that depend on the existence of what I deny”, then G.C. has failed to show it.

First, I have made it clear that not only to I believe that the material universe (of matter and energy) objectively exists, but that I believe that it has an underlying structure that we can strive to understand (and express mathematically) even as our understanding (and descriptions) of it will always be incomplete. Thus, an algorithm may or may not be an accurate description of the structure of the universe. In any case, the objective existence of a poorly-understood structure to the universe offers no support for the proposition that there is a moral order to the universe.

Further, G.C. has argued that there is an object moral structure to the universe; I have argued that man has an exquisite inherited moral sense, and that we inherited this moral sense via evolution over eons because it provided benefits by allowing enhanced intra-group cooperation and reducing tragedies of the commons.

Accepting that man has a moral nature which is genetically based (but that is expressed differently in each individual and culture, and that is largely applied to in-group transactions but applied much more lightly in interactions with those outside our groups) does NOT depend on arguments that there is any universal moral order, applicable outside of man to all of Creation (or to such of Creation as may be conscious).

Sorry, but my arguments simply do NOT “depend on the existence of what I deny” – including arguments over whether or not G.C. has “behaved badly”, or arguments that man ought not to engage in actions that directly or indirectly harm others. Such things may be measured and tested based strictly on a study of human nature (which is objectively different from other animals and has an objective genetic base).


“I have argued that man has an exquisite inherited moral sense, and that we inherited this moral sense via evolution over eons because it provided benefits by allowing enhanced intra-group cooperation and reducing tragedies of the commons.”

And so what? Either “enhanced intra-group cooperation” and “reducing tragedies of the commons” are objectively good things (and you’ve given up moral subjectivism), or you’ve gotten precisely nowhere.

Let’s say in the remote Amazon some group has evolved so that THEIR “exquisite moral sense” requires the smashing in of the infant’s skulls of whatever other tribe they meet. Then, through some fluke, they wind up in Tokyo and go on a skull-smashing rampage. Hey, well, that’s just the way their moral sense evolved, hey? You, by your own premises, are in absolutely no position to tell them what they are doing is wrong. In fact, since obviously my behaviour is a result of my evolutionary past, then if I am being “rude” to you, well, that’s just MY “exquisite moral sense,” isn’t it? Who are you to go saying my moral sense is wrong and yours is right, when clearly both are the product of the same evolutionary process!

So, although I realize that you do not understand that you pre-suppose that which you deny, you do. (In fact, we should suspect that anyone making such an error will pretty much always fail to recognize that they are making it, since no one can consciously embrace incoherence.)


2.  My further comments:

Ironically, it is Gene who is pre-supposing what my presuppositions and my objectives are. 

First, I can argue (though I haven`t made such a case) that it would be wrong if millions die in a man-made tsunami, without “think[ing] that such a thing is objectively wrong,” based on a moral code external to man. Rather, I can simply rely on my own values and those of the communities of which I am a member.

Likewise, I need not (and do not) make any arguments that either “enhanced intra-group cooperation” and “reducing tragedies of the commons” are “objectively good things”; I need merely to observe scientifically that man, like his cousin critters, has evolved, that he has a moral sense akin to, but more more highly developed than, patterns of reciprocal behavior in other animals (while more genetically identical communities of social insects cooperate even more closely), and to suppose that this moral sense of right and wrong and the related predilection towards the social development of norms and rules were evolutionarily ADVANTAGEOUS, by enhancing group cohesion while moderating internal frictions and behaviors that were costly to the group as a whole, better enabling the group to take advantage of resources in the environment and respond to challenges, including challenges by out-groups.

Gene suggests one must have “objective truths” to get somewhere, but that just tells us the HE has an agenda for man; rather than particularly trying to get SOMEWHERE I`m just applyng an evolutionary approach to figure out how we got HERE.

It`s a shame I lost my previous post on this, but I think it pretty clear that our “exquisite moral sense” is both highly developed and very two-faced (highly selective would be a more gentle expression): we act one way to members of our group (based on highly developed codes and bonding rituals that became religions as our groups grew larger), but generally act as if we have little or no obligations to outsiders, to whom we might very well be downright suspicious and hostile. Why would that be? Maybe because, like the chimpanzee bands that so famously disillusioned Jane Goodall, we`ve been engaged in murderous competition with rival bands from time immemorial.

While it`s possible to argue that man`s deliberate struggle through history has been one of extending the limits of those whom we need to be decent to from a small circle to all of mankind (or further, to pets, other animals, etc.) – and there have certainly been individuals who have made conscious efforts to do so – one may also see the “progress” in this direction as being the simple consequence of Darwinian struggles between different human groups and societies, with the societies that more successfully united their own peoples, seized opportunities and vanquished other groups (through a combination of defeat, elimination and inclusion). Religions and our moral sense have clear served as both weapons and tools in this process; the gods have served on both sides of most conflicts, at least until one won, frequently by putting the heathen to the sword. Thus, “moral progress” has frequently been bought by brutal blood-soaked violence in which the victors routinely failed to pay much attention to the morality of their own conduct toward the other – as has always been our nature.

Forced change can be seen in both in the US. Civil War in the case of slavery and in this anecdoctal quote regarding British attempts to stamp out the Hindi practice of ritual immolation of the wives of a deceased husband in India:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

Very seldom has such forced change been primarily motivated by a desire to bring about moral progress.

Persuasion and mass moral suasion can often work, as can be seen in the cases of ML King and the civil rights movement, as well as Ghandi`s efforts, particular when public opinion was mobilized. Gene has argued for this himself; while those arguing for change of course may feel united by religion and may employ appeals to the shared beliefs of others, no external “objective” moral order is needed for moral suasion to work.

Gene conjures up an Amazonian skull-smashing tribe at loose in Tokyo, but why look so far? The Japanese and the rest of the “modern” slaughters millions of unborn infants annually (and particularly females in China, India and the Middle East). The difference, of course, is that we are just doing it to ourselves, rather than having it inflicted on us by outsiders.

Gene is right to note that my rather cold-eyed observations about our remarkably self-serving moral sense might leave me in “absolutely no position to tell [Amazonian skull-smashers rampaging in Tokyo] what they are doing is wrong,” but so what? Gene is simply asking the wrong question. The Japanese do not need “objective” external moral standards to deal with such behavior; they need simply to STOP it. And make no doubt about; stop it they would FIRST, and then ask questions, and perhaps later, if time and a surviving Amazonian or two permits, they might attempt a discussion on moral issues. This of course is true of every community when faced with an attack; banding together in self-defense is virtually instinctive.

Gene might posit other, stickier situations, of which we face a bottomless pit. We have our tribal need for close groups, but have on large parts of the planet blessedly stilled the fraternal slaughter between rival societies. In larger societies, we face stresses between our attenuated bonds to others and our wish for close communities. On one front the religious bonds that united particular societies have frayed, but our urge for uniting bonds of ritual and belief remain, while on another we`ve managed to stir up more religious fundamentalism and distrust at home and abroad.

In all this, the desire for an objective set of universally binding moral rules that is floating around in the universe just waiting for everyone to become enlightened and to voluntarily submit to them is quite understandable, but obviously pie in the sky. I suggest that we try to work instead in understanding our own nature better and work at trying to persuade each other and to lessen tensions that may become murderous.


P.S. Gene`s error can be seen further in his comments about rude behavior. He thinks that taking a cultural, evolutionary view leaves one without a basis for criticism, so therefore I must unintentionally be relying on objective, external standards to criticize him. He`s got it precisely wrong – while clearly we ARE both “the product of the same evolutionary process”, my appeal is not to objective external standards, but to shared COMMUNITY standards (that can be objectively described). Further, by publicly arguing my position, I hope to marshal public support of the kind that he has himself usefully pointed out.

The questions are simply whether Gene and I actually share ANY communal bonds and obligations, what those obligations are, how they apply in this instance, and whether Gene cares what anyone else thinks.

What is ironic is to see someone like Gene who so clearly wants to see a better world take the position that “objective” moral standards permit such lack of concern for how he treats others and how such treatment is perceived. But an evolutionary thinker would simply see it as more evidence for the remarkable moral flexibility that the Creator has endowed us with.


[Update] Bob Murphy & Gene Callahan flesh out the "objective" moral order: it applies only to those able to perceive it?

September 8th, 2009 2 comments

[Update: Bob Murphy sends in an email comment, copied (in relevant part) at the bottom of this post.]

I`ve addressed here on five different threads the question of whether there is an “objective moral order”, which Gene Callahan broached in a May blog post. I`ve commented here mainly because I find the subject interesting, but the subsequent discussions at Gene Callahan`s blog and at Bob Murphy`s blog to be rather unproductive, if not frustrating and disappointing.  However, I note that Bob Murphy, bless his soul, has kindly emailed me a comment for me to post on one of my recent threads, in which Bob refers to a recent relevant comment elsewhere by Gene.

Allow me to repost here Bob Murphy`s comment, and my response, but first here`s some context from the post that Bob Murphy is responding to:

1. Me:

While I certainly agree that man has an exquisite moral sense, my
own view is that that sense and capacity are something that we acquired
via the process of evolution, as an aid to intra-group cooperation,

– as Bruce Yandle has suggested,

– as argued by Roy Rappaport (former head of the American
Anthropology Assn.)
in his book “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity” (which I have discussed here) and – as I have recently discovered –

– as David Sloan Wilson has argued in his book “Darwin`s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society“.

I note that the NYT has recently run a series of posts on related topics

In my view, our moral sense, rituals and “sacred postulates” (later, religions) have played a central role in the evolution of man as a
social animal, by
providing a fundamental way of ordering the world, the group`s role in
it, and the individual`s role in the group – thereby abating commons
problems both within and created by the group. The religious
lies at the root of our human nature, even as its inviolable, sacred
truths continue to fall by the wayside during the long march of
culture and science out of the Garden of Eden. While we certainly have
made progress (partly with the aid of “universal” religions) in
expanding the boundaries of our groups, we very much remain group,
tribal animals, fiercely attentive to rival groups and who is within or
outside our group, and this tribal nature is clearly at work in our
cognition (our penchant for finding enemies, including those who have
different religious beliefs that ours).

But I didn`t really kick off this discussion – why are Callahan and
Murphy so reticent to describe what it is they think they mean when
they assert that there are “objective moral truths” and an “objective
moral order”?  (I can understand why I seem to have earned the clear
hostility of one them; after all I have proven by my persistence and/or
thickheadedness to be, if not an “enemy”, then in any case not one of
the august clear-sighted.)

Here are a few questions I left with them at Bob`s most recent post:

Are those who believe that there is an objective “moral” order
asserting that, for every being – regardless of species – that there is
a uniform, objective moral order in the universe? Or is the argument
that there is an object moral order only for conscious and self-aware
beings, and none for organisms that are not conscious, or are conscious
but not self-aware?

– Or is the argument that the “objective”
moral order exists only for humans, and perhaps someday can be
identified and located in universally shared mental processes, based on
brain activity and arising from shared genes?  Will such objective moral order still exist if all mankind ceases to exist?

– Or is the
objective moral order one that exists for some humans, but not all –
depending on physical development of the brain as we mature (with the
development of some being impaired via genetic or other defect)?

– Is the human “objective” moral order universal, for all individuals – of whatever, gender or age – across all history?

– Is an objective moral order something real that can be tested for
despite the inability of a particular observer to perceive directly –
like beings that can`t directly perceive light (or like us who can`t
personally physically observe much of what technology allows us to)?

– And
if the objective moral order is a part of the universe, can we apply
the scientific method to confirm its existence of and explore its
parameters, and to explain (and test) it with “laws”?

– What are some of the parameters and laws governing the moral order?

2.  Bob Murphy`s comments: (emphasis added)

On the general issue of “are morals objective for everyone?” I refer to this excellent discussion by Gene Callahan:…/freedoms-just-another-word-for.html

[Here is Gene`s relevant comment:

“Something that is correct only ‘to’ someone is subjectively, not
objectively, correct. What ‘objective’ means is precisely ‘to any and
all possible perceivers.’ And, of course, it is simply a further muddle
to introduce beings incapable of perceiving the objective item in
question, as if that raised doubts about its objective status. ‘Would
this be objectively correct for ants?’ makes no more sense than ‘Is it
objectively true for ants that Mars has two moons?’ It is objectively
true, not ‘for’ anyone, that Mars has two moons, and it is also
objectively true that ants are a kind of being that cannot peer through
telescopes or count to two. It is objectively true that murder is
wrong, and if ants were the sort of being capable of murder, which they are not (as far as we know!), it would be wrong for them to commit murders.”

When I say that I think morality is objective, what I mean is that a
statement such as “it is better to kiss an infant than to drown it” is
a different type of thing from the statement “chocolate ice cream is
better than vanilla.” The latter is clearly stating a subjective
preference, whereas the former is (I claim) reflecting an objective
truth about reality.

Note that to say morality is objective doesn’t necessarily mean that
‘the same rules’ apply to everybody,
at least not in the sense that I
think you mean. It might not be immoral for Eskimos to euthanize old
people, whereas it could be considered murder in Manhattan.
But this
doesn’t actually prove morality is subjective. By the same token, it’s
OK for me to eat the food in my fridge. But if somebody else wandered
into my house and did the ‘same thing,’ it would be theft.

I’m a Christian so if you ask me for a list of these rules, a good
start is the Ten Commandments. And then if you want to know how to
apply these rules, I’d tell you to read the gospels and study the life
of Jesus.

As far as your specific questions, I don’t want to bother trying to
answer them. I admit I can’t give you great answers on some.
But to me,
that doesn’t show that morality is subjective after all. There are
plenty of non-material things (like mathematics etc.) that are
rock-solid objectively true. So I think our difference here is much
deeper than an issue of mere morality. I think you are a materialist
and I’m not, which is influencing our discussion on morality.

3.  My response: (emphasis added)

Bob, thanks for troubling to visit and
read, but your comments are obviously a disappointment – as you`ve
simply done none of the heavy lifting that you have implied by
insisting on various occasions that there is an “objective” moral order.

All that you`ve done here is to make a very weak argument that MAN
has a moral sense regarding how we treat others. But this is not only
obvious, it is also something that I have asserted all along.
While it
tells us something I agree is objectively true generally about man –
something that I have made various attempts to explore here and to
sketch out on your blog and Gene`s – it tells us essentially nothing
about an objective moral order to the universe
, that is applicable to
other life forms, and that will survive mankind if we were all ever to

I`m afraid I have to disagree with you about Gene`s post, which in
fact illustrates the weakness of his position regarding “objective
While he suggests that by “objectively correct” we mean
something that is correct for `any and all possible perceivers’ (so
far, so good), he then presents the example of ants, for whom he
asserts it would be wrong for them to commit murder IF THEY WERE
CAPABLE of committing murder. But he`s failed to notice that he`s not
only begged the question about what we mean by saying that “it is
objectively true that murder is wrong”, but he`s suggested that because
ants lack a capacity to perceive moral strictures against murder, they are unable to commit it.
By doing so, he`s just invited in all of the questions that I`ve
outlined above
[in item 1 here], plus questions of culture and exigency that you have
pointed out by your reference to Eskimos.
Can any animals or life forms
other than man commit murder? Do moral restrictions against murder
require some threshold level of self-reflection, intellectual capacity,
typical social structure, physical and social maturity, or upbringing?

So there IS an objective moral order, but it only applies to those
able to perceive it? 
This is both a very modest position, as well as
one that oddly smacks of belief in Leprechauns.

Rather than arguing that still undefined but “objective” moral rules are embedded in the structure of the universe but have only limited application, isn`t it easier to acknowledge that man has a moral sense, observe
that it enhances our ability to cooperate, observe that other animals
also exhibit patterns of reciprocal behavior and posit that our moral
sense is something that we have evolved, as it enhanced our ability to
survive and procreate?


re: Evolution, religion and our insistence on a still undefined “objective” moral order

[Remove this Comment]

Tuesday, September 08, 2009 4:27 AM

By the way, I note that fellow Community blogger lilburne and I agree generally about morality*

“There is a burgeoning school of thought in evolutionary biology and
the cognitive sciences (led by Marc Hauser and Steven Pinker) which
contends that morality is not just cultural artifice, but that it is an
intrinsic feature of the human mind which evolved over the countless
millennia of humans living together.”…/245211.aspx


If anyone is still reading, let me note that I posted a week or so ago further thoughts on the evolution of moral codes and why we fight over them (rarely applying to those outside our group the same moral standards that we apply to those within our groups).

[Update:] Further email comment from Bob Murphy (posted with approval):

I’m going to have to punt on this debate for now. If you agree that
“Bob should not kill an infant” has a truth value more significant
than “Bob should not wear a dress to work” than I’m happy. I think
maybe when I say “morality is objective” you are interpreting it to
mean something more than what I do mean. After all, you are saying
moral rules apply to all humans, so I don’t know what our difference
is at this point. I thought originally you were saying you were a
moral relativist.

A few simple thoughts on the evolution of moral codes, and why we fight over them (and religion, liberty and the state)

August 30th, 2009 No comments

A recent post on the Mises Daily pages on the “Religious Roots of Liberty” by the late Congregationalist minister Rev. Edmund Optiz (1914-2006) (originally published in The Freeman, February 1955) provides an opportunity to restate and discuss some of the thoughts I’ve been working though on evolution, group dynamics, religion and on the assertions of some that there is an “objective moral order”.

It seems like quite a bit to chew, I know, but I dared (with the modesty and boldness of the inexpert, of course) to venture a few thoughts.

[And since I’m having problems with formatting here, I am linking to the archived version of this post.]

In the fight over climate policy, Jerry Taylor of Cato tries to stiffen the spines of the purist enviros (in order to limit the "Bootleggers")

February 4th, 2009 No comments

Jerry Taylor of Cato is one careful observer of the carbon follies who sees the handwriting on the wall for some type of carbon pricing system coming from the Congress during the Obama Administration.  Strikingly, in an interesting post up at MasterResource (a new self-styled “free market” energy blog spearheaded by former Enron speechwriter Robert Bradley), Jerry is cheering on environmental hard-liners!

It’s worth a gander to understand why.

Jerry’s post borrows the “Bootleggers and Baptists” lingo of Bruce Yandle to comment on the dynamics by which both  Baptists/moralists (in this case, the enviros) and the bootleggers/rent-seekers (in this case, the firms trying to reap benefits from government prohibitions) are seeking to come to terms on new carbon-related government policies.  Jerry  first explains and warns that the core of the mandatory cap-and-trade program proposed by the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP a coalition of big business and environmental groups) includes “a replay of the old-source/new-source standards incorporated in the Clean Air Act (CAA), which likewise established tough emissions standards for future power plants but much lighter rules for plants currently in operation”.

Because his concern over this replay of a costly aspect of the CAA, Jerry cheers on the criticism of this plan coming from other parts of the environmental community, in particular from Joe Romm, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy who comments frequently on climate change policy issues at the blog of the Center for American Progress.  Says Jerry:

Why should a libertarian skeptic about the dangers of climate change applaud environmental absolutism in this case? Several reasons.

First, the bifurcated old-source/new-source regulation makes no economic sense whatsoever. It distorts the power market by artificially advantaging older plants relative to newer plants. It spawns a huge legislative/legal-industry to fight over old-source/new-source distinctions until the end of time, creating substantial deadweight losses. It creates huge, unearned windfalls for politically clever corporations and thus encourages future market-rigging mischief. It would be far, far better to settle on one standard and apply it across the board to old sources and new sources alike.

Second, without corporate support, … that bill would likely be rendered economically toothless, with loopholes and timetables delaying serious emissions reductions until some time relatively far into the future. I am unaware of any significant environmental initiative that was successfully signed into law that didn’t manage to scare-up significant, widespread corporate support.

Third, there is a virtue in political honesty. If politicians want to argue for laws that will seriously reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, then let’s have an honest discussion about the costs and benefits of those proposed laws. Symbolically potent gestures that are more empty than real feeds the public belief in free lunches. While one could argue that it’s better to get an empty gesture than a real one, when the latter has far more costs than the former, I can’t believe that any good will come from a culture of political dishonesty and voter illusion.

(emphasis added)

Well, I agree that casting a light on potential political deals may be a valuable way to influence the outcome in ways that improve policy, but it may very well be that voter “dis-illusion” with political dishonesty is just what the doctor ordered, in getting voters to demand both greater honesty and less government in general.

I appreciate that guys like Jerry Taylor are trying to point out how members of USCAP are trying to lock in advantages for themselves over competitors and new entrants, but why isn’t there now (and why wasn’t there during the Bush administration) any concerted focus by libertarians on less-costly and market-friendly alternatives that still address enviros concerns, like public utility deregulation and allowing immediate depreciation of investments in energy inffrastructure, prizes for carbon-capture and fusion technologies, and making sure that information about climate change (and corporate performance on various yardsticks) is widely disseminated? 

As I have previously noted,  Iain Murray of CEI, Bruce Yandle of Clemson and PERC, Gene Callahan and Jonathan Adler at Case Western have all made suggestions in this regard – to deafening silence from libertarians in general.  At Mises, scorn of enviros and of their preferences with respect to open-access commons seems to be the order of the day.  Let’s wave the white flag, shall we?

Note to William Anderson: Limited liability is a key to understanding the Great American Ponzi scheme

January 5th, 2009 No comments

William Anderson (an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute and economics prof. at Frostburg State University) has a thoughtful New Year’s Day post, pointing out how Paul Krugman fails to understand the causes of ouir economic stagnation and financial meltdown.

I posted the following comment, in which I argue that the state grant of limited laibility (which I have discussed in several recent posts) is a key to understanding the Great American Ponzi scheme:

Bill, I agree with the thrust of your criticisms of Krugman, but have a few small quibbles.

First, while you rightly condemn “most economic regulation … of the command-and-control variety”, you blame all of this on “the whims of bureaucrats and environmentalists” and completely fail to note that state and federal environmental regulation (i) initially responded to real environmental problems and (ii) also represents the successful efforts by established firms to raise barriers to entry and to cartelize their industries.  See Roger Meiners & Bruce Yandle, Common Law and the Conceit of Modern Environmental Policy, 7 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 923, 926-46 (1999), and Walter Block, Environmentalism and Economic Freedom: the Case for Private Property Rights..

Second, while you are correct that Krugman fails to understand the role of the state in creating the distortions that underlie our current problems, it seems to me that you have neglected one of the key state interventions that has fuelled the rent-seeking and risk socialization that we see today – the grants of legal personhood (with unlimited purposes and life and Constitutional rights) to corporations and blanket limited liability to shareholders.

Limited liability has enabled corporate managers to act without close shareholder oversight and management; this I believe has played a key role in the vast misalignment of incentives that Michael Lewis and David Einhorn describe at the NYT, and in the risk mismanagement that Joe Nocera of the NYT describes at length in the NYT Magazine.  Those taking large bonuses (whether in the financial industry or large corporations) were essentially playing with OPM – Other People’s Money – and capturing the upside of short-term gains while leaving shareholders and taxpayers holding the bag for loses.

I hope that you and others here will look more deeply at the role of the state in the problem of misaligned incentives that continue to corrupt American capitalism.

Op-ed by nuclear physicist on climate change: questions for "skeptics"

August 5th, 2008 4 comments

John P. Holdren, an MIT and Stanford-trained nuclear physicist who is professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and director of Harvard’s Woods Hole Research Center, former President and Chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and consultant for the past 35 years at the Magnetic Fusion Energy Division of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory [yes, this is an appeal to authority] had a short but interesting op-ed in the August 4 Boston Globe.

I think he’s trying to be sensitive, but Holdren may come off a bit arrogant; he’s certainly insensitive to those who are concerned that government may bungle any climate “solution”.  Given his technical knowledge and experience, I hope readers will understand where he’s coming from and encourage them to read the whole thing – which really isn’t too long.

But since I have you here, allow me to quote liberally:

skeptics about [climate change] tend to move, over time, through three stages. First, they tell you you’re wrong and they can prove it. (In this case, “Climate isn’t changing in unusual ways or, if it is, human activities are not the cause.”)

Then they tell you you’re right but it doesn’t matter. (“OK, it’s changing and humans are playing a role, but it won’t do much harm.”) Finally, they tell you it matters but it’s too late to do anything about it. (“Yes, climate disruption is going to do some real damage, but it’s too late, too difficult, or too costly to avoid that, so we’ll just have to hunker down and suffer.”) …

The few with credentials in climate-change science have nearly all shifted in the past few years from the first category to the second, however, and jumps from the second to the third are becoming more frequent.

Their arguments, such as they are, suffer from two huge deficiencies.

First, they have not come up with any plausible alternative culprit for the disruption of global climate that is being observed, for example, a culprit other than the greenhouse-gas buildups in the atmosphere that have been measured and tied beyond doubt to human activities. (The argument that variations in the sun’s output might be responsible fails a number of elementary scientific tests.)

Second, having not succeeded in finding an alternative, they haven’t even tried to do what would be logically necessary if they had one, which is to explain how it can be that everything modern science tells us about the interactions of greenhouse gases with energy flow in the atmosphere is wrong.

Members of the public who are tempted to be swayed by the denier fringe should ask themselves how it is possible, if human-caused climate change is just a hoax, that:

  • The leaderships of the national academies of sciences of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia, China, and India, among others, are on record saying that global climate change is real, caused mainly by humans, and reason for early, concerted action.
  • This is also the overwhelming majority view among the faculty members of the earth sciences departments at every first-rank university in the world.
  • All three of holders of the one Nobel prize in science that has been awarded for studies of the atmosphere (the 1995 chemistry prize to Paul Crutzen, Sherwood Rowland, and Mario Molina, for figuring out what was happening to stratospheric ozone) are leaders in the climate-change scientific mainstream.  …
  • US polls indicate that most of the amateur skeptics are Republicans. These Republican skeptics should wonder how presidential candidate John McCain could have been taken in. He has castigated the Bush administration for wasting eight years in inaction on climate change, and the policies he says he would implement as president include early and deep cuts in US greenhouse-gas emissions. …

    The extent of unfounded skepticism about the disruption of global climate by human-produced greenhouse gases is not just regrettable, it is dangerous. It has delayed – and continues to delay – the development of the political consensus that will be needed if society is to embrace remedies commensurate with the challenge. The science of climate change is telling us that we need to get going. Those who still think this is all a mistake or a hoax need to think again.

    (emphasis added)

    Holdren is focussed on arguments regarding science, and so fails to address questions as to the efficacy of proposed solutions involving government action, which questions are of course important.

    Although Austrian and libertarian observers may have very useful things to add to the policy discussion, it seems fair to say that, except for a few such as Jonathan Adler, Gene Callahan, Edwin Dolan, Sheldon Richman and Bruce Yandle, many have preferred not to discuss policy but to focus either on climate science or on the motives of those self-deluded religious, fascist creeps who think that there may be a problem.

    While concerns about science and motives are perfectly legitimate, let me add a few points that Austrian “skeptics” ought to consider:

    – Austrians tend to view “environmental” problems not as harms to a disembodied “environment”, but as real problems involving conflicts in individual/firm plan formation that arise because of a lack or clear or enforceable property rights in particular resources or large information, transaction or enforcement costs that make contracting difficult

    Are there clear or enforceable property rights with respect to emissions of GHGs, or the atmosphere or climate more generally?

    Is private contracting a practical way for individuals and firms with differing preferences as to climate or GHG emissions to meaningfully express such preferences?

    – What lessons does history teach us about the exploitation of open-access resources that are not protected by accepted rules among the relevant community of users?  If there are problems with such resources, how have such problems been addressed in the past, with what degree of efficacy?

    T. Boone Pickens accelerates the tragedy of the Western water commons – by connecting thirsty markets to unowned, common-pool resources

    June 16th, 2008 No comments

    The latest Business Week magazine sports the headline, “Is Water the New Oil?” and a caricature of T. Boone Pickens.  The cover story -“There Will Be Water: T. Boone Pickens thinks water is the new oil—and he’s betting $100 million that he’s right” – describes Pickens’ plans to ship water to eager consumers in Dallas from his ranch and other water rights holdings in the Texas Panhandle region. 

    While I’m all for water markets, there’s one small problem that deserves attention:  essentially Pickens will simply be sticking a huge straw into the unowned Ogallala Aquifer and pumping for all he’s worth.  Pickens will have to cover only his own costs (pumping and transportation), but he has no ownership stake in, or incentive to invest in maintaining or sustainably using, water resource itself.  As he draws down the water table, his neighbors will have to shell out more to dig and pump from deeper wells to maintain their own current draws, and if any of them wants to follow Pickens in shipping water to urban markets, then the race to drain the water commons in the Panhandle and other parts of the Ogallala will ratchet up further (it’s already been underway for many years in other parts of Texas and other states in which the Ogallala Aquifer lies).

    Pickens may not be planning to replicate the history of the wasteful, competitive pumping of the East Texas common pool oil resources (also seen in the elimination of the passenger pigeon, the Plains bison, the great whales, and the crashing of ocean fisheries), but his own rational self interest is surely leading in that direction.  I hope Pickens can see where this is headed and take a positive role in heading off a destructive tragedy of the commons, which may be in the cards, but is not inevitable.   As Bruce Yandle has noted:

    People can build institutions that take the edge off frantic commons behavior. People have unwritten and written constitutions that help to establish social order. People can and do accumulate wealth. People communicate, invent lines of kinship, and develop customs, traditions, and rules of law that limit anti-social behavior. People define, enforce, and trade property rights. People can and do avoid the tragedy of the commons. Indeed, instead of living with tragedies, people triumph over the commons. But the triumphs are never perfect or complete. There is always another commons to manage. …

    At very low levels of income, what might be called stage one, human beings cannot afford to do much about property-rights enforcement and the commons. They live in a world where custom and tradition sustain them. As incomes rise and losses from the commons expand, stage two is entered. Fences go up, and rules are set for protecting the commons. Finally, in stage three, markets evolve along with rules of law that define spheres of private and public action. Private rights replace public control, and the triumph replaces the tragedy of the commons.

    Life for mankind began on a commons where tragedies were commonplace and the incentive to improve was powerful. Out of the struggle to survive and accumulate wealth evolved markets, property rights, and the rule of law—a triumph on the commons. …

    Human beings can and do avoid the tragedy of the commons. But doing so requires property rights and markets, which must be defended if the triumph is to continue.

    Easy pickins?  Easy, Pickens.

    h/t David Zetland

    Climate change damage and property rights: do Lockean principles require Western nations to compensate poorer ones?

    June 13th, 2008 No comments

    Dedicated libertarian law professor Jonathan Adler and longtime libertarian policy analyst Indur Goklany discuss the above issue at in a Roundtable entitled “Climate Change and Property Rights” hosted by Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation and made available online last week.

    [Update:  Ron Bailey discusses the Adler/Goklany debate here.]

    As both Jon Adler and Indur Goklany are serious and even-handed, fortunately the discussion includes none of the cheap, sneering dismissals of the moral issues (as “climate welfare” such as I addressed earlier on these pages and more recently on the main blog, where an author dismisses as “absurd” and another poster labels “beautiful propaganda” my suggestion that Lockean views must be seriously considered when addressing claims that the use of the atmosphere should be shared) that tends to be the hallmark of shallow, reflexive and emotional engagement so frequently encountered here at Mises and elsewhere from purported libertarians with respect to climate change and other environmental issues.

    Unfortunately, the exchange between Adler and Goklany is far too academic, and neither commentator makes any effort to seize common ground (and climate change concerns) to push for liberalization of agricultural trade or other institutional changes that would (i) materially improve wealth (and ability to adapt to climate change) in poorer nations and (ii) enhance needed mitigation and adaptation efforts at home.

    Both Adler and Goklany appear to agree on the fundamental, Lockean-based principles underlying their discussion and would probably agree that, even though the nations that benefit most from climate change (and from the long period of GDP growth when GHG emissions have not been priced) have at least a moral obligation to be concerned about an uncompensated shifting of costs to other (largely poorer) nations, it is nigh impossible to build a legal case mandating compensation. 

    I suppose both Adler and Goklany probably also agree that (1) climate change is likely to further bedevil the development problems in poorer nations, which are least capable of adapting to such changes, (2) development problems in such countries is largely related to the failure of governing elites to protect property rights and capital, and (3) traditional development aid has in large measure failed and instead served to benefit well-connected elites from both sides.

    I am curious (4) what both Adler and Goklany think about proposals that do not amount to compensation, but recognize the interest that the West has in aiding growth and climate adaptation in the developing world, such as the proposal reported last Friday in Osaka by Treasury secretary Hank Paulson for the Group of 8 industrialized nations to back a special $10 billion fund to help developing countries fight global warming and (5) why they (and other libertarians) do not seem to see that climate change concerns in many way present golden opportunities to urge positive governmental changes, such as greater free trade (and roll back of domestic agricultural subsidies and import restrictions), greater freedom in domestic energy markets, the desirability of allowing accelerated depreciation and lowering capital gains taxes, etc.

    Why are libertarians so reluctant to focus on a positive agenda that would actually do some good?

    In note that, back in July 2000, Adler proposed a “no regrets” domestic deregulatory agenda when he was associated with CEI: “Greenhouse Policy Without Regrets: A Free Market Approach to the Uncertain Risks of Climate Change“; Jon has subsequently been rather quiet with respect to any specific climate change policy agenda.  Cato has just published an essay by Goklany, “What to Do about Climate Change“, in which Goklany essentially argues that a focus on mitigation (GHG reductions) is a relatively expensive and in effective way to combat climate change or advance well-being (particularly of the world’s most vulnerable populations), as compared with adaption efforts that would reduce vulnerabilities to climate-sensitive problems that could be exacerbated by climate change.

    As I have previously noted, there are several libertarians who have recently been urging constructive libertarian approaches to climate change:

    • Edwin Dolan, in his Fall 2006 Cato Journal essay, Global Warming: Rethinking the Market Liberal Position, analyzes relevant Lockean considerations and cautions that market liberals appear to be hamstringing their own analytic strengths by falling into a reflexive and conservative mind-frames that benefit established economic interests.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • Bruce Yandle, Professor Emeritus at Clemson University, Senior Fellow at PERC (the “free market” environmentalism think tank) and a respected thinker on common-law and free-market approaches to environmental problems, has in PERC’s Spring 2008 report specifically proposed a A No-Regrets Carbon Reduction Policy.

    I further note that Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation hosted a similar roundtable on climate change policy in October 2006.

    Bruce Yandle on "no regrets", free-market approaches to climate change policy

    April 4th, 2008 No comments

    Bruce Yandle, Professor of Economics Emeritus at Clemson University and Senior Fellow at PERC (the “free market” environmentalism think tank founded by John Baden and now headed by Terry Anderson), has an article in PERC’ latest monthly report, in which he offers his thoughts on climate policy in the US: “A No-Regrets Carbon Reduction Policy”,  Yandle is a respected thinker on common-law and free-market approaches to environmental problems.

    I present here the “TT Notes” precis of Yandle-sensei’s article.

    Yandle first notes that “most of our wealth-producing engines exhale carbon. Population growth and longer life expectancies mean more carbon dioxide emissions. More gross domestic product (GDP), translates into more carbon emissions. Proposals for dramatic, short-run reductions are not just costly in dollars, they are draconian in terms of human well-being.”

    Notwithstanding the costs of GHG-control efforts, Yandle specifically notes that many economic actors are already quite active in this endeavor (in a manner that indicates they obviously consider the science sufficiently convincing and the costs merited by potential gains):

    “There are a vast number of carbon reduction activities taking place in the developed world, with many involving major U.S. firms. … There is a developing regional trading community composed of 10 northeastern states. … Carbon offsets produced by Iowa farmers who modify how they plow fields are purchased by Canadian industrial firms.”

    But aside from ongoing private efforts – including those in response to regulatory approaches adopted elsewhere – what public policy approaches might be most efficacious domestically? Yandle asks,

    “Can free market environmentalism (FME) provide guidance as to which policies might best promote human well-being? Consider these principles:

    • Incentives matter.

    • Property rights that reward asset managers improve environmental outcomes.

    • Competition among suppliers of goods desired by consumers generates a larger yield.

    • Decentralization increases experimentation, leading to more innovation and environmental quality at lower costs.”

    Yandle suggests that policy makers should consider at least four important policy considerations (aside from being careful not to cater only to special interests):

    “1. To what extent is the United States a net carbon dioxide emitter, and are we as a nation equipped to determine when and how much progress is made in reducing emissions? Should we establish procedures to evaluate legislative actions in terms of their carbon emission impact?  [Yandle doesn’t discuss the baseline efforts that have been underway for years.]

    2. What about actions that might be taken to hasten the adoption of lower carbon-emitting processes? Is it possible to adopt a “no regrets” policy — one that will generate net benefits even if Americans later reduce their concern about climate change?

    3. Simultaneously, if climate change is occurring, what are the actions that might be taken to encourage human adaptation? Can these be framed as “no regrets”?

    4. Why have a one-suit-fits-all climate change policy that applies nationwide, if not worldwide? Why not encourage experimentation across the United States?”

    With respect to possible “no-regrets” policies, Yandle indicates that, so far, “Less attention has focused on longer-term decisions that will support targeted research and development, increase capital turnover, encourage new technologies, and hasten the expansion of safer nuclear power plants that eliminate carbon emissions entirely. These actions could form a “no regrets” bundle.”

    “Taking an FME-based, no-regrets approach to carbon reduction will recognize that:

    Deeply rooted technologies and energy sources can and will be replaced by alternate technologies and non-carbon emitting energy sources;

    Rapid depreciation of existing capital and reductions in capital gains and corporate taxes will hasten adaptation; and

    Subsidies and regulations that distort energy consumption and investment decisions and increase carbon emissions should be eliminated.”

    In particular, Yandle argues that “Higher corporate taxes of all forms discourage formation of new capital, which delays the introduction of cleaner technologies. Eliminating capital gains taxes, reducing corporate income taxes, and accelerating depreciation would get the incentives right for replacing high carbon emitting machines and activities with cleaner processes. Doing so would also increase U.S. GDP and employment growth—a “no regrets” outcome.”

    Yandle also argues that nuclear power should be encouraged: “Nuclear power produces no carbon emissions but it does come with some risks. To protect community property rights, the current liability cap provided to utility companies by Congress should be reevaluated in terms of experience and preferences for risk reduction. Property rights should be protected with a meaningful liability rule. Yes, there is nuclear waste to deal with, but this too can and should be addressed by the federal government. Developing an expedited nuclear power plant approval process and eliminating the nuclear waste bottleneck would contribute to a long-run reduction in carbon emissions—another “no regrets” policy.”

    Query to Austrians – is Yandle right by implicitly concluding that concerns about climate change present opportunities?  Or do such concerns only present costs and risks, to be avoided at all costs?

    Yandle’s other work is described here:




    Categories: climate change, no regrets, PERC, yandle Tags: