March 14, 2007

I DON’T KNOW THAT THIS IS AIMED AT ME, because frankly I doubt that Henry Farrell spends very much of his time thinking about me. But this certainly echoes an argument that he made to me in our Bloggingheads.tv debate:

Even so, his call for a pragmatic libertarianism seems on target to me (I’d vastly prefer a political debate in which smart libertarians acknowledged that global warming was a major problem in need of a political solution, and contributed insights from their own perspective, to a debate in which many libertarians either minimize the problem or suggest that no real political solution is possible).

I am very, very pessimistic that a political solution will be found to global warming. The costs of abatement are very high, and immediate, while the costs of the warming are diffuse, slow to occur, and will fall heavily on people who are not causing the problem: either people in poor countries like Bangladesh or any number of African states whose countries will become largely uninhabitable; or people, rich and poor alike, who are not yet born.

Most of the people with whom I have debated the matter, including, I felt, Henry, have treated my opinion as if it were an instrumental belief aimed at avoiding action. I’m in favour of action. I think America needs a whopping big carbon tax (and am braced for the flood of mail I know this declaration will trigger.) I would be happy to see a global cap-and-trade scheme. Changing someone else’s climate with your fuel consumption seems to me to be a classic violation of libertarian ideas about property and liberty, making a strong case for abatement measures. I don’t know what level of abatement I favour–I haven’t studied the matter closely enough. But it seems clear to me that some action is warranted.

But just because I think some action should be taken doesn’t mean that I think it will. Henry is saying, in effect: “We have a big problem. Why don’t you help me find a government solution?” That’s like my friend saying “I lost my car keys in Texas. Why won’t you help me search my house for them?” Answer: for the same reason I won’t help you search for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I don’t think a government solution can be achieved. I mean, I can sit around and paint a very pretty picture of what it would look like, who would run it, and how we would control for the various informational and incentive problems that are bound to crop up . . . but this would be sort of pointless, because I think the chances of any such programme ever being enacted are vanishingly small. Name one government programme, in a democracy, for anything other than a war (on people, I mean, not ideas or natural conditions), that has ever forced the entire citizenry to do something as painful and inconvient as cut their energy usage by 20-50%. If you can do so, I will reconsider my stance. I note that Britain is in the early stages of just such a plan, and if it works, I will eat my words with a glad smile*. Until then . . . I feel Brink Lindsay’s proposed Liberaltarian alliance is not going to go far if the liberal half demands that we pretend to believe in the impossible as a condition of entry.

* Easy for me to promise, since I don’t have to pay up until 2050.

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